What is the best and most biblical way to define a “healthy” church? Clearly, there are many different things we could focus on.
- Should a church be considered “healthy” when it is doing well financially?
- How about when large crowds of people are coming to the meetings?
- Perhaps a church is “healthy” when the majority of its growth is from new converts?
- Or is it when it has a strong foreign missions program?
- Is an effective children’s ministry or youth program the key element for “health”?
- Or perhaps “health” is in the fact that the church engages well with the culture?
Biblically, how should we define a healthy church?
In the New Testament, the church is compared to the human body (e.g., 1 Cor. 12). When a part of someone’s body is not functioning properly, that person is, by definition, sick or unhealthy. Thus, a simple definition of a “healthy” human body is one in which every member is functioning properly. In the same way, a healthy church is, quite simply, one in which every member is functioning properly.
There are many popular, and valuable, models of what constitutes a “healthy church.” For example, a healthy church will have inspiring worship, need-oriented evangelism, loving relationships, etc. If every member functions properly then the local church will have all these components.
This is the one characteristic of a healthy church: that every member is functioning properly.
But, what does it mean to “function properly”? In both Ephesians and Colossians, Paul shares a clear revelation of this:
From Him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph. 4:16)
… from Whom [the Head] the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Col. 2:19)
There are three things that each member must do in order to be considered “functioning properly” – grow, serve and build. In the original text of Ephesians 4:16, each of these three verbs has accompanying language which shows that the body does these things “for itself,” or from “each believer in particular.”
First, each member must “grow.” Personally and directly connected to the life of the Head (“from Him the whole body…”; “grows with a growth that is from God”) each member of the church must grow in spiritual maturity. In the church around the world, we’re not doing too badly in this regard. Many Christians do take personal responsibility for their own spiritual lives.
Of course growth comes from God (1 Cor. 3:6), but Paul says that the “body … grows … itself up.” Believers know that God has called them to grow, and not to remain spiritual babies. We are each to take responsibility for our own growth (1 Pet. 2:2), but here we see also that we are to help one another to grow (Eph. 4:15-16).
Second, each member must serve, or “do its particular individual work.” Every member of the church is a “minister”; we all have a calling from God and the corresponding gifting. For the last couple of decades, there has been much teaching on “finding your gifting,” etc., and the church has improved considerably in this regard. Many believers now have a clear vision for their own personal involvement in the ministry of their local churches. Of course, “serving” does not only involve “official ministry activity” but, even more importantly, also serving one another in the broad, practical context of daily life and relationships.
Third, each member must “build” others: Paul says that the body “builds itself up in love.”
This has been the critical missing element in many churches. We have not taken deliberate, personal responsibility for building others. Usually we “delegate” that responsibility to the “professionals.” So, for example, the children are taught spiritually at Sunday School, the new believers go to discipleship class on Tuesday night, the emerging leaders are sent off to Bible school, etc.
However, biblically, we all have responsibility to build others. In fact, the core purpose of the church’s leaders is to equip the saints (the whole body) to do the work of their ministry which in turn builds up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12). Parents are responsible to build their children (Eph. 6:4; Deut. 6:4-9; 11:18-21). Existing believers are responsible to build the new disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). The older women are responsible to build the younger ones (Tit. 2:3-5). The mature men teach the younger men (2 Tim. 2:2). We are always to build one another (Rom. 15:2; 1 Cor. 14:26).
A healthy church is one in which every member grows, serves and builds others. We must have all three. And all three must come from life – the indwelling life of Christ in each believer’s life (John 15:4-5; Eph. 4:16; Col. 2:19) as each of us grows, serves and builds.
This is a profound paradigm shift for many believers and churches. It is a shift away from a program mentality to a people mentality. However, if we can create a church culture in which every believer takes responsibility to grow, serve and build, our churches will transform their worlds!