My world as a pastor often involves asking the question: “Is our church healthy?” For other pastors this question may be more nuanced- but I know most churches continue to ask this question in some way shape or form.
For me, when I think about defining a healthy church the Scriptures must be the grid by which I measure spiritual health. My prayer for us as pastors is that we would begin to define church health more from the Bible and less from the church down the street, the latest book, or the latest trend.
How do we measure church health? I want to submit to you that in the Bible we have a picture of a healthy church. It comes from the Church in Antioch. We meet this newly formed church in Acts chapters 11, 13,14, and 15. The church in Antioch was not perfect by any means but a helpful guide for measuring church health in our day.
The reason we can use the church in Antioch, as a good metrics for church health is two-fold:
1. It was one of the few churches that did not have major theological or moral issues (unlike: Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, and Galatia).
2. The church in Antioch can be a model that is transferable to our contexts today because of the similarity between 1st century culture and 21st century culture (growing urban context, multicultural, religious plurality, gap between rich and poor, economic opportunity).
The Antioch church thrived in this diverse setting and saw people, communities, and the entire landscape of its city transformed by the gospel. The same gospel that we preach and live by can still do this kind of transforming work in our world today (Romans 1:16).
Here are principles that made the Antioch church healthy. We can use these principles to measure spiritual health in our churches:
1. The Antioch Church was a “Holy Spirit-Dependent Community”
In our day we rely too heavily on gimmicks, programs, and strategies. Not many books are being written on “Spirit-filled” leadership. Yet, in Antioch we see in Barnabas described as a Spirit-filled leader and full of faith (11:24). We then notice a prophet Agabus, led by the Spirit, warns the community about a future famine. Then we see the Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas for missionary work (Acts 13:1-3) as the church gathered for worship.
Are we living as Spirit-filled leaders? Are we looking for other Spirit-filled leaders? Or do we have different criteria for leadership in the church? Do we expect the Holy Spirit to move among us in these ways today?
2. The Antioch Church was a “Disciple-Making Community”
Every believer and every church is commissioned to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20). According to Jesus the disciple-making process includes evangelism, baptism, and teaching/discipleship. The people in Antioch were new converts and needed a fully orbed understanding of the gospel.
We notice this church being transformed by the teaching of Paul, Barnabas, and others. They spent hours, days, and even a full year teaching these new disciples about the gospel and its implications for their lives (11:26). The fruit of their teaching was planting new churches, sacrificial giving, worship, prayer, fasting, resolving conflict, and understanding the gospel.
Do we have a teaching curriculum that is designed for making disciples of Jesus? Have we defined what a disciple of Jesus looks like biblically? Do we take the teaching ministry of the church seriously?
3. The Antioch Church had “Core Doctrinal Convictions”
The Antioch church was not loose on their theology. They had a robust theology that kept them on mission even amongst misunderstanding. We see in Acts 15 a network of churches coming together to decide if Gentile converts needed to become Jewish before becoming true Christians. They of course decided that it is by grace alone and faith alone that we are saved.
The church in Antioch gets word after the council meets (30-35) and there is great celebration and encouragement. The church knew that now the mission could continue on because their theological differences were worked out.
We don’t have to sell out our theology to be a healthy church. But, we can also disagree on minor details and still be effective and faithful in fulfilling the Great Commission. It is vital that leaders and churches agree on their doctrinal convictions so when disagreement arises there can be prayerful, Spirit-led, Christ-honoring solutions. Just like Antioch was able to do.
Have our churches decided what are top tier theological issues, middle tier, and lower tier issues? In other words, "what are we willing to die for?" and "what are we willing to have coffee over?"
How could you use these principles to measure your churches health? What other biblical principles could we add to measure church health?