What does a "healthy" church look like? For church leaders and builders, it is the fundamental question of our time.
After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church. -Ephesians 5:29
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.
11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,
13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work.
14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.
15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
With most of us being disciples for more than couple of years identifying and extirpating unhealthy patterns and practices in our congregations, we now have a pretty good idea of what doesn't edify the church and what doesn't lead it to maturity.
But we need more. As cooperating congregations, most of us now seem able and zealous to take the spiritual offensive against Satan's schemes. As we do so, we need a clear and hopeful picture of what does bring maturity and edification in the church. Extending God's own metaphor, we need to know what keys and catalyzes a healthy body, what constitutes "vital organs" and their maintenance, and what we should look for to prevent acute or chronic disease. This really matters because our good and painstaking reforms have not exempted us from spiritual attack. Are we, ready and fit to fight?
Go see the Doctor
Most of us don't like to go see the doctor. It's an emotional issue: an annual checkup offers the possibility of bad news. We might prefer to just "let life happen" and take our chances. Yet logically, it's obvious what a difference regular checkup with a skilled physician can make-in fact, it might make all the difference between life and death. We need to take care, then, not to define ourselves by our freedom from accountability. Pretending isn't health.
Some of us love to see the doctor-it's called hypochondria. We affirm ourselves by our possible illnesses and hope the doctor will confirm. It's a control issue. We keep checking: "Am I well? How am I doing? How about tomorrow? How about now? How about five minutes from now?" We seek too much evaluation and define ourselves by accountability. Obsessing with our "health" isn't health either.
Healthy people measure their fitness in reasonable ways and at reasonable intervals. So do healthy churches. Seeing the doctor is a good thing. Without it, we tend to deceive ourselves, perhaps fatally.
Doctors have a logical and scientific algorithm for determining where we are on the health continuum. It's a serious exam. For good reason they check blood pressure, heart rate, reflexes, and run appropriate series' of blood tests. If symptoms warrant, they order more tests, all they way up to an expensive MRI. The goal is to evaluate and respond to the prime indicators of health. There are particularly concerned with vital signs that speak of our vital organs.
And what are these prime indicators for our churches?
1. Health means growth - individually and as a church.
All healthy living things grow, but not out of control (we call that "cancer"). God, in His wisdom and timing, "makes things grow" as they should
1 Corinthians 3:7
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
This means the church grows both in maturity & numerically
..until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
..that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth).
Healthy churches feature both.
2. We grow in our walk with God - in intimacy and imitation
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children
How does this become manifest congregationally? We might look for a congregation's joy, zeal, willingness to serve, and its ability to raise up leaders according to their gift sets.
3. We grow in our spiritual relationships.
Whether or not we call it "discipling," "faith partners," "the one another way fellowship," or something else, the reality is that healthy churches preach and train Christians to practice the familiar "one another way" scriptures: encouragement, depth, confession, "seeing to it" (Hebrews 3:12-13, 12:15ff), spurring, and more. The "fellowship" ought to be primary, vibrant, stimulating, comforting, encouraging, full of love in fact, and full of magic in feel. Remember our relationships when we first came to Christ?
4. We grow in our love for the lost.
Jesus came to seek and save what was lost (Luke 19:10) and commissioned each and every Christian to go and do likewise (Matthew 28:18-20). Historically, we have been a family of churches who have given heart, mind, soul, and strength to this worthy cause! God has blessed that commitment abundantly and miraculously over the years.
We have, however, sometimes confused commitment with evangelistic results. Now we know better: we cannot control the decisions of non-Christians. But we can control what we do, that is, our part. Healthy churches preach a passion for the mission and challenge every single Christian to be "in the game" rather than on the sidelines. We need to challenge everyone to pray about and work towards bringing their neighbors to church or Bible Talk, but especially to be involved in a Bible study with non-Christians.
These are things all of us can strive to do. It's not a matter of talent, but of commitment and understanding our role. It is not our role to manufacture evangelistic fruit; that's between God and the non-Christian we love and serve. It is our role to sow and water to the best of our ability. By faith, we know God will eventually bring the increase, because he loves the lost even more than we do.
5. We grow in our service to the poor.
The brevity of this statement is enough because there's nothing to clarify. May we individually and congregationally, locally and globally love and serve the poor!
Of course, there is much more to a vital church than these few vital signs, but no church will be healthy independent from them! We want to give attention to any need in the body, but not all body needs are vital organs. We may have the world's best manicure, but if our liver isn't functioning, we are not healthy and we need to get help as quickly as possible. We would rather have the good liver and bad nails. May we urgently attend, then, to vital organs!