What does a healthy church look like?

Posted by on May 3, 2016 in Blog | 6 comments

We’ve had a few posts on churchless faith and the journey towards becoming de-churched. Underneath has been the assumption that the church has in some way disappointed and failed to be what she should be. And in most cases if you ask those who have given up on the church ‘why?’ they would cite a litany of errors and flaws. Perhaps we should ask what it would take for people to give an approving nod, and to say, ‘well if church is like that, count me in’. Or to put it differently, what does a healthy church look like?

I’ll list a dozen signs that I think indicate health, but would be interested in your thoughts… and even more, your experiences. What has gone right for you, and what continues to inspire?

Here are my 12 signs:

  • You sense that this is a place about God. While I would like to think this is a redundant sign meeting with a ‘yes well – what else would church be about’ response, my observation is that this is a sign you can’t take for granted. It is so easy for church to become ‘Church Inc.’ – a smooth running business that can manage, dare I say it, without God. Not that God isn’t frequently referred to or acknowledged, but just that you sense that God isn’t really driving the agenda, that passion for God has waned, and that if God intends to do anything in the place, it will have to be done on our terms. By contrast healthy churches have a sense of expectancy that overflows into spontaneous prayer, a tangible sense of dependence upon God, a willingness to risk and the courage to embrace projects that can only succeed if God is behind them.
  • It is a place where people matter. You quickly spot the cues that this is so. There is a gentleness that recognises the vulnerability that is never far from the surface of any of us. There is often much humour, but the laughter that results is never the laughter of derision or from belittling others. Actually, there is a fair amount of respect. And stories are told because stories matter. And they are stories that birth hope and encourage us and inspire us to become a little more than we otherwise would be. And genuine conversations are birthed. If it’s a topic that touches life, it’s a topic that gets talked about, and the discussion is honest and open and unafraid, and salted with care and concern for the other.
  • Ethics matter. While the church will keep an eye on results and matters like church attendance and giving and all those things that are needed if a church is to keep functioning, there will never be the deluded thinking that suggests that the ends justifies the means. Healthy churches remember that the way we reach our targets and goals define us. In a real sense the means becomes the end, and if the means we use is messy, we delude ourself if we think a healthy outcome will result. What does this mean in practice? Sometimes churches have to make difficult decisions. Not every ministry appointment works out, some volunteers turn out to have an inflated sense of their ability, some who would like to sing in the worship team turn out to be painfully tuneless. You can’t pull the ostrich stunt at that point and hope the problem will mysteriously disappear. But healthy churches deal with such issues respectfully, honestly, compassionately, creatively – yes, ethically.
  • Worship matters. True, worship is far more than the songs we sing at a Sunday service, and there are many ways in which we express our adoration of God, but in healthy churches there is something tangibly special about the way in which the congregation reaches out to God. When they gather you sense the plus 1 factor. It is the people gathered… Plus God. Being gathered helps you to reach beyond yourself to connect with Jesus, who promised to be present where as few as two or three gather in his name. In practical terms this means that when we sing – we sing… We don’t see people fold their arms or roll their eyes because it’s their least favourite song (again); when we pray – we pray, and minds are turning to and tuning in to the God who hears and listens. When we listen to preaching, a healthy congregation does so with soft and expectant hearts. God might well have a word for us… And why not this week, when it has happened so often before?
  • All ages matter. Church is family. And healthy families embrace each generation. True, some programs may focus on a particular age group, but you quickly realise this is not a church primarily for young people or old people or families or whatever subgroup we might target, but that all ages matter. Good families care for family members at all stages of life, and the church should reflect family life at its best.
  • The Bible is a creative guide. While this never means less than sound biblical teaching, it does mean more. It is possible to unpack biblical principles in an accurate but lifeless way. It is possible to speak about the Bible without any existential imagination – missing the way its ancient stories connect with today. Healthy churches have Bible teachers who live in both the biblical text and the contemporary world so insightfully that they speak of it and apply it with a creativity that helps unpack its obvious relevance. The Bible is the Spirit’s book, and in healthy churches you sense that the Spirit is speaking, convicting and guiding through Scripture.
  • There is openness to the Spirit. No, this does not have to mean charismatic mania, or ecstatic experiences, but it does mean that there is a tangible awareness that we don’t own the church. Nor do we guide the church. We are a community of the Spirit. We should never be so precious about our planned and structured programs that we quench the Spirit.
  • It is prophetic. By prophetic I mean courageous enough to name, address and engage the issues of the day. This is not church as a comfortable ghetto of irrelevance, but church as actively and sacrificially incarnated in the midst of struggle. It is about being church in such a way that we all become bigger, and find the courage to embark upon healthy journeys we would otherwise have been too timid to take.
  • It is a place of change. Nothing is more exhilarating than being in a church where you sense that all are on a journey of wholesome change. Pettiness recedes when people genuinely opt for needed change, because change is hard, and when we embark upon it we quickly realise we will only make it if we are there for one another, encouraging each other each step of the way. Change comes in many forms. For some it will be trying out a new skill; for others, a personal growth programme, for yet others, losing weight or stopping smoking, for others, taking a spiritual retreat, for yet others, risking a new career that will serve and help others, for others… Well, you’ve got the point.
  • It is diverse. Healthy churches are not homogenous. They don’t duplicate the local tennis club. They are not filled with people just like us. They bring diverse people together as a foretaste of our eschatological future where people from every race and tribe will gather together to worship Jesus the King.
  • It makes a difference. Healthy churches make a difference to their community. The community would miss them if they closed their doors. That starts when a church is outwardly tilted. It is not that it doesn’t care about its members, but it instinctively thinks about those outside its orbit. The wider community has a part in setting the agenda, as the church responds to the needs it sees. It also doesn’t limit itself to the local community. Mission matters, and there is a healthy interest in and engagement with the wider needs of the globe. Often this shows itself in tangible partnerships with particular projects in different parts of the world.
  • It is not all about the leader. While healthy churches are well led by gifted and called people of integrity and character, they are not all about the leader. Participation levels are high. Church is not a spectator sport. In its healthy version it engages and involves. True, there are times when some need time out to sit quietly on the sideline to recovery from a life experiences that might have been too rapid or painful, but even from the sideline there is a gentle flow of support and encouragement to whoever happen to be on the frontline at the time.

Well, those are my twelve signs of health. Which ones resonate with you? What have I forgotten to mention? And given that your church is unlikely to display all twelve, how can you help it to say ‘yes, that’s us’ to a few more of these health indicators? After all, we have a role to play in helping out churches become healthier.

As always, nice chatting…

6 Comments

  1. Brilliant Brian!

  2. Can I underscore the briefest one in this list (the second-last)?
    A healthy church conveys the conviction that our sovereign loves his world–faith expressed in love.

  3. God help us to remember it’s God’s vision of HIS church in the world, empowered by HIS Spirit and loving all people that will work…not a program or an entertaining show.

  4. A healthy church embraces “every member ministry” (the term Churches of Christ as using these days for the “priesthood of all believers”) by actively engaging men and women, young and old in finding their ministry calling, and assists them to develop those Spirit-given gifts for the benefit of the whole body of Christ.

  5. Great article Brian.

  6. Got me thinking’. Thanks Brian; most insightful.

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