The following is taken from the book Take Your Church's Pulse by Tim Koster and John Wagenveld with their permission.
God is using the Church to unveil His redemptive purposes in the world, to declare the good news of salvation through Jesus, to communicate redemption, to bring restoration, and to provide a foretaste of the community that works with hope in anticipation of a new heaven and a new earth. The Church is God’s agent.
Viewing the church as the Body of Christ offers us a helpful way to develop an awareness of how the Holy Spirit is at work in a congregation. When someone visits the doctor, the appointment always begins with the collection of certain basic data: pulse, temperature, blood pressure, oxygen levels, weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, etc. Those simple tests offer insight as to what is happening inside the body. If something is wrong, the tests also offer direction as to treatment—or at least the next round of tests.
In the same way, there are 10 simple vital signs that offer insight into the health of a congregation—five commitments and five functions.
The Five Commitments of a Healthy Church
The first five vital signs are key commitments a church should make to create the basic systems underlying the ministry functions they accomplish together as a congregation. These five include a commitment to:
- A clear and inspiring vision
- A mobilizing leadership
- A motivated ministering body
- The proper stewardship of resources
- The integration of the text to the context
A Clear and Inspiring Vision
A vision is a clear mental picture of a preferred future. It is not a pithy slogan or motto on a T-shirt or mug. It is not a generic paragraph fitting every other church in the community. It is not a strategic goal to accomplish in the next 1-2 years. A vision is a congregation’s answer to the question, “What is that preferred future God is leading us into?”
It is found at the intersection of God’s definition of the essence and purpose of the Church as a whole in scripture, the unique gifts God has given your local congregation and unique needs and challenges of the community where He has placed you.
A clear and inspiring vision empowers the church by providing urgency and unity. The church without vision is prone to being shaped primarily by tradition and surrounding culture. It ends up drifting without direction, comfortable and complacent. It has no sense of urgency to carry out the task to which God has called it. A danger of not having a clear vision is that people will fill the vacuum with their own visions. More than one focused vision causes division (divided vision). A clear vision puts every member of the congregation on the same page ready to move together into the future.
A Mobilizing Leadership
Jesus was the Son of God who became flesh. What Jesus did individually, the Church lives out corporately through the complementary gifts of the leaders and the congregation. Jesus models leadership for us. The Holy Spirit anointed and prepared Jesus for ministry. He was motivated by a sense of mission and purpose. With a servant’s heart, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and called them to serve and not to be served (John 13:1-17). He taught with authority and led with humility. He spent hours in prayer speaking and listening to the Father.
While our leadership styles may vary depending on the situation, our character should reflect the character and the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Not only should leaders personally reflect the character of Christ, they should mirror Christ’s concern for the members under their care and mobilizing them to pursue the mission He set before it. They are to keep the church engaged with the world, reaching it as opposed to fighting with it or fleeing from it. They are to motivate and involve the members in the church’s task, seeding mission into every area of ministry.
A Motivated Ministering Body
Too many churches have a high unemployment rate as defined by members sitting in the pews without a job to do. Sometimes it is due to a pastor or key group of leaders who don’t know how to share responsibility. Sometime it surfaces as the “That’s what we pay our staff for” syndrome. Often times a church has grown complacent simply taking care of its own members with the result that ministry opportunities are limited.
It is time for the whole Church to be set free to minister. It is time to mobilize all of God’s people in each local church to serve him with the gifts He has given them. The body of a missionary God is a missionary Church. The principle of the priesthood of all believers, proclaimed in the letter to the Hebrews and restated during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, should be rescued and put into practice. The church is most effective at fulfilling its calling when everyone is working for the same purpose.
Mobilizing leaders create a motivated body when they:
• Help people identify their spiritual gifts.
• Help people identify their passions—God has wired everyone differently.
• Listen to people’s stories and help them trace their history.
• Match people to ministry according to their gifts.
• Work together as a team.
Healthy teams with healthy leaders can go a long way toward forming healthy churches.
The Proper Stewardship of Resources
We are not the owners of anything in God’s Kingdom. God is the creator of heaven and earth and is the rightful owner of the entire cosmos. God has created human beings who carry His image to be stewards over all creation for the glory of God. When we talk about resources, we almost always think about the three “T’s”: the time, talents, and treasure of the church, all of which belong to God.
Time is squandered when members are either uninvolved or left to follow dull routines rather than fully engage. If 100 members of your congregation were willing to give just 4 hours of time per week, imagine what could be accomplished if those 20,000 hours were dedicated towards an inspiring vision. That is also where talents come in because talents are wasted when people are quickly stuffed into the place where the most immediate need lies. When leaders know their people and their talents, they can custom fit them to the tasks that will keep them motivated and fulfilled.
While treasure encompasses more than finances, the church needs financial resources to achieve the vision to which God has called it. The tools of proper financial stewardship include:
• Communicating the vision. Money almost always flows where there is a clear, motivating, and well-communicated vision.
• Providing transparent accounting. It is the leaders’ and the treasurer’s responsibility to give a clear accounting for the income and expenses and to tell how this has contributed to a fuller participation in the mission of God.
• Teaching on tithing and stewardship. It is important for the church’s leadership to lead by example in the matter of giving. It is part of responsible leadership to teach about the blessing of tithing and stewardship.
The Integration of the Text to the Context
Leaders of healthy congregations know Scripture well, they are shaped by it, and they apply biblical principles in their decision making, handling of conflicts, strategic planning, evaluation of worship, and other aspects of church life. They read Scripture together and use it to nurture their life with God and to disciple church members. They study it, meditate on it, and memorize it. Scripture shapes the values of the congregation, and members use it to hold each other accountable.
Knowing Scripture isn’t enough to enable a church to successfully reach its community. The church must also understand its cultural context in a variety of different dimensions: religious, socioeconomic, cultural, geographical, political, etc. This comes from listening to people, building relationships with them, living among them, and learning everything possible from and about them. The goal is to grasp the public worldview: the questions your community asks, the things it values the most, the way it thinks and argues, along with its sources of hope and belief. Understanding how people in a particular culture come to a decision is critical if you hope to lead those in that culture to a commitment to follow Christ.
When not just the pastor but the entire congregation can articulate not just what they believe but how it influences their life in the world in such a way that the world wants to listen, the church is likely to be healthy and community-impacting.
5 Commitments of a Healthy Church
There are five fey functions that are present in every local congregation:
- A compelling witness
- A comprehensive discipleship
- A compassionate service
- A caring and welcoming community
- A dynamic worship and prayer
A Compelling Witness
God is the one who makes things grow. The Bible is clear about this. It is equally clear that the Church is the instrument that God uses to find and enfold the lost. Unfortunately, we tend to give more lip service to our witness than actual practice. Giving voice to our faith requires confidence in God’s desire to use us and a Spirit-generated boldness to push past our timidity.
It begins by building relationships with a variety of individuals with no agenda other than to get to know them and learn how they think and feel and live. What are their aspirations and fears? It encompasses many of the worldview questions addressed with the commitment to integrating Text and Context, but with specific individuals in mind. Listen to them fully until you are able to identify what draws them to the gospel and what pushes them from it. Establish relationships of trust that will earn you the right to be heard, but will also guide you as you help them build new lives when they accept Christ.
All of this is true not just of individuals with a gift for evangelism, but for the congregation as a whole. Do you have a unified strategy for working as a team to introduce your community to Christ? Do you even have a plan for training and encouraging your members to give voice to their faith?
“Disciple” (mathetes in Greek) means one who learns, but more akin to apprentice than student. The disciple follows Jesus and learns from him, but not just with head knowledge. Discipleship requires absorbing behavior, character, attitudes, perspectives—a total worldview. When Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28, He commanded the apostles not only to baptize but also to teach to fully follow Christ’s teachings. They were not to simply dispense doctrine but also instruction in how to live out truths from God’s Word.
As the truths of Scripture become true personally, values begin to shift and assumptions begin to change. Soon behaviors begin to change and consequences are experienced at home, at work, in friendships and in the world at large. The transformation is profound, but it isn’t the product of worship services or Bible studies as much as getting life on life with other believers. Ideally this is not just one-on-one mentoring either but the effect of multiple deep heart-to-heart relationships with other believers. It is a body function not just the task of gifted teachers. One of the indicators that discipleship is operating properly is when those who have been discipled begin to share in the discipling of others.
Often a line is drawn between churches that evangelize and churches that engage in social action. That is not a biblical dichotomy as we are called to both. The early church shared its goods among the faithful and also gave to people in need. This impressed the people living around the church and testified to the strength of Christian love. The internal change Christ had made in their lives showed in external works that changed society. Spiritual transformation carried with it a social and community commitment.
Such service cannot flourish if it doesn’t give voice to the love of Christ that motivates it. But neither can it simply be an evangelistic tool. When we cease to serve out of a primary purpose of love, it not only ceases to be authentic service, it also ceases to be compelling witness because the compassion of Christ that makes it compelling will be absent. It is vital that we serve with no strings attached, leaving the results to the Holy Spirit. When we serve out of a heart of gratitude for what we have received from Christ and a heart of love for those we serve, the Holy Spirit will use our efforts, but at His discretion—sometimes to reach those we serve, sometimes to grow us, and often both at the same time.
Unfortunately, the church has a tendency to default to serving the needs of our own members. One vital question to wrestle with is simply, “If your church were to close, would the surrounding community even notice? Would you be missed?”
A Caring and Welcoming Community
“They devoted themselves... to the fellowship... All the believers were together and had everything in common... Every day they continued to meet together... They broke bread in their home and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:42, 44, 46). The early church understood strength lies in unity. But more than that, people were obeying the prayer of Jesus in which He asked the Father repeatedly to grant unity to the disciples so that the world would believe.
It is impressive to note the enormous difference there is between two Christian meetings, one in which people depart as soon as the service has ended, and another where people look for each other, talk, and share. Churches that grow know how valuable it is for the members to have good relationships where they can practice the love and friendship they share in concrete ways. It is also amazing how, when division exists within the church, God keeps visitors away.
The spiritual gifts of hospitality and evangelism are intimately linked. Unfortunately because we are already on the inside, it is easy to convince ourselves that we are friendlier than we really are. It can often be insightful to follow up with visitors to gain a frank second opinion. Often the newest members make the best greeters because they still remember what it was like to come in the door the first time. A vital question in this area is, “Do the people of your church like each other?” Small groups often benefit from fellowship more than they do discipleship or evangelism.
Dynamic Worship and Prayer
The place that worship occupies among the functions of the church is primary. More than any other function, it focuses our attention on God where it belongs. Around the entire globe, there has been a great reawakening in Christian worship, especially through music. The church needs well-focused worship to experience healthy and balanced growth.
Regrettably, the one activity that should draw all Christians together often creates division. Our styles of worship unleash deep passions reflecting our deep devotion to Christ but often in unhealthy ways. Our patterns of worship are commonly rooted in our cultures, our theological bents, our traditions and even our tastes more than in scripture. The Scriptures contain an immense variety of literary styles. So too our worship services should look to fill and provide, in time, the biggest range of healthy and biblical experiences. They should also reflect our mission to the world, being intelligible to those who visit, without taking the focus from God.
In the same way, our prayer lives, both as individuals and collectively, should be rich and dynamic. Prayer ought not be a simple laundry list of our desires but a meaningful conversation with God where we listen as well as speak. In some ways, prayer is the beginning of all ministry and worship is its chief end. Together, as bookends, they invigorate all the other aspects of holistic ministry. At the same time, we simply accept prayer and worship as gifts from the Lord. His gift to us becomes our task.
To summarize, we have briefly analyzed the ten vital signs of a healthy church. This framework helps us to know what we are aiming toward when we seek to establish a healthy new congregation or revitalize an existing one. To read more, download a free copy of the Take Your Church’s Pulse book by Tim Koster and John Wagenveld at www.takeyourchurchspulse.org. You can also access a free survey to provide to your whole congregation. With the results, we hope you and your congregation engage in Spirit-led conversations on how to become a healthier church.
For free church growth and church planting tools, visit www.multiplicationnetwork.org.