So what makes a church healthy? I suspect most people involved with a church have some opinion on this question. Or they at least feel like they can identify if a church is healthy or not. Even if they cannot define why. Church health is a topic that generates much discussion and many books. But it is also a topic where consensus is hard to find.
Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on church health, although I have been involved with many churches in the past few decades. I would describe some of these churches as at least marginally healthy. Some that were a bit sickly. And even a couple that had the plug pulled on life support. And over the years, I have developed a gut feel for the health of a church, although it was hard to quantify. But I have spent a bit more time with that question recently and have some more specific criteria now.
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Table of contents
The Church Is a Body
One of the metaphors used in the Bible for the church is that of a body. The church is the body of Christ, with Christ as the head and each member of the church acting as a body part. I like this metaphor in the context of church health and will use it extensively here. It seems like there should be some good parallels between my health and the health of ‘the body.’
Connected to the Head
My health is highly dependent on the rest of me remaining tightly connected to, and taking direction from, my head. It is highly unusual for a human body to operate in a healthy fashion independently of its head. So too the church. If it is not tightly connected to its head, to Christ, then it is not only unhealthy. It is dead or dying.
So is the church you belong to connected to its head? That can sometimes be hard to know for sure, although at other times, it is obvious one way or another. Does your church seek direction from the head in everything they do? Do they keep their focus on the head, or are they more focused on money, people, programs, or problems? Are they excited about Jesus, enjoying life with him, or are they just going through the motions, following their traditions? How do they respond when a soul is saved?
All the Parts Working in Harmony
One of the signs of a healthy human body is that all of its parts are working correctly and in harmony. If even one part is sickly or not functioning correctly, I am unhealthy. And the more parts not working correctly, the less healthy I am. While I can continue to function, it is less than optimal.
The body of Christ is very similar in this regard. When all of its parts function correctly and do their part, the body is healthy and productive. But if members of the body are not correctly filling the role God has placed them in, the whole body will suffer. And the more body parts that choose to do nothing, or serve incorrectly, the greater the harm to the body.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.Ephesians 4:16 NIV
Disease is another problem that my body faces. This is similar to having the body functioning incorrectly, as discussed above, but I am choosing to distinguish between the two. A distinction that not all may agree with, but that’s OK.
I have had cancer and heart issues, although both are good now. Both of those were caused by my body not working correctly. I am also in the process of recovering from a cold. The cause of this is something outside of my body, a virus launching an attack on me. And that illustrates my somewhat arbitrary distinction between functioning incorrectly and dealing with a disease. With disease being something that some outside agent causes.
Disease agents, viruses and bacteria, and other creepy crawlies are all around me, looking for a way to break through my body’s defenses. And occasionally, one of them does, and I get sick. Usually, if my body is healthy enough, it will quickly fight it off, and health is restored. But there are times, depending on the state of my health and the severity of the attack, that it might be debilitating or even fatal.
Disease in the Body
The local body of Christ also faces many disease agents: false doctrine; compromise; adoption of shortcuts to attract more people; persecution; bitterness; the easy way; faithlessness, etc. Each is like a virus, just looking for a weakness to attack and spread. A healthy body will be able to fight off most with little problem. But sometimes, a weakness is found, and the body is infected. And as the virus spreads, unless the body can successfully fight it off, the body will grow sickly and ineffective and maybe even die.
My body fights off disease primarily by avoiding it in the first place, but if infected, the body’s resources are committed to overcoming the attack. The same strategy will work for the church. Avoid contamination in the first place. But if contamination does occur, fight it off rather than allow it to spread.
Get Plenty of Exercise
One of the questions my doctor always asks me concerns the amount of exercise I get. While physical activity does not guarantee good health, it does make it more likely. The more active I am, the stronger my body will be, and the better prepared to fight off disease from outside. As well as problems that come from within.
A body actively involved in the Lord’s work is also much more likely to be healthy than one that does little. The healthiest churches I know of are those whose calendars are filled with service opportunities. A church that is working, going, and reaching is much more likely to be healthy than one at rest and content.
It is worth pointing out that just being busy will not make a church healthy. In fact, it could be a sign of being unhealthy. What is it that fills the calendar? Providing opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people around us is much healthier for a church than providing many entertainment opportunities that only benefit the body members.
Another primary question my doctor likes to ask concerns my nutrition habits. Am I eating the right things? Do I avoid tobacco, drugs, and alcohol? I used to answer positively to all of these questions until suddenly, my cholesterol became too high. Now I am forced to look more closely at what I eat, avoiding saturated and trans fats and cholesterol. I am painfully discovering that much of what I enjoy eating is not that good for me.
How important is good nutrition in the church’s life, Bible study and preaching? Are we willing to hear what God has to say to us (good nutrition), or do we prefer to listen to what makes us feel good (junk food)? Preaching and Bible study are not guarantees of good health, but hearing and responding to a genuine message from God makes church health much more likely.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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