Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the characteristics of a healthy church. What would a truly healthy church look like today? Would it be one with strong preaching? (A personal favorite) A great choir? An effective Sunday School program? A thriving missions program? I began to pull some books off the shelf in my office. I looked at some research online. I’ve talked to Pastor who lead thriving ministries. Below is an accumulation of my research. These are the areas that kept coming up again and again.
I don’t mean this in any way to be the last word on the subject, but I hope it to be simply a jumping off point for a further discussion:
1. A place of love, acceptance, and forgiveness: Healthy churches create an environment of acceptance. A place where people can enter just the way they are and trust the Holy Spirit to do His refining works. It is a place where judgmental attitudes are not allowed. No one has to measure up to unwritten codes of ethics. Instead, the incredible grace of God permeates their life together.
2. Relational Integrity: In healthy churches, broken people who came felt safe because they exhibited authenticity and transparency in their relationships with one another. They believe for genuine community to be achieved, the attitude and atmosphere of love needed to be modeled first in their lives, before anyone else would be drawn to their fellowship. In addition, Pastors and key leaders made integrity, honesty, communication, conflict resolution, building trust, learning how to forgive a priority in their teaching.
3. A Hunger for Discipleship: In healthy churches, people have a strong desire to learn how to put the teachings of Jesus into practice in their daily lives. People approach to teaching is not for the sake of more Bible knowledge; it is so that they learn how to put the values of the Kingdom to work in their families, at school, on the job, etc. As one church put it: “We call our members to love God, love people, and PROVE it daily.”
4. A Shift from the Traditional Worship Service: Healthy churches are moving away from the traditional understanding of Sunday morning. For the last 20 years, the traditional understanding is that you go to Worship to have an experience with God and you invite your non-Christian friends in the hopes that they would have an experience with God as well. Unfortunately, as more and more studies are revealing, this has produced more and more ‘consumers’ who come expecting to have their spiritual tank filled. . . and if they don’t, they’ll just go down the street to another church. Healthy churches are abandoning the whole worship ‘service’ idea and are teaching their people that ‘this is not the place you come to have your needs met. . .this is where you learn how to meet the needs of others! This is not where you come to ‘experience’ God, it is where you learn to experience God in the face of your lonely neighbor or your difficult co-worker. Sunday morning is the place where followers of Jesus are encouraged and equipped to serve the world throughout the rest of the week.
5. Prayer: In healthy churches, prayer is a high priority. . . and usually goes beyond the typical mid-week prayer meeting. It includes multiple on-ramps throughout the year so as to involve as many people as possible. Examples include: Concerts of Prayer, Neighborhood prayer walks, Prayer retreats, healing prayer, individual guided prayer, times of prayer and fasting. There is a clear understanding that nothing of lasting significance happens without God’s people actively crying out to Him.
6. Relationship-Centered Ministries: In healthy churches, program type ministry is being replaced by relationship based ministry. For example, instead of doing a large-scale attractional program at the church building, a group of 8-10 people might decide to ‘adopt’ the neighborhood in which they live. They spend the time building relationships with their neighbors, finding out their needs, and together seeking ways to meet them. One church, who had been used to doing a traditional summer VBS decided – after weeks of building relationships with their neighbors- to do a neighborhood ‘block party’. They did a ‘parents vs. kids’ kickball game and talked with each other over grills of frying hot dogs. Healthy churches seek the building of relationship over the building of a program.
7. Personal Stories: Healthy churches understand the importance of ongoing reminders around the theme of life change. Most have opportunities in the worship time each week for people to celebrate what God had done in their lives over the past month. They also celebrate young people’s accomplishments. They celebrate mission trips. They celebrate what God is doing through different ministries within the body. Over and over again, these stories are put front and center before the church body.
8. Service: Healthy church teach the importance of serving God with all the talent, time, giftedness, passion, and energy one can muster. Service, along side ones brothers and sisters, is understood to be an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. One church said it defines ‘success’ not by how many people are seated in the pews on a Sunday morning, but by how many are actually serving their city throughout the week. Whether that’s serving on the city council, mentoring in the public schools, or helping out at a downtown arts festival. The goal is to demonstrate before a watching world that we follow the one who said, “I came not to be served, but to serve. . .”
9. Networking: The healthiest churches know that they cannot get the job done in their city by themselves. So they are continually seeking ways to develop interdependent relationships within the context of where God has planted them. For some, this means that the pastor joins a local clergy prayer group. Others, it means the sharing facilities, resources, even staff.
I’m sure there are many other characteristics we could examine, but these are the ones that I have found that come up again and again in my research and discussions. So what do you think? How do you think First Christian Church is measuring up? Are there areas you see us doing really well? What areas need some ‘tweaking’? What areas would you say need some deeper discussions? Again, this is not THEE definitive list. It’s simply a way to get the conversation going. I look forward to your feedback.
Blessings, Pastor Mark