What do the healthiest churches look like? What are the contributing factors to healthy church? What are the identifying marks of healthy church? There are undoubtedly several elements that contribute to healthy church and many signs that a church is healthy. The Bible gives us a look at some churches that are healthy and are applauded for their health. And, some of them move from health to unhealth. For example, Ephesus had high marks early on in their existence (Ephesians 1:15-16). They received lower marks later in their life cycle (Revelation 2:4).
Growth is a relatively easy measurable where health is less measurable. Growth is generally number based- more people, more resource, more influence, more ministries, etc. Or course, there is the spiritual growth component that is a little more squishy. It is one of those, “I may not be able to count it, but I know it when I see it” kinds of things. That is discipleship growth. But, for the most part, even discipleship growth generally has outcomes affixed to it. In other words, where people are growing in the Lord, there will be identifiable fruit of as a result of their use of gifts, eagerness to serve and openness to share their story.
But, church health does not always have numbers affixed to it. Nevertheless, judging from the Epistles of Paul and John and Peter and from the book of Revelation (particularly chapters 2 and 30, church health is vitally important in God’s eyes. What are the basic, fundamental ingredients or evidences of a healthy church? I’m sure the list could involve dozens of characteristics. Yet, to reduce it to the fundamentals, one cannot miss these core ingredients.
Love. Love covers over a multitude of evils (1 Peter 4:8). A church can lack gifts and charisma and polished speakers. But, if the church family is in love with one another, it is the prevailing sign to the world that something special is with that group (John 13:34-35). Churches that get this right and many other things wrong seem to have an impact regardless of their strategies. One pastor of a growing Free Methodist Church told me recently in the wake of a growth surge in their church, “I don’t know what is happening, but our people are loving and reaching out to everyone they can.” No need to say more.
Unity. That comes with the territory of a loving community. Truly loving communities of people will generally be stressing very little over things that divide or over little things of any stripe. Instead they will be connected together in a way that any potential division is reduced to nothing (John 17:23 and Philippians 1:27-28).
Maturity. By maturity, I am not speaking of age or even length of time in the faith. Maturity is more about people being big enough to admit their fault, confess their sin, allow others to get credit, celebrate the victory of others, offer grace to struggling folks, submit to leadership without feeling the necessity of correcting them, step aside and let others enjoy positions without having to stake out personal territory, let the primary direction of the ministry move away from meeting personal needs to reaching the world. Mature congregations just never get caught up in the little stuff. They never make mountains out of mole hills. They are big enough to get over injustices and disappointments without harboring hurts forever.
Grace. Grace-filled communities are those where the injustice of grace is celebrated. Remember, grace is not justice. It is God giving us release from what would otherwise be just- suspending or eliminating the normal consequences of one’s previous choices. One of Jesus’ greatest difficulties with people was experienced in the wake of giving people grace. He would no sooner heal people or forgive them and someone would get bent out of shape at his choice of grace recipient or manner or day of healing or implication upon those who were not as gracious. Jesus’ offering grace contributed to his death. Unhealthy churches don’t have much room for grace. Healthy churches can’t offer enough of it.
Conviction stemming from faith. Healthy churches might be filled with a lot of smiles. But, when it comes to winking at sin, compromising God’s call or shrinking from faith to retain status or get more money, there are few smiles. It is serious business. Healthy churches do things that God wants them to do. Obedience is important. They are always ready to be stretched. They function under the unction and leadership of the Holy Spirit, not from the primary desire to keep the peace or make people happy or feel fed. They are serious about following God. Healthy churches are ready to move for Jesus or die trying.
Diversity. The most healthy churches I know are diverse. The least healthy churches I know are ones where everyone looks the same (color, class and culture). Unhealthy churches don’t really have much room for people of other economic classes or education background or ethnicity. That makes them uncomfortable. They prefer people who see the world as they do. However, healthy churches see a diverse world- one as diverse as the apostles experienced on the day of Pentecost. I have been in churches where only the healthy could survive because ministry stretched everyone, since the church was so diverse. The good that came out of their diversity was that everyone was stretched in every way, their sense of family, their love, their openness to challenge and their expanded world view. The fact that God wants to heal the world is evidenced in these kinds of churches, since a good cross section of the world is in their church.
Hope. Unhealthy churches work very hard to eliminate danger, maintain resources, guard against the outside threats upon them and their children and generally see life as a threat. They view the world as getting worse and worse. Unhealthy churches can give you ten reasons why ministry is hard in their area and that they are not growing. Healthy churches are filled with people who believe the best is yet to come. Plans are exciting. Healthy change is welcomed. They see the prospects for growth all around. Though sin is abounding, the light is shining all that much more brightly in the darkness. Parenthetically, in unhealthy churches I am constantly given statistics of their area that are both impossible and inaccurate in order to justify lack of growth. I have had at least ten churches or pastors in one U.S. state in the past two years claim that either, “Church attendance in our community is the lowest in the U.S.” Or, “people here are statistically more closed to Christianity than any other community in our state/region.” First, they can’t all be true. There can only be one “worst” and one “lowest.” Second, it is clearly an inaccurate statement that cannot represent their entire community. People’s response to human need in their community is most certainly varied. When I hear such things, I can always tell what has been happening, or not happening, in their church regarding growth and health before I even venture the questions. Healthy churches see opportunities and needs everywhere and are way too busy addressing them to ponder whether their communities are supposed to be statistically receptive or not. A pastor told me the other day, “there are 24,000 people in our community. The churches in our community are not serving more than 15% of the population. Look at the opportunity.” Others in that community (I know the area well) have been saying, “This is the most unchurched area in our state.” Any idea which church is growing?
These are some essential observations on church health from someone who bounces around the church world. I am hopeful that we can leave behind the notion that only churches with the best worship team or most charismatic pastor or most attractive building or the most fun children’s program have the best access to church health. Actually, sometimes those elements get in the way. But, when a church suffers from unhealth it needs fixing. Just as a physical body needs medicine, surgery, exercise, diet or other extreme measures, an unhealthy church won’t become magically healthy by getting a new pastor or moving to a different facility. Let’s get healthy.