Kenneth O. Gangel
A striking statement from Isaiah leaps off the page of the annual report of a small evangelical denomination: “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isa. 43:19, NIV). The 459 pages that follow describe how God is dealing with that fellowship of churches to craft a vision for the future. Many of their goals of recent years have been achieved; some have been set aside; others revised for new challenges in the future.
One of those new challenges calls the members to prayer, evangelism, church planting, and “discipling world Christians who view the mission of the church through Christ’s eyes and hearts.” The report rejoices, “What an opportunity God is giving His church.”
In the report denominational leaders then introduce readers to the concept of “healthy Great Commission churches,” which are defined as “communities of Christ-centered people characterized by five balanced passions: winning the lost, building the believer, equipping the worker, multiplying the leader, and sending the called ones.” Who could reject those concerns? However, the state- ment soon erodes into statistical ashes. Suddenly “healthy churches” seem to be measured not by the five passions, but by where they stand numerically, a picture that comes across with stark reality.
Thinking Christian leaders must accept the challenge to focus on healthy churches while recognizing that church size is never a guarantee of spiritual quality. Churches must face the future with total dependence on the sovereignty of God and the power of His Word, while being careful to avoid marrying the spirit of this age and becoming a widow in the next. If the key word is health, what are the marks of a healthy church?
This article suggests that healthy churches are measured in spiritual terms, follow biblical patterns of ministry, are based on theological foundations, focus on a ministry model, and adopt scrip- tural models of leadership.
HEALTHY CHURCHES ARE MEASURED IN SPIRITUAL
RATHER THAN NUMERICAL TERMS
True, the five passions noted earlier go beyond head-counting. But what best measures a church’s spiritual health? Churches must be careful they do not get trapped into thinking they are healthy sim- ply because they are growing numerically. Church leaders must not turn their backs on smaller or plateaued churches. Believers in some small churches may exhibit more spiritual maturity than be- lievers in some large churches. In their book No Little Places, Klas- sen and Koessler emphasize that God judges ministry by quality, not size.
Today the term church growth is used almost exclusively to mean numerical growth. If the numbers go up, the church is growing. If the numbers stay the same, the church is experiencing a “plateau,” a buzz word for stagnation. If the numbers are going down, the church must be unhealthy and in a state of decline.
Such thinking is over-simplistic. Numerical growth can take place for wrong reasons. For example, during Jesus’ ministry, much of the crowd that followed him was more interested in his miracles than in his message (John 6:26). All of us have seen churches that are getting larger for the wrong reasons. Are such churches really growing?1
Several biblical texts affirm that leaders ought not count num- bers. Of course no one wants a gravel-road church in an interstate world, but at no point do the Scriptures give any warrant for measuring health on the basis of size alone. The early chapters of Acts record that some large numbers of people came to Christ. Then Luke never again mentioned the size of any congregation Paul visited on his three missionary journeys, nor does anyone have any idea of the size of any congregation to which the New Testament letters were written.
Immediately after Luke wrote that three thousand people were added to the church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), he stated the formula for healthy churches both then and now. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe, and many wonders and signs were tak- ing place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began sell- ing their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
These believers gave themselves to Bible study, prayer, fellow- ship, praise, and worship. Without special programs, catchy slo- gans, and new paradigms, many were being saved every day. The behavior of the Christians attracted the attention of the unsaved.
For many Christians worship is a lost art. In the lives of some believers it may never have been cultivated at all. Part of the prob- lem is that many think of worship as an act, failing to realize that attitude is far more important because without it the act is mean- ingless. Furthermore for too many people worship requires a place, a building or room to which they go to “pay their respects” to God. As I wrote elsewhere, “Worship as service describes people allowing God to work through them in order to create a spiritual commu- nity. Worship as service involves the understanding and applica- tion of spiritual gifts and their role in the body of Christ (Rom. 12:6-8). The unity, diversity, and mutuality of the church abound when worshipers serve and servants worship.”2
Healthy churches emphasize the sovereignty of God, who calls His people to worship. Genuine worship begins with an awareness of God’s presence and power. Healthy churches practice balanced worship with music that focuses attention on the triune Godhead and with preaching that rivets minds and hearts to His Word.
Healthy churches do not confine worship to a single compart- ment of the Christian experience. Worship involves total commit- ment to God in every aspect of daily life.
Central to healthy congregational life is the biblical mandate of mutual ministry (Rom. 12:5) and the willing and joyous partici- pation of believers ministering to each other (1 Pet. 2:4-9).
In coming to know Jesus Christ, believers became part of the body of Christ, the church. Under the priesthood of Jesus the church itself is a priesthood. In 1 Peter, the author refers to Exodus 19 where Moses was about to go up the mountain to receive God’s law. God said to Israel, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy na- tion” (Ex 19:5-6). The whole nation of Israel, not just the tribe of Levi, was to be God’s priesthood. God’s plan was that His people would rep- resent Him to the world. They would be the channel of His revelation and His salvation purposes. This was God’s commission to Israel. Al- though Israel often was unfaithful and the commission was only par- tially fulfilled, God’s purpose was clear.3
Church health does not begin with evangelism or missions- though both must follow. Biblical church health begins with a Christ-centered, Bible-centered congregation determined to be in their personal, family, and corporate life precisely what God wants of them, and it makes no difference whether their number is fifteen, fifteen hundred, or fifteen thousand.
Reproduced with thanks from BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 158 (October–December 2001)