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It is not the external things that determine the true health of any church. Worship services and programs may be going on with good attendance, but what is the measure of a healthy church?
Rather than looking to the social sciences for our answer, we must turn to Jesus himself, to Paul’s letters and to the early church history recorded in the New Testament.
It is the ultimate goal of a church to bring honor and glory to God by the proclamation and the living out of the Good News: the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus the Son of God.
In order to do that, the Good News must be deeply engrained in everything the church does. And for the Good News to become deeply engrained we must return to a deep trust in the Word of God.
Many churches have lost one important thing in the pursuit of becoming missional – a true dependency on the all-sufficiency of the Bible. Following attractional, missional, or invitational models, churches become derailed from the centered purpose that Scripture offers believers – knowing God by His Spirit in a Christ-centered community.
Jesus said the greatest thing a person can do is to love God. It follows that the greatest thing a church can do is to love God – Father, Son, and Spirit. He clearly taught that to love God was to obey His teachings. One of His key teachings was that we love one another in the family of God. And when we do this, we will affect those around us. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So, the first way we can evaluate a healthy church is simply to ask if we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Do our ministries truly help people come to know Him, honor Him, walk daily with Him, worship Him and enjoy a real intimacy with Him?
Some churches are so focused on “ministry” or “mission” that they have forgotten the ultimate goal of all of God’s work – that we know Him. “Now this is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” (John 17:3)
Eternal life is not an abstract noun; it is a relationship, a knowing – of God. It is ongoing, life giving, real, and never ending. Is this knowing and loving Him the core and the core result of our church ministries?
In fact, it may be safely said that this is THE evaluative question of both the Old and New Testaments. Although Jesus clearly taught Peter and the disciples the importance of mission repeatedly and left them with the words of “the Great Commission,” it is clear that He was all about the true condition of their hearts.
When Peter was living in his post-resurrection regret of having denied the Lord, he got up to go fishing one night. This shows just how much he was at a loss as to what to do. But the Lord was waiting there on the beach for him. And when Peter came face-to-face with Jesus, the Lord did not rebuke his incorrect theology or even ask why he was not busy making disciples. He simply asked the searching question that mattered most to Him, “Peter, do you love Me?”
In that one question repeated three times Jesus revealed the core of His heart for His disciples of all time. Jesus knew once a man’s heart is set on knowing God – experientially and daily – everything else will follow. If men and women put mission first, it will eventually lead to futility, for as Jesus said, “. . . apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Of course, this involves removing some of the barriers to that kind of intimacy with God. Teachings on sin and repentance are necessary, for we often hold on to wrong thinking, behavior, and attitudes. Intellectual barriers, doubts, and theological challenges have to be overcome with solid apologetics. Most Christians may have a basic understanding of what Jesus’ death did for them, but many have not experienced His Spirit as the healer of their soul. In sum, are we removing barriers and bringing healing to the souls of people so that they may love God more?
Once we have truly faced this question of how much our church ministries are actually helping us to love and know God, we may go on to the second and equally challenging area.
The second most powerful area of evaluation of a healthy church is our relationships with each other. Jesus’ own beloved disciple, the one who had been so deeply changed by Him, taught that unless we loved one another from the heart, we simply could not be His disciples. “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (I John 4:20)
The Apostle Paul wrote that this means bearing with one another and forgiving one another. It means actually getting to know the people sitting next to us at church and going beyond basic knowledge of the people in our small groups or classes. The book of Acts shows us churches that devoted themselves to fellowship. The word means a common sharing of all that we are with others. So, we must measure our health by the depth and reality of our relationships with others – does our church have healthy relationships, and are we helping them to develop them?
A third area of healthy church evaluation is the shaping of our hearts. If we do have these kinds of relationships in the church, then the Holy Spirit will be using them to shape the character of believers and gradually they will become more and more godly in their hearts and lives. The opposite of this would be friction that leads to factions, silence, or power struggles. In healthy churches, the fruit of the Spirit will become more evident – real joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. The evaluative question becomes, “Are we seeing, hearing and experiencing the Holy Spirit’s fruit in our lives more and more and do our ministries serve this purpose?
These three primary evaluative areas for healthy churches can be summed up in this way: Christ, Community, and Character. By asking questions related to these three areas, we will keep our churches on track to becoming biblically strong and mature. And these kinds of churches will see much fruit – fruit that lasts.
Of course healthy growing churches will also have a strong sense of God’s Calling – His guidance to do new ministries, send out people or go into new directions. When they do, God will provide the people to carry out His work in the world. He will gift them and use their abilities to establish new works in God’s name.
Churches in the West in the 21st century are full of talented, educated people and well-organized ministries. Yet, it is possible to have a church full of gifted people who can do a lot of things and still be an extremely unhealthy church. Therefore, the number of gifted workers in a church cannot be a true evaluative tool. If those doing ministry are not truly walking with God, not accepting and loving others, failing to be humble and kind, or not being open to hearing the Father’s call – these things will create sicknesses in a church body.
If we are healthy inwardly, life will flow outwardly. Where Jesus is exalted in the real life of a church He will provide the gifts and talents to get His work done. Some models of church focus less on the internal issues of the church body, preferring instead to be so-called missional-focused rather than internal church-focused. This is a false dichotomy and has gotten us into a lot of trouble.
Imagine if Jesus had not cared much if the disciples were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. Imagine if He did not model a life of prayer, solitude, and intimacy with the Father (because He was busy with His mission work) and did not care much what kind of community the disciples lived out.
Jesus had a heart for the lost world, but He was constant that His primary love was for His Father. He was in deep and lasting relationships with His disciples. And He cared about the kind of people they were becoming.
These three crucial questions of Christ, Community, and Character are part of the legacy that Jesus left for His Church. His call then, and His call to us now, as communities of disciples, is to follow Him.