What does a healthy church look like? How does a healthy church function?
Between examining the New Testament Church in God’s word, my personal experience in healthy church families, and then seeing/experiencing healthy churches—there are biblical qualities of health that clearly rise to the surface.
In the list below, the operative words are: growing, increasing, developing—in other words, the key is progress. Which direction are we going? These things may be in their infancy, but are they present and progressing?
Jesus is patient, and He cultivates our lives and churches gradually by His grace—and soul work is slow work. Jesus isn’t in a hurry.
So let’s do a check up! Here are eleven questions to ask in diagnosing church health…
1. Are We Increasing in Prayer and Dependence Upon God?
“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2:42
Jesus said His house was to be a “house of prayer.” The New Testament Church came together to pray, and God was honored in their dependence. A healthy church is a dependent church, and a church that regularly realigns itself with God’s will through prayer.
2. Are We Growing in Love for the Word of God?
1 Thessalonians 2:13 “…when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.”
God’s word is the operative agent in life change, and the church is to be a hub of spiritual maturity. How often do programs and events take precedence over studying and growing in God’s word? Are we teaching and preaching through it? Is there growing “biblical literacy” in our church family?
A few times in my life, I’ve been exposed to “biblically thin” church environments—places where, though there is regular “preaching”, it is not biblically substantive or well prepared. This kind of delivery ignores large portions of God’s word, removes scripture from vital context, and emphasizes things that scripture does not. It’s spiritual malnutrition, and it is dangerous.
When we regularly open God’s word and let the gospel run free, God does a gradual and powerful work in hearts that cannot be done in any other way.
3. Is There a Collective Spirit of Humility and Unity?
“Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility…” 1 Peter 5:5
In his commentary on Luke, Kent Hughes shares this humorous illustration: “Consider the difference between dogs and cats. The master pets a dog, and the dog wags its tail and thinks, ‘He must be God.’ The master pets his cat, and the cat purrs, shuts its eyes, and thinks to itself, ‘I must be God.’ After God has graciously reached down to us, there is a perverse human tendency to think like the cat!
“…As Christians, we began well as humble, needy sinners who received the free grace and mercy of God. Like the dog, God was everything to us, and we gladly worshiped him. But as time went by, the regrettable feline pathology began to shrink the recognition of grace in our hearts. The Christian life produces some positive changes within us… But those changes can become an unwitting source of pride. We may not think, ‘I must be God,’ but we do silently imagine, ‘I must be pretty good.’”
“We become proud of our apparent sanctification… We become proud of our spirituality.”
4. Are We Outwardly Focused, Reaching, and Discipling New Christians?
“…stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;” Philippians 1:27
Pride and contention is not only toxic within the church family, but it also kills the church’s ability to reach the lost. Hughes continues the above quote this way:
“This [proud] condition is typically very interior, but it has a telltale aroma, and others can smell it, especially those outside the church. Sometimes it is an acrid air of condescension or subtle, smiling hostility, or aloofness, or club-ish exclusivity, or doubt about God’s blessing on all who are not in the approved circle. This stench has kept multitudes away…”
In Luke 9, three stories are tied together in the narrative—the first, Jesus’ transfiguration. The second, a moment where the disciples could not heal a demon-possessed boy while they were arguing with scribes. The third, a private moment when Jesus rebuked their prideful arguing over “who is the greatest”, their unbelief, and their self-dependence.
The disciples, in pride, had grown contentious. They were contentious with unbelievers (the scribes), with insiders (themselves, over their positions), and outsiders (the man casting out demons who wasn’t in their group.) All the while, the boy and his desperate father simply wanted deliverance! They were winning the arguments but losing hearts.
Pointedly, Jesus avoided the contention, healed the boy, and rebuked his proud disciples. Their contention had literally neutralized the gospel which they were called to preach.
5. Is There a Growing Shared Spirit of Generosity and Care?
“And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God.” 2 Corinthians 8:5
All of our living and giving should flow from loving. I often tell our church family— “If we can’t get there by loving Jesus, then we don’t want to get their any other way.” The local churches of the New Testament had so encountered a risen Jesus and His transforming, saving, abundant love—they could not help but love Him in return, and hence love each other and love the lost. His love compelled a love-driven lifestyle of generosity and self-sacrifice.
All impure motives of Christian living eventually fall apart—whether fear, pressure, guilt, or obligation. The only viable, sustainable motivation for living the Christian life is the love of Jesus. Does the church family get that? Do they know the Christian life is not a “have to, ought to” life, but rather a “get to, want to life?”
6. Is There a Greater Desire and Expectation to Welcome Guests and New Life?
John 1:46 “46 And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.”
The heart of Jesus and His church should be, “Come and see!” In truth, the New Testament Churches expected unbelievers to show up, and they welcomed them when they did. In Acts 17, Paul preached in the synagogue, but then the greeks begged him to continue teaching them outside of the synagogue. In James we are instructed not to evaluate new-comers by their clothing or appearance. In 1 Corinthians, Paul was concerned about unbelievers coming to church and thinking the Christians were “crazy.”
The loving, worshipful, joyful, gospel-saturated environment of a healthy church is the greatest single evangelistic tool in our entire ministry toolbox. Healthy churches prepare for guests, worship with them, preach the gospel to them, and live the gospel before them. It’s an immersive gospel experience that draws unbelievers to a very attractive Jesus!
Our words made the gospel understandable, but our loving lives make it wonderful, believalbe, and desireable. If your gospel doesn’t make you a radically loving person, then don’t expect anybody to want it or see it as credible or wonderful.
7. Is Our Vision Causing Us to Courageously Accept Healthy Change?
2 Corinthians 3:18 “18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed…”
The word “change” is subjective. “Change” that changes God’s truth is always bad change. Change that facilitates His word and work of saving and transforming followers of Jesus is good.
Healthy churches are always asking this question: “How can we get out of God’s way? How can we do better? How might we be blocking or hindering the work of the gospel in ways that we can’t see?” If our gospel is rejected, so be it; but if our form or traditions keep people from understanding the gospel, healthy change is in order. “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:” (2 Corinthians 4:3)
8. Are We Deepening Commitment to Gospel Mission?
“And how shall they preach, except they be sent?…” Romans 10:15
Healthy churches are sending churches. Jesus said in Acts 1, we are witnesses to the world. The church at Antioch listened to the Holy Spirit, affirmed His call in the lives of Paul and Barnabas, and sent them to Asia Minor to plant churches.
In Luke 10, Jesus taught us to pray for laborers. Simply stated, a healthy church will have a growing passion to advance the gospel locally as well as globally.
9. Is There an Organic Desire for Greater Community?
“Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” Philippians 2:2
Relationships were big in New Testament churches—necessarily so, in the midst great oppression. The body ministered to itself—the people encouraged and cared for one another. They shared what Paul called a “fellowship in the gospel.”
A healthy church is a relationally mature and close church—from the leaders all the way through the church family. In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul said he gave not only the gospel, but his own self to the believers, because they were dear to him. The church family is no place for aloofness, mystique, or relational distance. Christianity is meant to thrive in fellowship and relational maturity.
10. Is Our Leadership Philosophy Authentic, Accountable, and Shared?
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour…” 1 Timothy 5:17
A healthy church always has a team of leaders who lead well. Obviously, New Testament Churches had “key leaders”—James at Jerusalem, Paul or Timothy at Ephesus, Titus at Crete, etc. But New Testament churches also had multiple leaders who led humbly and well as a team. The clear implication is that there is such a thing as “pastors leading poorly.”
In Acts 6, the church needed new and more leaders to facilitate better care among the church family, so they appointed godly men to the task. No man can do it alone, and in fact, it’s dangerous to try. No church can function healthily without a godly team of authentic, accountable, humble, and faithful leaders.
The authoritarian/dictatorial leadership model is one that is deadly for both the leader and the church—and even if one pastor survives that model, his successor usually can’t and doesn’t. Wise pastors voluntarily surround and submit themselves to a godly team filled with wisdom and maturity, and they prepare their church to move forward sustainably if they are called home.
11. Do We Worship with Corporate Engagement and Sincerity?
“Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.” Hebrews 2:12
Pastor Steve Chappell says it this way, “If you want your church to serve, teach them to worship. If they will learn to worship, they will want to serve.” Worship and praise is the recurring corporate expression of celebration, love, and adoration for Jesus Christ. When a church family authentically, sincerely worships, God does something wonderful and amazing in their midst.
True worship produces a kind of serving and “doing” that is purely motivated and sustainable, because it is more than the performance of duty. It is the perpetual expression of true love.
Famous hymn-writer, John Newton (Amazing Grace) wrote these words in on of his hymns— “Our pleasure and our duty, though opposite before, since we have seen His beauty are joined to part no more. …So see the law by Christ fulfilled, and hear His pardoning voice, changes the slave into a child, and duty into choice!
Healthy churches are like green pastures where God’s sheep can thrive—they are safe, well-fed, well-cared for, encouraged, comforted, and at peace. In a healthy environment, God’s flock flourishes. They thrive in joy and safety, and they want other sheep to enjoy the same love and care. In that way, healthy churches are contagious.
In a healthy church, lost souls find the love their hearts crave, and believing souls find the care their hearts need. May God’s grace and power enable us to lovingly lead our churches to health, for His glory!
End Note: The assumption of this article is that the church already has a foundation of sound doctrine and commitment to orthodox biblical truth. Obviously that would be the foundation of everything listed above.