What is a Healthy Church?

31 01 2011

(What follows is my response to the question, What are and are not the marks of a healthy church? The question was posed by the leader of the Asbury Wesleyan Community at Asbury Seminary. Therefore, some of the comments are specific to the Wesleyan Church.)

 

Since what follows is a little long, I offer this bullet point summary (but I hope all will read on!)

 

  • A church’s health is not defined by its programs and ministries but by it’s identity as Christ’s continuing presence in the world.

  • What the church DOES should flow naturally from who she IS.
  • The church does what Jesus did– advance God’s Kingdom through the restoration of people and things to the way they were meant to be.
  • The church is in danger of creating a community of worldly “Christians” if it has an outward focus and simultaneously fails to fully and intentionally disciple those who are already attending.
  • Too many churches use the standards of the secular business world in establishing their goals and defining “success” (for example: numerical growth and program growth).
  • I am deeply concerned about the Wesleyan church and other kindred denominations. I fear that in our deep passion to evangelize we are failing to make disciples and failing to train our church members in the ways of Jesus. By heritage, we are a “holiness” denomination– but where and how are we training people in the way of holiness?  (To be frank, within the next generation, I fear we will be in the same boat as the “liberal” churches around us are today.)
  • It’s time to stop letting the world around us define the church and her activities, AND to get serious about discipleship, spiritual disciplines, and worship.
  • 1Peter 2:9-12 is a good passage describing what the church IS and what flows from that. Acts 2:42-47 is a helpful picture of what a healthy church looks like.
  • Join me in the discussion on my blog: https://rcwollan.wordpress.com/ (esp. my recent post “Evangelism vs. Discipleship?” and the comments by Dallas Willard that I posted there.

    What is the Church?

    A healthy church is a church that is being and doing what Christ intended it to be and do. So, to begin with, we need a basic definition: The church is the redeemed people of God in Christ who, empowered by God’s Spirit, are the continuing presence of Jesus in the world.

    If this is a solid definition, then we will have to have a firm grasp about what Jesus did that the church is supposed to continue doing. (As John Eldredge has stated, Christ’s story is meant to be our story.) In His person Jesus ushered in God’s Kingdom. The Incarnation was an invasion of the Kingdom of Light into the kingdom of darkness. We see glimpses of God’s Kingdom or God’s Rule, in Jesus’ teaching and miracles. Both His miracles and His teachings let us know how things will be under the Father’s rule– the broken people and things of this world will be restored to what they were meant to be. This restoration is seen most clearly in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension through which He overthrows the rule of Satan, sin and death. Jesus makes all things new, including and especially, me and you.

    What the Church Does

    Therefore, the church as Jesus’ continuing presence in the world, does much more than just preach and extend altar calls. The church not only proclaims the good news of the Kingdom– the church must also embody the Kingdom, just like Jesus did. This means that the church will look significantly different than the world around her. The church will not only teach the truth of Scripture, but will train her members to be power-filled disciples of Jesus. These disciples will be transformed people for whom sin and addiction no longer have the final word. Because “the Kingdom of God is at hand”, there is freedom from sin and addiction and healing for the deep wounds we all carry. This freedom enables disciples to love others as Christ loved them. These disciples intentionally use time-tested and proven spiritual disciplines to draw closer to Christ and to be more and more changed into His likeness (the old term for this is “holiness”). Also, being the continuing presence of Jesus in the world means that miracles are not a foreign and strange occurrence within the church. Miracles are signs of the Kingdom and the restoration of things as they were meant to be. It also means that worship is Christ-centered as we bow before Him in adoration and as we re-tell and re-appropriate all that He has accomplished for us and the world. Local churches are supposed to be outposts of the Kingdom of God in the midst of a dark and hostile world dominated by sin and death. For those on the outside who are seeking life and freedom the church should be a refuge– a community they have been longing to be a part of.

    Bottom line: If the church is being Jesus to one another and advancing the Kingdom within themselves and into the darkness around them, all while praising and glorifying the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the church is healthy and functioning as the Lord intended.

    Outward vs. Inward Focus

    Ok, now for the controversial part: In light of what the church IS, it is a mistake to strive to make the church outward focused. Many church leaders believe that their main task is to shift the focus of their local church from inward to outward. This is the wrong strategy. If the people in your church are immature and riddled with worldliness, any new people coming in will never grow past the maturity level of the people who were already there. The most effective way to evangelize the communities around us is to intentionally disciple the people who are already in our churches in the way Christ. If these people are truly transformed they will naturally take God’s Kingdom with them to their homes, communities, and work-places. This is far superior to manufactured, market-driven “outreach” programs (perhaps not in terms of sheer numbers, but most certainly in the quality of disciples formed). Failing to make solid disciples while also bringing unbelievers into our churches is to guarantee that our churches will soon look little different from the broken world around us.  To do this is to remove the hope of the lost that Jesus meant His people to be for the world.

    I understand the negatives of an inward focused church where all effort and energy is spent in order to maintain the status quo. But an inwardness that is focused on making disciples of the people already attending is an appropriate and necessary “inward” focus. Personally, I find the “outward” vs. “inward” distinction a poor vehicle for discussing local church dynamics. It is, frankly, a false dichotomy. Simple logic dictates that a healthy church must be BOTH inward AND outward in focus. I would prefer an entirely different paradigm and I would like to propose my own cheesy, but memorable, line: The church should be neither inwardly nor outwardly focused, but upwardly focused. Our focus should be the Triune God we love, worship and obey. If our focus is anywhere else we have become a purely human institution, regardless of what verbiage we use or activities we participate in.

    Defining Success

    Last summer my family and I got to experience the candidating process of the Wesleyan church. As we interviewed and visited several churches I discovered a disturbing theme. Almost without exception, church boards defined a successful, healthy church as one that is growing numerically and is able to offer dynamic youth and children’s programs. I confess this made me angry and depressed. Nowhere in the New Testament do I find such notions of what a healthy or successful church is and does.

    In Acts 2:42-47 we find the first church stubbornly devoted to Scriptural teaching, being a sacrificially loving community, prayer, and sacramental worship. The church in Acts was marked by miracles (“signs & wonders”) and by disciples of Jesus who were filled with joy and praise. It was from this fertile environment that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”. Our energies should be spent on being the church and from that God will have a healthy community into which he can place seekers and new believers. Currently, many churches spend entirely too much time and money in their attempts to attract outsiders. These efforts often lead to trying to make our churches look more like the culture around us in order to attract folks from that culture. And then what? We hit them with the Gospel and a lifestyle that is very much counter-cultural? In the business world that is called “bait and switch”. More often than not, we water down the gospel and lower the standards so that the newcomers don’t quickly turn around and leave our churches.

    If the goal is simply to get people in the door so that they can hear the Gospel, then why not offer “free beer Sundays”?! Lots of people will come and we can have a chance to get them saved! Things like high-tech media and praise band worship are fine if they are oriented toward facilitating the maturing of church members. If they are used primarily as a means of attracting seekers or reaching the next generation, then it is a misguided exercise. Such things are out of tune with who the church is. Notice that Jesus attracted the crowds because he was doing things that were consistent with his identity as God’s Son. While He ate with sinners he did not try look and act like sinners so that they would like him and accept his message. Often Jesus and his message were rejected– why are we so surprised when people reject us or refuse to come to our churches? We automatically assume that we’re doing something wrong if our churches are not growing numerically. No doubt, we are doing many things wrong! But no one ever seems to ask, “What if people aren’t coming in droves because they are offended by the full and true Gospel?” On the flip side, why is it that no one ever asks, as Augustine did, “Why are so many new people coming to our church? Have we softened the Gospel so that people will like us?”

    Defining Salvation

    Contrary to our revivalist heritage, getting someone “saved” involves much more than a repeated prayer at an altar call. Salvation is more than a contractual agreement because it involves a relationship, not a business venture. God’s goal is not bigger churches, better programs and more effective outreach. His goal is to bring us back to Himself where we can thrive as the sons and daughters He meant for us to be before we capitulated to the Enemy. We are not mere tools in His hands for the purpose of growing His Kingdom. He does not evaluate our worth based how well we have “produced” for “the team”. We are His children. Our service to Him must flow from our love for Him and not from a need to feel valuable or to win the approval of denominational leaders or even the approval of God Himself. He makes a daring rescue of us from Satan, sin and death; He redeems us and makes us new; He heals our many heart-wounds and trains us in the ways of the Kingdom. He does all of this because He delights in us, not because He needs more hands to work His Kingdom-farm! Salvation is NOT getting our sins forgiven so we can squeak into heaven when we die. Salvation is a journey from being God’s enemy to being united to Him in unfathomable intimacy– where we can know unlimited joy, love, strength, and freedom.

    Defining Health and Success

    In the Wesleyan church, in far too many instances, we have allowed and even encouraged the world, specifically the business world, to tell us how to run our churches. By so doing our understanding of what the church IS has been redefined. Currently, we seem to believe that the church is primarily an evangelistic machine that is failing in its purpose if we do not have a certain percentage of growth. But the church is not a tool in God’s hand, we are His Bride! Is a successful marriage defined solely by the number of children produced and the quality of activities participated in? Obviously a marriage produces some children and does certain things, but that is not the same thing as what a marriage or family IS!!

    My somber, prophetic warning is that unless we soon turn from these worldly strivings, we will very quickly be little different from those denominations that we now criticize for their apostasy and biblical infidelity. In our evangelistic fervor, we have capitulated to the unredeemed world around us so that we can hope to attract them into our churches. We have become the world to win the world. This is folly and it is dangerous. Simply being the church as Christ intended will be attractive enough to those who are truly hungry and seeking. We can no longer afford to allow the world to define what a healthy and successful church looks like. Let’s turn to Jesus and the pages of the New Testament instead.

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5 responses

31 01 2011
Chad

Rich,

All I can say at this point is “wow!” There’s a lot to unpack in your post, which it will take me some time to do – which means I’ll be re-reading it several times. I am most particularly in absolute agreement with you regarding this statement:

By heritage, we are a “holiness” denomination– but where are we training people in the way of holiness.

Being part of one of the kindred denominations you reference (Church of the Nazarene), this is an issue I am also hugely concerned about. It’s such a part of the DNA of our denomination, I fear that a loss of basic teaching of holiness would forebode the death of the Nazarene church – as it would in any holiness church!

1 02 2011
Rachel

God is so good to love us through our struggles and errors. May He grant His bride wisdom to follow after His heart rather than our glory.

3 02 2011
3 02 2011
Brian Nutter

I think the health of a church is determined by the health of those in it. And the health of a church is seen or manifested in its relationships.

More specifically, it is determined by how the people in the church are getting healthier. In other words, we all have some brokenness in our life. That is normally manifested in physical, emotional, and spiritual woundedness or brokenness. The church should be an instrument for helping people to heal and mature as disciples. I think a person must receive healing as they progress as a disciple, or they will eventually plateau and be stuck in their Christian growth.

I have seen churches where there was broken relationships that lead to individual brokenness. I have also seen churches that worked to strengthen healthy relationships and help people heal as individuals.

Those churches with healthy relationships have people who are becoming healthier and building a stronger church. Those churches who do not have healthy relationships (there is bitterness, resentment, concealment) have people who are wounded and tearing down the church.

That is my simple answer. I do not think the health of a church can be seen through its works, but only in knowing its people.

3 02 2011
Rich Wollan

Good stuff, Brian, I couldn’t agree more! The church is the people, so the people must be healthy if the institution is going to be healthy. A church may have exciting programs, ministries, and worship music– but all of that may be disguising deep relational dysfunction and woundedness. And what sadly happens far too often is that down the road that church suffers a split as the dysfunctional relationships tear the church apart. As a result, that church’s ability to be Jesus to each other and the community around them is utterly compromised.

So, when I talk about “discipleship” I’m not talking about getting people in our churches well versed in doctrine or even in training them in proper bible study methods. Both of those are good and necessary at some point, but my focus in discipleship is on the very practical work of learning how to be transformed and healed and filled with Christ SO THAT we can be agents of healing and love to those around us (starting with the folks in our own congregation).

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