The annual report of a small evangelical denomination described how the Lord had been working through their churches. It explained how “healthy churches” are communities, of Christ-centered people, that exemplify “five balanced passions: winning the lost, building the believer, equipping the worker, multiplying the leader, and sending the called ones”. However, the statement soon devolved into mere statistics. All of a sudden “healthy churches” seemed to be characterised not by the five passions listed, but by their numbers.
Since when did church size become a guarantee of spiritual quality? And if the catchword is health, what are the propensities of a healthy church?
1. Healthy churches measure their well-being by their spiritual maturity, not merely numbers. The first few chapters of the book of Acts tell us that large numbers believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, nowhere again in the narrative does Luke mention the size of any congregation that Paul visited in his missionary journeys. In addition, no one knows for sure the size of any congregation to which the epistles were written.
Luke, after he mentions that 3,000 people were added to the church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), immediately writes the formula for healthy churches of all generations: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
These believers devoted themselves to Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and worship. They shared everything with each other, even sold their possessions to meet the needs of others, and ate meals together. They lived out the gospel and attracted the unsaved.
The first-century church attracted the unsaved because they lived out the gospel
“Healthy things grow” is an adage that we all have heard. There is some truth in that. But churches must be careful not to deceive themselves into thinking they are healthy simply because there is numerical growth. Healthy churches do grow, but not all growing churches are healthy. Furthermore, we must never look down upon smaller or ‘plateaued’ churches. Believers in smaller churches may exhibit greater spiritual maturity than believers in large churches. Nowadays, the term ‘church growth’ seems invariably synonymous with numerical growth. If the numbers increase, the church is growing. If the numbers stay the same, the church has reached a ‘plateau’. If the numbers go down, the church must be unhealthy. Such thinking is over-simplistic.
Contrary to this viewpoint, healthy churches practise worship that focuses attention on God, and preaching that fixes hearts and minds to the Word. Healthy churches recognise the sovereignty of God and that true worship begins with an awareness of God’s presence and power. Healthy churches do not confine worship to a couple of pockets of life. Worship involves total commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ in every aspect of daily life. Healthy churches have their members willingly and joyfully ministering to one another. In essence, healthy churches do in their personal, family, and corporate lives precisely what God wants them to do — and it makes no difference whether their number is 12 or 120 or 1,200.
2. Healthy churches have members exhibiting a spirit of unity, mutuality, and generosity. The first-century believers were known for their unity and generosity rather than programmes and catchy titles. “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
No wonder thousands were interested! The believers preached the Word of God boldly and called on people to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who rose again from the dead. And their message carried with it a heartfelt appeal because the world knew what kind of relationships the believers maintained when they were together. The epistles exhort believers to have unity with one another in Christ. Instructions thus abound:
The fellowship (koinonia in Greek), emphasised so much in the New Testament, which is unique to the essence of the body of Christ, is more than a binding factor. Koinonia includes responsibility and accountability. We have the responsibility to corporately display our unity in Christ, and we are accountable both to the Word and to one another in the body of Christ. “For none of us lives to himself,” says Paul, “and none of us dies to himself” (Romans 14:7). Nothing makes us less effective in fulfilling the Great Commission than inviting unbelievers into a church awash with complaining, bitterness, criticism, and hypocrisy.
Nothing makes us less effective in fulfilling the Great Commission than inviting unbelievers into a church awash with bitterness and hypocrisy
The apostle Paul offered some advice on how to draw a church of any size out of spiritual sickness into spiritual health. He exhorted the church to live the Christian life “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:2-6).
3. Healthy churches maintain a Biblical model of spiritual effectiveness in achieving their mission. The gospel of Jesus Christ has always transcended cultures. However, believers have frequently bought into their own cultural practices so dramatically that Christianity has lost its distinctiveness. This may often emerge out of sincere motives, an earnest desire to contextualise the gospel or to be “relevant to the times”. Today, many churches are taking their cues from sociology, ignoring biblical theology in the process, and even failing to evaluate cultural and sociological insights by the standard of Scripture.
Healthy churches reject this kind of mindset in their quest for effectiveness. They emphasise operating under God’s grace and power at a level of excellence in accord with the resources He has bestowed on them. Walter Kaiser once wrote, “Evangelicals affirm that the Bible is God’s Word and therefore completely true and trustworthy. It is the authority by which evangelicals form their thinking about what is true about God and the world and by which they guide their lives and practices.”
Healthy churches continue to function on a biblical model of spiritual effectiveness in achieving their mission, rather than models of success as defined by the world. The church should so live its life in Christ that the world will know something about Jesus, whom they desperately need.
4. Healthy churches adopt a Biblical model of leadership rather than secular. One of the biggest deficiencies of contemporary churches is their failure to grasp and adopt the clear, distinctive New Testament model of leadership. One wonders how the picture became so distorted. Too many churches have given much power to one person. The fact that it occasionally works cannot eclipse the reality of its unequivocal opposition to the New Testament. More people are hurt in churches by secular models of leadership than by inadequate theology or dilapidated buildings.
More people are hurt in churches by secular models of leadership than by inadequate theology or dilapidated buildings
Church government by plurality of elders is set forth by the New Testament writers with clarity and cogency. The writers of the New Testament do this by recording a consistent pattern of plurality of elders that existed among the first-century churches spread over a wide geographic area (Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15, 20:17; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 1:1).
Not only this, but the New Testament writers affirm government by plurality of elders by giving straightforward instructions to churches about how to care for, obey, select, protect, discipline and restore the elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:5; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). In addition, Paul, Peter and James give commands directly to the elders about how to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-5; Acts 20:28; James 5:14).
Alfred F. Kuen, in his book, I Will Build My Church, writes, “Has not the history of twenty centuries of Christianity proved that the plan of the primitive church is the only one which is suitable for all times and places, is most flexible in its adaptation to the most diverse conditions, is the best able to resist a stand against persecutions, and offers the maximum of possibilities for the full development of the spiritual life? Each time that man has believed himself to be more intelligent than God that he has painstakingly developed a religious system ‘better adapted to the psychology of man’, more comfortable to the spirit of our times, instead of simply following the neotestamentary model, his attempt has been short-lived because of failure due to some unforeseen difficulty.”
The spirit of the age says that a church cannot be healthy without contemporary and cutting-edge approaches to ministry. However, we need to realise that churches will never become spiritually healthy merely by programmes or paradigms. Churches must first aim for God’s priorities and then allow Him to produce in each of them what He wants to produce. This approach, because it is thoroughly Biblical, will inspire believers to know Jesus Christ, grow in Him, exalt Him, lead others to Him, and build them up in the faith.
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