Characteristics of a Healthy Church

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From the Report to Synod Ministries Priorities Committee Report Phase III

We offer the following characteristics of healthy churches that are seen in the biblical history of God’s people. Healthy churches:

-- Proclaim God’s Word with power and integrity.
-- Assemble for worship in joyful awe.
-- Receive the gospel promises in the sacraments.
-- Nurture and teach members for discipleship
-- Center congregational life in prayer.
-- Commit to evangelistic growth and church planting both locally and globally
-- Promote genuine loving fellowship.
-- Advocate justice for the poor and powerless.
-- Encourage servant leadership.
-- Practice mutual accountability

A. Proclaim God’s Word with power and integrity
Biblically-based teaching and preaching is clearly central to being a healthy congregation. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 identifies scripture as “God breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness so the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” While there are many ways to present these biblical truths to the world, preaching and teaching are still at the forefront. The salvation of the world depends on Holy Spirit-filled, life-changing preaching. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14 NIV).

Preaching and teaching are primary modes of communication throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Matthew records Jesus teaching in Matthew 5 in what has become known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus ability to preach and teach amazed his audiences. At one point in his ministry, the crowds responded to his teaching by noting, “he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:29). When Jesus preached, he did so in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah brought both a message of repentance and a message of hope to Israel, promising that despite their constant rebellion and disobedience God would send a redeemer. Jesus echoed Ezekiel (Ezek. 34:5-6) in his condemnation of religious leaders who do not lead and guide God’s flock in the truth of His word. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

The apostles continued proclaiming the gospel of the risen and ascended Lord. The book of Acts contains several examples of apostolic preaching, and the epistles further deepen its message. The first four centuries of the church’s history give us many examples of biblically and theologically sound preaching from Athanasius to Clement, from Chrysostom to Augustine. In the following centuries, however, preaching seemed to lose its prominent position and ordinary people often never had an opportunity to hear it.

The Reformers of the 16th century led the church back to its earlier emphasis on preaching God’s word. The authors of the Belgic Confession remind us that the true church “engages in the pure preaching of the gospel” (Art. 29). At the same time, the invention of the printing press made the Bible available to more people, making it possible for God’s Word to regain prominence in the life of local churches.

The church in 21st Century North American culture must be careful to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Healthy churches stay focused on God’s word and teach the truth of God’s grace and judgment to an idolatrous, self-centered culture. The kingdom of God can only be understood in the light of the Bible. When churches fail to focus on the truths of scripture, decline and decay eat away at their effectiveness to be salt and light. As citizens of the kingdom, God calls us to be counter-cultural. Jesus constantly reminds us that we are different from the world. When the church fails to teach and preach these differences, it fails to bring people to repentance and conversion. Hope for the future of the church profoundly depends on her depth of understanding and willingness to proclaim the Word of God.

B. Assemble before the Lord for worship in joyful awe
The New Testament word for church (ecclesia) is the word used in the Greek version of the Old Testament for Israel’s great assemblies before the Lord such as described in Exodus 19 and Ezra 9, 10. Worship describes the event of covenant renewal as God’s people meet before his face. It is dialogical in character in that the congregation engages in a holy conversation with God by listening to God’s Word and responding with praise and dedication. It often leads to an experience of joy or lament, depending on the circumstances of the encounter.

In an age when worship has sometimes become a commodity used to market the church the true worship of God can get lost in the desire to meet the felt needs of the worshippers—to merely inspire rather than encounter the living God. The focus can easily slip away from God-centered worship to audience-pleasing activities. We are engaged in a conversation that begins with God rather than us. The issue is not whether a church worships in a more traditional mode or uses more contemporary instruments and media. Either can run the danger of being human-centered rather than God-centered.
Christian worship is also profoundly Trinitarian in character. We can say that our worship is offered to the Father, through the Son in the Holy Spirit. It is through Christ that we have access to the Father by the one Spirit (Eph. 2:18). Paul speaks of Christ as the one who prays for us at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:34). Only the Holy Spirit enables us to know God as Father (Gal. 4:6), and confess Jesus Christ as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3).

Since it is the Holy Spirit in our midst who unites us to the Father and the Son, is also the Holy Spirit who inspires and directs our worship. The active presence of the Holy Spirit determines the life and vitality of worship, not human choices of songs, instruments, or other media. When people only attend out of a sense of Christian duty, rather than out of a desire to stand in the presence of God, true worship cannot result. Healthy congregations are inspired and inspire others to worship God in Spirit and in truth.

Spirit-filled worship points the church toward the true destiny of all creation as envisioned in the Revelation of John to gather before the throne of God and of the Lamb and be “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

C. Receive the gospel promises in the sacraments
In Acts, baptism and the “breaking of bread” were always powerfully present as the church proclaimed the gospel and worshipped. The worship of the church is sacramental. That is, certain elements from the stuff of creation make God and his saving work present to us in worship in ways that go beyond the spoken or written word. Calvin emphasized that, in sacramental worship, God stoops to human weakness. When Christians eat and drink at the Lord's Table, and when they pour the baptismal water, God bends to human senses in order to make his salvation present and real, and to confirm the promises of his word.

Our confessions (Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Days 25-30 and Belgic Confession Articles 33-35) clearly call us to an understanding of the sacraments as both sign and seal. For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to deceive us deceive us. For their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing. (Belgic Confession. Article 33)

What is enacted and sealed in the sacraments is union with Christ in his dying and rising, and all the benefits of union with Christ. Christians receive these benefits by faith and through the Holy Spirit. In the Reformed tradition, sacraments are not mere ordinances—something Christ told his people to do—but the powerful means through which God works his grace in human hearts through faith. In other words, worshipers do not give meaning to the sacraments by their thoughtful faith; rather, God works directly through the sacraments and faith receives what God has to give in them.

Reformed Christians must always view the sacraments as powerful material ways in which God affirms and deepens our faith. Joyfully celebrated and properly understood, they will ground and revitalize Christian worship in our churches.

D. Nurture and teach members for discipleship
Jesus commands the church to make disciples by “baptizing . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). In dependence on the Holy Spirit, healthy churches seek to form disciples of Jesus Christ by teaching and training them to serve him in every area of life in God’s world and God’s Kingdom. In ways that address minds, hearts, and hands, they endeavor to tell the great drama of God and his salvation, from creation to new creation, from fall to redemption in Jesus Christ.

This teaching is anchored in the wonderful gift of divine revelation, the holy Scriptures, and utilizes the riches of the whole Christian tradition, especially its creeds and confessions. The goal of the church’s teaching is not mere knowledge, but an obedient life in which members of Christ’s body eagerly seek to live by the shape of God’s kingdom, and develop and exercise the manifold gifts of the Spirit in the church and in the world.

Teaching and learning begins as soon as the baptismal waters draw people into union with Christ and continue till we see Christ in his glory and beyond. Healthy churches, in concert with the home and Christian day schools, take great care to provide for the Christian education of their youth whom God has claimed in the covenant of baptism and the church has promised to nurture in faith so that the light of Christ may shine from generation to generation. But they must also enable and encourage all their members, from new converts to third term elders, to grow in into the likeness of Christ so that they may love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves.

E. Center congregational life in prayer
It is clear from the early chapters of Acts that the early church was devoted to prayer, and that Luke wants us to see that prayer was a key to its growth and vitality. Healthy churches are praying churches. The prayer life of these churches is not limited to corporate prayer, as important as that is for the church. In addition to organized group prayer, members of healthy churches are passionate about prayer, both within the church and in their personal lives. These people characterize prayer as central to their life in Christ. Such enthusiasm about prayer has been demonstrated to raise the level of passionate spirituality within a local congregation. Christian Swartz identifies this passionate spirituality as one of the eight essential qualities of healthy churches.

Healthy churches teach and practice prayer. A vital prayer life does not just happen, it is modeled and taught. When people gifted in prayer lead prayer in worship, congregations learn the shape of true prayer. When members tell the stories of prayers answered in direct and powerful ways, the congregation is encouraged to be faithful in prayer. When people gifted in prayer teach the wide scope of the practice of prayer people are enabled to find their own distinctive style and method. When congregations bathe every ministry, meeting, and activity in prayer, its people learn that results of the Spirit’s work in the church depends on prayerfulness.

What the Heidelberg Catechism says about prayer is true for individuals and congregations alike: ”[P]rayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us. And also God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking him for them” (H.C. Q. and A. 116).

F. Promote genuine loving fellowship
In the hours before his death, Jesus offered a prayer in which he expressed his desire for a unified body of believers. He asked his Father, “I am in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that they you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). Evidence of such unity is most clearly demonstrated in genuine loving fellowship within the body of Christ, his church. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:1).

Healthy churches work hard to “maintain the unity of the faith in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). While they are places where discussion and even debates can sharpen and build up, they do so without bitterness or rancor. Members lead lives of service and concern for others. Their primary desire is for the well-being of the body, not for their own needs. These churches spend less time talking about love and more time loving. People desire to share in the life of a community of Christians who live in a world of grace and forgiveness where loving fellowship is not merely an emotion experienced for the moment but is a way of life, a fruit of the Spirit. It is exemplified in churches where the full fruit of the Spirit is clearly evident in the practices of the members. Laughter and excitement fill the air. Small groups study and pray together, sharing their joys and sorrows. People show care in genuine acts of kindness, support, and sharing. In providing such care, the church must be sensitive to the social, psychological, and spiritual distress that impairments, limited health, and abuse often bring, and be willing to walk with those so affected, relieving needs, recognizing gifts, and sharing pain.

Loving fellowship also demands a steady commitment to be inclusive of others, across barriers of race, gender, social status, and level of knowledge of and commitment to the faith. Those seeking entrance into the fellowship quickly pick up on the subtle signals of exclusivity (cliques, dress “codes,” language, and “in jokes”). Genuine openness to those different from ourselves involves constant watchfulness and a readiness to critique the barriers that may subtly form.

G. Commit to evangelistic growth and church planting both locally and globally
No church can ignore Christ’s final command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). A healthy church gives the highest priority to proclaiming the good news to the unchurched, gathers them into its fellowship, and disciples them the truth of God’s Word.

By God’s grace, a healthy church can expect to grow in numbers as well as spiritual vitality. The Christian church is fruit producing organism. The Bible is clear that Christ is the vine and we are the branches; our purpose and task are to produce fruit. In one parable, Jesus spoke of the crop returning 30, 60, and even 100 fold (Matt. 13:23). When the master gave his servants talents, he expected his money would grow and he condemned the servant who failed to make that happen.

In recording the story of the apostle’s first proclamation Luke tells us, “and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). Later in Acts 2:47, he writes, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Numerical growth was not an occasional event; it was a daily occurrence in the early church. All of Acts is the story of how the gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the world. Even in times of great persecution, the church grew.

Yet, church growth is not a triumphal march. It requires slogging through tough human hearts, burrowing into stubborn anti-God cultures, applauding obedience to God, showing gratitude for goodness developed in the face of opposition, mourning sadness, and rejoicing in beauty, grace, and mercy.

When people come to know Christ in the context of local congregations, the whole community sees more clearly the transforming power of Christ in people’s lives. New Christians, in turn, bring them into contact with others among their friends and relatives who need salvation, and often become the most passionate advocates for evangelism in the congregation.

Evangelistic growth often happens even more rapidly when congregations eagerly plant new churches in their communities or areas. Healthy congregations may choose to send some of their most valuable and vital members to participate in planting another church.

Healthy local congregations look beyond themselves by sharing in God’s desire to gather his people from every tribe and nation. God’s covenant has always had the whole world in its embrace. God promised Abraham, “in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). In Acts, Jesus sends his disciples to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Paul and the other apostles responded to that promise by traveling from city to city throughout the Roman Empire proclaiming the gospel and planting churches.

When congregations share in this global perspective, they realize that they participate in what God is doing in the whole world. By sending missionaries, whether through denominational agencies or as local churches through short-term mission projects, they regularly hear stories of God’s power to save, and participate in life of the Kingdom of God that knows no boundaries of race or nation.

H. Advocate justice for the poor and powerless
From the laws given by God, to the trumpet call of the prophets, to the Jubilee announcement of Jesus at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21), the Bible clearly sets forth God’s passion for justice and his concern for the poor. While it is often difficult in our politically polarized culture, one of the signs of congregational health is its commitment to proclaim the message of justice and live it out in its ministry to the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, refugees, and those living with disabilities.

In Acts, the newborn church enacted the God’s call for justice by voluntarily sharing their goods to provide fairly for all (Acts 3:32). When needs became apparent, as in Acts 6, the apostles called on deacons to make sure that the poor in their midst were cared for. Throughout its history the church has shone its true biblical grounding wherever it advocated for justice. In the battle against slavery here and in England, and in the struggle for civil rights, the church has been at the forefront.

Healthy congregations will regularly hear God’s call for justice from their pulpits. They will seek to care for the poor among them, in their communities, and, through denominational agencies such as CRWRC, in the world. They unite with other congregations to advocate their local and national governments to enact policies that promote social justice, the fair distribution of goods, and care for the environment. They will also seek to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of God’s Kingdom in the face of their congregations.

I. Encourage Christ-like leadership
Healthy churches are led by leaders who exemplify in their own lives the characteristics of the Good Shepherd. The very language of the church reflects awareness that leaders are shepherds first. Other expectations are secondary to leading and caring for the “flock.” Speaking of himself, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15 NIV). Churches can be healthy only when men and women who follow this biblical pattern of leadership lead them. Servant leaders know their congregations intimately and their congregations know and trust them. A true shepherd leader must love the people and be prepared to give their life for those people.

A good local church leader is one who walks among the people, providing for their spiritual health and wellbeing. But leaders also help to develop a congregational vision and keep it before the community. Shepherd leaders neither drive their flock from behind, nor run so far ahead that the sheep can no longer follow. Rather, good servant leaders walk with and among their congregations through both good and bad times. They know their congregations and love them. These leaders provide green pastures, assuring that their congregations are well fed and healthy. In times of struggle and pain, these leaders provide the comfort and care necessary for healing. In times of comfort and ease they know how to prophetically inspire the congregation with a fuller vision.

At the heart of a servant leader is a desire to have the attitude of Christ as explained by Paul to the church of Philippi. Paul reminds leaders that they must have an attitude of humility making themselves nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. True servant leaders do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but rather consider others better than themselves (Phil. 2:3-6). At the same time, the Bible calls congregation members to respect and honor those who serve them in leadership (1 Tim. 5:17), and to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account” (Heb. 13:17).

Healthy congregations intentionally identify, raise up, and train new leaders. They continue to disciple existing leaders and hold them accountable for their spiritual walk with their Lord. Only those who themselves are continually shepherded and served can sustain their important calling to shepherd and serve others.

J. Practice mutual accountability
The reformers recognized church discipline as one of the defining marks of the true church. It is too often misunderstood as a top down action rather than a normal characteristic of the life of a healthy church community. Rightly understood, church discipline is the mutual accountability of the members of the Body of Christ (see Church Order Articles 78 and 79). The primary texts (Matt. 18:15-20 and Gal. 6:1-5) begin with one-to-one relationships in which members of the body honestly, humbly, and lovingly speak and listen to each other about perceived faults and sins. Healthy churches foster the kind of atmosphere in which “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) becomes the normal way in which Christians help one another when in danger of wandering from the path of true discipleship. “Church discipline” therefore must be woven into the very fabric of the life of a healthy church community.

There may come times when, as Jesus and Paul affirm, the matter needs to be taken to the next level of accountability, that is, to another trusted person, and finally to the “church,” which we take to mean its official leadership. Nevertheless, the goal is always to keep the matter “covered” as much as possible, for “love covers a multitude of sins. . . .” (1 Peter 4:8), and to restore the one who errs with humility and patience on the part of all (Gal. 6:1-5).

It will take patience and practice for church to attain and retain a healthy atmosphere of mutual accountability in a world that loves gossip on the one hand and says “it’s none of your business” on the other. Practices of honesty in prayer and open confession of sin and forbearance among leaders, as well as strong, well-led small groups will foster greater health in this vital area. When the whole church community sees itself as a hospital for sinners, there is less and less need to hide from each other. When we all admit our absolute dependence on the grace of God in Jesus Christ, then mutual accountability will permeate the life of the body promoting healing and health.  

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