“You can build a great church or you can build a great people. I’m not sure you can do both.” The older pastor looked at the neophyte steadily as the statement settled into the young minister’s thoughts. The older pastor’s point was well taken.
Recalling that experience decades later, I recognize how easy it is for church leaders and pastors to become preoccupied with what they can do to make the church grow numerically. Indeed, churches ought to be attracting and reaching people with the gospel! Church gatherings should be well conceived and led with excellence. Pastors should abhor mediocre, boring, and repetitive programming. However, in a way that they cannot quite identify or describe, many church leaders intuitively sense something is missing. The missing emphasis lies in a lack of attention on the health of the church.
Does church health matter? Although dozens of metaphors exist in the New Testament describing the church, the image most applicable to developing a philosophy of church health is a “body” or organism. In the same way a doctor assesses a human physical body, leaders can conclude that the church as the Body of Christ is either healthy or unhealthy. The New Testament writers use the word “church” (ἐκκλησία) to describe both the universal church and the local church, as well as any distribution of believers in a region. Therefore, to describe the health of a congregational “body” is to evaluate a group of people against a biblical template of what they should be and do together.
The church is one body made up of individual members, in whom the divine life of Christ dwells. As an organism, the church is the Body of Christ and he is the head (Col. 1:18). A living organism can have only one head, and the function of the head is to give direction to every individual part of the body (Eph. 1:22). In an organism, each individual part is intimately connected to the head, and the head sends and receives impulses and messages directly to it.
In a healthy church that is properly related to Jesus as the head, the body is guided by the mission and thinking of Jesus. He taught that when He is building the church, the gates of hell will fail against the forward movement of His people (Mt. 16:18). Understood in this way, the organized church is fueled by its health (or dysfunction) as a spiritual organism, an expression of a real and vital connection to Christ. Furthermore, because of this mystical union with Jesus, every church member shares a mystical, organic bond with every other member of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5).
Consequently, the spiritual health of a church is an essential prerequisite to any activity by the church. Being truly precedes doing. The life of the church as an organism will animate the church as an organization. Apart from the headship and presence of Jesus, the church of Jesus becomes a listless, human-powered organization intent on perpetuating its own existence.
Do leaders need to be concerned with church health? The word “elder” implies maturity and is the primary term used in the New Testament to identify a church leader (Acts 20:17, 28-31). Used interchangeably with the word “overseer” or the function of “oversight” (Titus 1:5-7), the “elder” provided essential leadership and teaching functions in the early church. The word “pastor” appears as a hyphenated noun with the word “teacher” in Eph. 4:11. Throughout the remainder of the New Testament, “pastor” describes the shepherding function of the “elder” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Regardless of the preferred title, elders, overseers, and pastor-teachers play at least three vital roles in fostering and maintaining the health of the church.
- Equipping. In Paul’s description of church health in Eph. 4:11-13, leaders are equipping the saints to grow and serve together with the goal of reflecting Christ as a group. Accomplished primarily through teaching, equipping pastors seek to lead the entire church to maturity through the spiritual growth of every believer (Col. 1:28). Far more than the dissemination of information, the equipping role of the pastor fosters church health as each member of the Body becomes like Christ.
- Protecting. Paul admonished the elders of the church in Ephesus to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock . . . after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things. . .” (Acts 20:28‑30). Shepherds protect their sheep. Church leaders must expect threats to the doctrinal and relational integrity of the church. Drawing on the resources of the Holy Spirit, leaders can take the initiative to resolve problems, to provide a calming, non-anxious presence, and to speak the truth the church needs in order to arrest destructive forces both within and outside the fellowship.
- Modeling. In 1 Pet. 5:3, elders are to be examples to the flock. The mature character of the church leader directly affects the health of the church. This explains why the qualifications for elders and overseers focus on the character of the man, as opposed to his credentials and training (1 Tim. 3:1-12, Titus 1:5-9). Understood in this way, the qualifications for church leaders also describe the growth points for each member of the congregation. The character requirements for the pulpit are also expected in the pew!
So what should a healthy church look like?
(1) Healthy Churches Worship and Fellowship Together
Immediately following Pentecost, Luke describes the life of the early church in Acts 2:42-47:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
The daily worship gathering of the church was a public and corporate focus on “the apostles’ doctrine.” The study of truth was central to the early Christians and served as a foundation for their shared life together (“fellowship” or κοινωνία). Mentioned twice in the passage, eating together indicated intimacy and acceptance in the ancient (and modern) Middle Eastern culture. They prayed together. They experienced a deep reverential fear, sensing and seeing God’s activity in their midst. God’s presence also generated joy and praise within the fellowship (Psalm 16:11). Outsiders liked these people. It is no wonder that new believers were coming into the church every day!
Healthy churches worship God. The form of corporate worship and fellowship may vary among cultures, but the essential elements of biblical teaching, heart-felt joy, and the presence of God will be evident.
(2) Healthy Churches Broadcast the Gospel
For churches that look to the scriptures for direction and guidance, the Great Commission statements of the New Testament clarify and define each church’s mission. In the Great Commission of Mt. 28:18-20, Jesus said,
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
The passage begins and ends with a promise. Jesus rules in the “unseen” and “seen” realms (Mt. 28:18). Jesus concludes with a promise to accompany his followers throughout their mission (Mt. 28:20). However, Matthew records only one main verb in the passage: to make disciples. The other three participles—going, baptizing, and teaching—modify and augment the primary activity of making disciples. Matthew leads the readers to understand that making disciples is the primary activity of a healthy church.
After describing how all of the secular and irreligious people were coming to hear Jesus, Luke records how Jesus responded to the resulting criticism from religious leaders. Jesus justified his socializing with “the wrong people” by telling this story: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (Lk. 15:4). Jesus is clearly interested in and concerned about every single lost person.
In Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). The church is charged to take the gospel to every man, woman, boy, and girl in their sphere of influence. Jesus is calling the church to saturate their world with the gospel. The early church appears to have understood and practiced saturation evangelism. Jewish authorities accused the apostles of having “filled Jerusalem” with the gospel message (Acts 5:28). Similarly, Paul spread the gospel for two years with the result that “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Legitimate evangelism seeks to eliminate lostness by saturating the world with the gospel.
In its most basic form, evangelism is the sharing of “good news.” Through the delivery and explanation of the content of the gospel, the church “evangelizes” the world, regardless of the response from the hearers. Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). When a disciple delivers the “message of the cross,” he or she is doing evangelism. Some people listening to the gospel message will be changed—others will reject it.
In Acts, Luke summarizes the “success” of the young church in terms of people being baptized and “added” to the church (e.g., Acts 2:41, 2:47 and 5:14). Paul was deeply burdened and desperate over the lostness of an entire generation of Jews (Rom. 9:3). Taken with God’s passionate pursuit of lost souls described in three different parables in Luke 15, the presence of new Christians in a church becomes a clear sign of health. The absence of a steady flow of new Christians should be a cause for concern and deep grief, generating a call to prayer for God’s renewing presence and power.
(3) Healthy Churches Seek the Presence of God
Everything in the church rises and falls on the presence of God. In his book God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (1994), Gordon Fee argues that the entire corpus of Paul’s teaching cannot be properly understood apart from his constant reliance upon and experience of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible, God’s presence is the leading indicator of the spiritual health of the people of God. For example, Moses refuses to advance to the Promised Land apart from the accompanying presence of God (Ex. 33:15). Jesus directed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “clothed” with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49). Markers of God’s presence in the Bible include a sense of awe (Rev. 1:17), a sense of his love (Eph. 3:17-19), a crushing awareness of personal sin (Isa. 6:1-5), and a deep desire to confess sin and make things right with others (Luke 3:8-14). Throughout the book of Acts, the church carried reports of God’s activity to one another (Acts 11:18).
The healthy church understands that the Holy Spirit is essential to their work. The earliest disciples understood that the accomplishment of their mission was dependent on the activity of the Holy Spirit. He represents and communicates the presence of God to his people. Jesus described the impact that the Holy Spirit’s arrival would have on the disciples following Pentecost: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The influence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life was an obvious and observable quality (Acts 6:3). The enabling power of the Spirit added a supernatural effectiveness to the witness of the disciples (Acts 6:10). More significantly, the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples. Comprehending and obeying what the Spirit “said,” Philip witnessed to a man in the wilderness (Acts 8:29), Peter carried the gospel across racial lines (Acts 10:19), church leaders launched a new mission (Acts 13:2), and Paul took the gospel into Europe for the first time (Acts 16:6-7).
The Holy Spirit is essential for individual transformation too. Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The flow of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of any heart begins when someone accepts and trusts the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates the heart (Psalm 51:10-11). The only hope for individual or corporate change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of the heart (Philippians 2:12-13).
(4) Healthy Churches Make Christlike Disciples
In Matthew’s expression of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20), Jesus commanded the remaining eleven disciples to “make disciples of all the nations.” A healthy church makes disciples—but what is a disciple? When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus, it means that this person was not always a disciple. A life was changed and a disciple was “made.” The concept of making a disciple suggests a process that is spiritual, intentional, and relational.
Healthy churches have developed clear responses to three questions:
- What is a disciple? (Meaning)
- How do we make them? (Method)
- How do we know when we have made them? (Metric)
The essence of discipleship is “follow-ship.” Just as men and women followed Jesus during his earthly tenure on earth, disciples today need to envision themselves as following a living Jesus who goes before them every day. To follow Jesus is to embrace his mission and reflect his life—to live as he lived (1 Jn. 2:6). To follow Jesus is to experience personal transformation into his likeness, and that transformation occurs through his active presence in the believer’s life. Consider these examples:
- … Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)
- … that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… (Eph. 3:17)
- Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Cor. 13:5)
- … it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me… (Gal. 2:20)
- My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you… (Gal. 4:19)
What does a church look like when Christ is being “formed” in the hearts of his people? Paul measured success in a church by the presence of faith, hope, and love (e.g., 2 Th. 1:2-3; Eph. 1:15-16; and Col. 1:3-5). Reflecting transformed lives and healthy relationships within the church, Paul looked for these inward qualities in the form of consistent, observable behaviors and attitudes. Paul understood that character “bubbles” come to the surface of a person’s life as a result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling (Gal. 5:22-23). Yielding to the inner prompting and gentle pressure of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16), individuals collectively reveal the activity of God within a church by the way they treat one another (John 13:35). Not only does Paul rejoice as the gospel advances, but he is delighted when the church reflects the life and character of Jesus Christ (1 Th. 1:2-3).
(5) Healthy Churches Demonstrate Love for One Another and the World
Jesus exhibited great compassion for people (Mt. 9:36-38). Healthy churches understand that Christ-followers will demonstrate his compassion to others as well, sharing his heart for a broken and lost world. If his heart is “moved with compassion,” how can the heart of the church beat in any other way? Christ’s love extends beyond the church to the world. The consequence of an intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus is that the disciple begins to share Jesus’ concern. He will lead his disciples to care about the spiritual condition and well-being of every person that they meet. Like Paul and Moses (Rom. 9:3; Ex. 32:32), the disciple of Jesus will experience a burden for hurting and lost souls—a visceral response to human need. Over time, the thoughts and actions of the disciple will begin to align with the heart of Jesus. This is equally true within the church. Love for other believers is expressed in many different reciprocal behaviors—also known as the “one another” commands of the New Testament.
How does a church overcome its relational deficits and dysfunctions? Love is the key. For example, love that heals relationships appears in the way members are “extending grace to one another” (Rom. 15:7) In 1 Th. 2:3, Paul refers to the Thessalonians’ “labor of love.” Healthy churches are populated by people who are prepared to work—to exert themselves even when it hurts—in order to love others within the Body. Healthy churches are loving churches.
How can you use these metrics to open up a discussion in your church about church health? Taking them one at a time, consider leading 5-6 sessions in an informal setting, allowing plenty of time for participants to discuss and pose questions (e.g., How healthy are we in this area? Does the Lord have a way forward for us? What is the next step? What will we pray and trust Him to do? What are we willing to do? etc.).