Marks of a Healthy Church

Summary: Some perusings about what is a “healthy church.” What is “vitality”? Where are churches “going” today?

Young Families and Youth in our Services

I always seem to analyze things in my life, and sometimes God uses this activity to teach me and guide me. Recently we returned to the US for a couple of months of furlough, and we were traveling and stopped in a place on a Wednesday night that we didn’t have a supporting church near there. So we got a hotel, and I saw “Baptist Church” in front of the hotel. It looked okay so we went over there for Wednesday night prayer meeting. Turns out it was a Southern Baptist Church. In general, I don’t go to or want support from Southern Baptist Churches. There are doubtlessly some very good Fundamental  churches in that group, but my contention is that without separating from the bad in the convention, a church has to accept their cooperative efforts and work with these liberal and bad churches. So I am not endorsing the Southern Baptist Convention by my remarks here, but I simply commenting on what struck my mind to start working and mulling over things.

Let me add, they had an evangelist preaching the last night of a revival, and he presented the plan of salvation simply, and I appreciate and agree with his sermon, it was very good. The people in the church were extremely pleasant and kind to us.

What got my mind to thinking was the absence of any young people. My wife and I are 54, and we were the youngest people present (beside Russ my 16 year old son). Perhaps those with children and teens didn’t come because it was a school night, or perhaps they even had some activity elsewhere in a member’s home for them, I don’t know. The impression that I got was very clearly that if this church doesn’t reach out to younger families and the youth, in a short 10-20 years, the church will be memberless.

This caused me to reflect over our own failures in reaching our youth in our church in Mexico City. We have tried to have activities, Sunday School classes, and other such things to reach our youth, and in general, they don’t come to church in time for Sunday School, and they are “bored” with both church and any youth outings we provide.

As far as getting the teens to church for Sunday School, I have talked with our parents, and they blame the teens for not getting up in time. I blame the parents. The teens blame the Sunday School for being boring. So there is plenty of blame to spread around for everybody.

But the real reason for this problem is that our world is teaching teens and adults that you just don’t have to do anything that is not “fun”. If you physically are somewhere where things there are not “fun”, then escape into your mind, and pick up your favorite electronic device (a.k.a. smart phone, mobile gamebody, mobile TV, mobile movie watcher device, etc.) and escape from boring reality.

School now has to be “fun” for students to do well. Everything has to be electronic or computer, with vivid graphics and bold action. We have allowed ourselves to be slowly taught that work is bad, and play is fun, and there is a way to only live “fun” and play. If you browse websites that promote Christian youth ministries, everything is oriented towards making things “fun” for the teens. That is the competition, and that is where churches have to go to “keep the youth”.

My observation here is that this concept is baloney. Nowhere in the Bible does God present pleasure here on earth as any kind of real basis for Christian life. Pleasure is a totally different kind of thing in the Bible than what is in our modern culture, and we need to understand this and work to teach this to our people.

Pleasure for a Christian should be the following: 1) fellowship with God. This is seen as our salvation, which is to physically and socially live with God in heaven. 2) fellowship with other like people like ourselves (true, vibrant Christians). This means that there should be pleasure in our minds and hearts when we come to church to socialize with fellow believers. I don’t know if the problem here is a poisioned church membership which gripes and grinds against each other instead of encouraging and loving one another, or a lack of recognition of this socializing that it should be “pleasure” for us.

3) Another clear idea of pleasure or “joy” should be over the salvation of lost souls. Why we don’t feel this pleasure is really weird, because it would presume that we don’t value our own salvation very highly. This as a mark of unhealthiness is seen by churches and Christians a) not emphasizing evangelism, b) not expending their lives and resources for it, c) not actually doing any evangelizing, d) not even being interested enough to know how to win a soul to Christ.

4) Another clear idea of pleasure or “joy” is that of obeying God’s will and walking in it. It is extremely hard for a true Christian to walk in God’s will and not in the ways of the world. Sometimes I think that maybe none of us are saved, because the world is really deep down in our bones, and we just all are purtrid and unholy. I take comfort in remembering that God’s knows the evils of this world, and takes into consideration our human weakness.

But what really makes me reflect on these things is that a concept of a “healthy church” is one where people are happy when they are in church. We have probably visited around 800 different churches in our ministry, and we have seen all kinds (most Baptist and Bible Churches though). Those churches where they open the doors an hour before the first service, and a lot of (usually elderly) people come and read their Bibles and pray before services strike me as being extremely healthy. Also those where the pastor is going to take us out to eat afterwards, and we are still waiting to close up an hour or more after the service because the people just don’t want to go home, but stand and talk. It frustrates us and pastors sometimes, but boy is that a good sign. As a contrast, I note a church or two where the place fills up half of the total attendance 20-30 minutes into the preaching service, and a dozen people leave during the closing prayer. Where are they going that is so important? Everybody has to be first in line at the Sunday restaurant? This is also seen in a total “turn off” of people at 12:00 noon on Sunday morning.

Vitality in our Churches

The idea of “vitality” is that of life. In the present article and context, this means spiritual life. Do our churches really have vitality? Let me offer some thoughts.

First of all, no church that cannot perform what is necessary to survive as a church has true vitality. For example, a mission church is still surviving by the offer of life from some outside source. Many mission churches meet in a rented hall or home by somebody who is paying the bill for that. The church from its own offerings is not self-sufficient.

Another thought here is reproduction, and that being the individual reproduction of members, and the reproduction of entire churches (church planting). Many churches today are just dying and withering up into nothing. I visited a church years back in South Carolina around Bob Jones University. They were in that “orbit”. What struck me was that on a Sunday night we were meeting in their auditorium which easily seats 2000 or more, and there were less that 30 people there. They filled the first 2 pews of one side, and they didn’t even cut on the lights for the rest of the auditorium. That church has seen better days obviously.

But my question is where are the evangelistic efforts today? I see churches doing all kinds of silly evangelism projects. I label them silly because they are all “indirect” in that they do not directly present the gospel clearly and openly the unsaved in the place where the unsaved live and work and move. Biblical evangelism has to be a clear presentation of the Gospel to the unsaved where they are (and this is basically outside of the local church).

I remember hearing of a church that used an outside group to come in and have a teen outreach (note, note evangelism) of a “War” where there were two sides, and the games and activities were oriented towards competition one team against the other. This is common with summer camps, only this was a traveling team that went from church to church doing this. They invited unsaved intercity kids to this church, and when they came, everybody was happy. They played their games, and then had hot dogs and hamburgers afterward. When the organizers tried to get them settled down for a devotional time, the inner city kids went wild and it ended in a food fight with the churches facilities being trashed with food and soda thrown all over the walls. The unsaved kids were invited to a party, and they were deceived, because the church wanted to slip in a religious on them, and they rebelled at it. In analyzing the events, the pastor and men of the church who were there concluded that “they” as a church lied to the kids about the purpose and nature of the event. The outside people running this show (supposedly a great Christian ministry launched from a Christian College) said that that is how you do this. “Lying” and decept is how we do the work of the Lord? This is common in modern ministries, and it is because we have left the biblical pattern of how to do ministry.

A healthy church does not wait until a yearly revival to do evangelistic work. It is vital, so it is constantly reproducing. I remember in my home church when growing up, that on Sundays when the pastor would preach an evangelistic message, my dad and several other men (there were about 2-3 always with another 3-4 who would come up if needed) that were on the side aisles, and if people came forward, the pastor would speak with them, and then hand them off to these men who would counsel them or give them the plan of salvation. By my count there were probably 8-12 (some were in the choir) that could clearly give the plan of salvation. Today I see churches where I seriously doubt the pastor can give the plan of salvation without stumbling through it.

Vitality in reproduce of Christians, souls for Christ, is about all of this becoming second nature to a large majority of the adults and teens in the church. As a teenager, we went out evangelizing door to door. At Christian Summer Camp we took a day off from camp (usually Thursday or Friday) after classes the days before that to go into town and witness. Today the ministers in charge of churches and Christian ministries can hardly get through a presentation of the gospel. What is happening? Satan is so distracting us with “other good things” that we have lost out on the primary, essential thing of Christianity.

Teens going to theme parks or playing “fun games” is not important AT ALL! Teens who personally know Christ and can bring other people into the kingdom of God is a core objective of any healthy church. Ditto that for adults. So where are we as far as being a “healthy church”? Life is singularly seen in the ability and action of reproduction of itself. Death kills others. Which are we? Do we cause life in others or do we influence others in other ways which is not clearly spiritual regeneration?

When we talk about reproduction of ourselves as a church, modern Christianity has clearly fallen on its face again. I used to have a practice when I visited churches looking for support to look at their missionary boards. There I would count how many of their missionaries were into direct evangelism and church planting ministries. Maybe I am jealous because I do that and want everybody else to do that, but frankly, it is discouraging to see how many million dollar organizations are on these boards today, and the total lack of real missionaries.

Either people making aprons with Bible verses on it, or signs in yards, or some “ministry” that exists which supposedly encourages others spiritually, but there are not direct evangelism in these ministries. Their relationship with local churches is very distinct. They draw their own vitality and life by draining the resources of local churches. The idea that these ministries could one day become self sufficient from their own people is impossible. Take for example a Christian Radio Station. Yes they are nice. But is this really missions? Some stations clearly present the word of God and the gospel, and I laud them for that. But they are always dependent. They live by people giving to them instead of to a local church.

My observation simply is this, where in all of this mixture and disaster of a mess is the reproduction of local churches? We must demand that ministries we support as well as our own churches and lives are 1) directly presenting the Gospel to the unsaved (while admitting that this is valid in any church service also), 2) pushing the local church to be a strong, vital, healthy organization.

“Health” for a local church is translated into 1) lots of members that are vibrant, real, strong Christians that participate and support that local church. 2) funds sufficient to do the ministry that they undertake. 3) efforts, interest, and resources spent both locally in the locality of the local church as well as at a distance (think missions here) on the same mission they have (direct evangelism, and planting local churches).

The question comes up after reading my strong statements, “David, are you against any other kind of ministry?” No, I am not. My understanding is that there are two very different things which have incorrectly merged. First of all, there is the local ministry of a local church. Paul makes mention of all the gifts of the spirit in his epistles to the Corinthian church, and this is very obvious that Paul’s concept of a vital and healthy local church is one where many members are exercising their gifts in and through the local church, and many of these ministries were actually outside the building of the local church. That is very much biblical.

Secondly, there were missionaries. The only missionary example we have with authority is what is offered us by Scripture. We have to deposit Paul’s missionary ministry as the authorized example God gives us. Paul went from place to place directly presenting the Gospel clearly to the heathen. Where there were people saved, shortly thereafter Paul organized a church, and left other missionaries to build it up.

But observe, 1) the local ministries DID EXIST, but these people worked secular jobs, and were not fulltime supported by missionary funds of the church. 2) the local ministry was a part of, under the direction and control of a single local church, and was a way for Christians in that church to use their abilities for God.  That means the “ministry” did not exist outside and separate from that local church. 3) These ministries appear to be oriented inside a local church, or from a local church, and they never took on a life of their own. Here I would note that  today, a mission board, a summer camp, a Christian university, a Christian radio station, etc. can have millions of dollars invested in their infrastructure. For every dollar you put into a building, you reduce what is available for full time ministers to live and do evangelism and spiritual edification (local church stuff). Yes buildings are probably necessary, but no, everybody shouldn’t have their half a million or millions of dollars building. The idea is that they need heavy investment of money. Where does it come from? Local church missions funds. Some churches at least try to balance home missions 25% foreign missions 75%. Most churches just let it go however.

In Paul’s comments about ministries in his Corinthians epistles, we see that these ministries and ministers were tightly intergrated into the local church. We never see any extra-church or para-church group or ministry recognized nor instruction given for them. That means they either didn’t exist or were not very prominent in the scheme of things.

It greatly disgusts me today that in general Christians cannot give to a minister, like a missionary, or a local church. It is as if they feel it is somehow improper or “below grade”, and they need to write checks to an organization. I have even heard arguments that without an organization over a person, the ministry is really a false prophet kind of thing. Churches have to have a denomination over them or they are wild (loose canons), and that kind of independent church is just a cult. Independent missionaries that are not under a local church are labeled as bad, rebellious, or dangerous. What mission board was Paul under? In Philippians, Paul commended the Philippian church that they sent once and again to his needs, and that NOBODY corresponded with him in giving to these needs except that church. The church at Antioch from which Paul was “sent out” (actually the word is “divorced”) didn’t send money to Paul at first? Yes. As a missionary, I observe that rarely will churches or individuals donate towards a large need that I have ($5000 for a newer car), but willingly will they donate $10,000s of dollars for a new million dollar mission board complex, or a building in some ministry somewhere. The money is there, the ideas in people’s heads is where the problem lies.

Healthy churches simply are churches that are reproducing themselves, both individually as evangelism of the unsaved to be Christians, and on an organizational level, church planting. Let’s just think a minute. If we say every good and healthy being reproduces itself from its own energies, Christians have to reproduce Christians, local churches local churches, radio stations radio stations, Christian camps Christian camps, Christian universities Christian universities, etc. then isn’t it interesting how each of those things draws resources to reproduce themselves?

Christians have to witness to the unsaved for it to work. This is biblical and takes no funds at all really to do it. Churches reproduce themselves according to the biblical pattern of missions. Both of these have biblical president.

When we talk about these other Christian ministries, none of them have vitality in themselves to reproduce themselves. They all want local churches to pay for their reproduction, and for their own existence. Now that it is common for Christian ministries to charge for their services (a practice never seen nor endorsed in Scripture), the gouging of Christianity for “ministry” is the way everybody is thinking.

We are just messed up in our minds in Christianity. God designed all of this to work, work well, and accomplish His will, and there was never any “charging” or merchandising (like the false prophets commonly do) for true biblical ministry.

Life is the Production of Fruit

We need to address fruit production in all of this. A healthy church is a church that is highly active and motivated in producing spiritual fruit. This is seen very accutely in good works, but it goes much more beyond that. A healthy church is a church that is also involved in promoting and executing spiritual character.

Prayer for example is something that is very healthy, although there is unhealthy prayer. I have heard many a person pray 10-15 requests for themselves, and never get beyond their own needs. We should pray for our own needs, but spiritual maturity is to lift up your vision from your own needs and ministry and work for the needs of others. Financial aid is probably very essential in this, but it is not and should not be where we begin nor the majority of what we do for people.

Care, concern, interest, and involvement is what is seen as spiritual fruit. People reaching people, resolving their spiritual and physical problems. That should be a very discernable and strong force in a healthy church.

This should not come from a works salvation type of thing, but rather because people love Christ, they change their character to become caring and serving people. When there is an abundance of this in a church, it is a good sign of vitality in its people. Carnality and contention are the signs of an unhealthy church.

Life is the Attack and Defense of itself from Dangers

Another issue here is very simply, the church has a focus and definition of itself. It stands on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and its people are defined as people of the Gospel. They live the Gospel. Likewise they are defined by what they oppose.

It is sad to see churches today that have no “guts”. They are afraid of what is “politically incorrect.” I see occasionally pastors that refuse to use illustrations because of copyright concerns. I have had churches ask me to affirm that my prayer card is not under copyright of some photo studio. (My image is under my copyright. Don’t know how somebody else can have any say over my own image.)

But the point is that the healthy church takes definitive stands against worldliness and carnality in our society. While the majority of the evangelical denominations are caving in to practicing homosexuals as active members and ministers, women preachers and pastors, and other such things, the healthy church takes a stand against these things. They are prohibited and wrong as per Scripture, and the healthy church doesn’t have a timid or weak public position about them.

Where are Churches “Going” Today?

If we look at the direction that churches are heading today, and we compare that with the local church as planted by the teachings of the New Testament, we find a great discrepancy between the two. Whereas the NT church was on fire giving the gospel actively and forcefully to the unsaved in the public forum, our churches today hardly even have a clear presence and presentation of the gospel within its own doors. It is simply not important to modern Christianity. They want to include everybody as “brother” and make no demands as to what is a real Christian. People can live in open sin, and still be a church member, a church officer, or even a minister.

We see the NT church pattern as one that was actively serving Christ and the body of Christ, working towards evangelism and effecting the image of Christ within its membership by edifying teaching of Scripture. Today churches focus on entertainment, fun, pleasure, and feeling rather than being. In a NT church, what was important was how you lived the image of Christ. The “being” concept was overwhelming. The being caused you to act and work in a certain way that pleased God.

Today everything is about feeling, and everything is oriented towards causing a certain “feeling” in the membership. We want to “feel good”. In the NT churches they denounced sin, and stigmatized individual members of local churches that refused to give up their sin. They were “disciplined”. That was as much a part of NT church life as anything else. Being excluded from communion because you did publicly renounce your sin nor produce sufficient evidence of a change to satisfy the church that you were truly following Christ. In today’s modern churches, discipline is non-existant. That is because it “goes directly against the grain” of a feel good orientation of the ministry.

When we consider that the NT church was busily working against the near approaching Day of Christ’s return, we see that this was a motive to exceed all boundaries as far as what a person can do. Extraordinary effort was given to the ministry, and great sacrifices were common. Today, the real ministry of evangelism and church planting (edifying the saints so that they can do the work of the ministry, which is living a godly example and winning people to Christ) is set aside for social issues like feeding people, building houses, and other things. It sad that the church of our generation has been given greater resources and “abilities” to  do things for God, and has done less than any other generation since the church started.