A slightly different version of this article was first written for Sustaining Pastoral Excellence and was published in Christian Courier.
After a lively debate in June, 2004 the Christian Reformed Church Synod approved a denominational priority for the next years: to maintain or develop healthy local congregations. What’s to debate? Isn’t it a given that congregations be healthy? The issues are complex and crucial. At stake is not merely survival of local congregations, but also the direction of the CRCNA in the 21st century.
Will we keep sliding into ever more loosely affiliated congregations, but with a shrinking identity as a community of Reformed Christians? Will we ignore mission to the broader community and world? Or will we discover new forms of body life that witness to Christ’s saving power in expanding rings of family, congregation, community, region, nation and world? Will we try to do this on our own? Or will we team up with compatible congregations, crossing denominational lines, forming new associations and networks?
Sources for Healthy Churches
Healthy congregations need not remain vague dreams for all but a few charismatic leaders. The first apostles were not super-preachers, yet the early church reached outward faithfully, creatively and winsomely with the message of salvation. Those congregations struggled with a hostile culture. Today healthy churches’ long-time members will grow in the faith and knowledge of Christ via outreach and cultural engagement.
Many books discuss healthy congregational development. Three of the last decade’s best are Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development; Waldo Werning, 12 Pillars of a Healthy Church; and Peter Steinke, Healthy Congregations. All three describe qualities to help leaders focus on specific areas of healthy church life. They also lean heavily on the book of Acts. It is the best and basic source for healthy congregations to find principles and examples to adapt and apply to their situations and times.
Acts gives us several “musts” of church health: biblical preaching, diaconal outreach, God-centered leaders, establishing new congregations and more. Yet developing healthy congregations is never a mechanical, cookie-cutter exercise. Until Jesus returns we can use Acts as an organic blueprint to build churches that fit people and respond to culture.
Healthy churches follow the outward spiralling map Jesus gives us in Acts 1:8–“in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They never stay right where they are born physically, spiritually or intellectually. They engage other cultures and areas, never under their own steam, but with the Holy Spirit leading. The first local church started with eleven scared men. As he promised, God did not leave them alone, but sent the Spirit with power, sanctifying human abilities to speak, teach, heal.
The rest of this article will be more a teaser than a treatise. I’ll sketch two characteristics of healthy congregations that, though less obvious than those mentioned above, are nevertheless crucial both for keeping members healthy and strong and also for heading outwards, not becoming complacent and isolated.
Along the way healthy congregations face fear and uncertainty, trouble from within. Ananias and Sapphira, and Simon the Magician brought lying, deceit and corruption to the early church. Yet the pattern of accountability set by Peter (Acts 5:3 ff and 8:20 ff) shows that sin can be challenged and accounted for–though not always with the fatal results of Ananias and Sapphira. Sadly, saints who are also forgiven sinners today will and do harm each other. Yet they must hold each other accountable, setting and maintaining ethical boundaries.
This is nothing other than church discipline, which the Heidelberg Catechism calls one of the “keys of the kingdom” (Q&A 83). Some have complained that CRCs no longer practice discipline. Perhaps not often in the formal sense of three steps, with forms read and people excommunicated who haven’t shown up in years. That’s not living discipline; that’s traditionalist futility.
Yet people are forgiven and renewed, and a community grows if believers lay their sins deliberately at the foot of the cross. Serious, meaningful relationships among members will nurture mutual pastoral care and responsibility. Small groups can provide such a venue. So can more traditional settings. Sensitive and flexible deacon and elder teams can get to know people in their districts. They are not just names to be visited, but God’s people with whom to eat and play, worship and weep.
I have seen such discipline take shape movingly when a woman described her experience of salvation after suffering sexual abuse. Her honest story delivered in a safe public forum, encouraged several others to disclose privately their own sufferings and sins in order to seek reconciliation with God and others. Such hard steps contributed to the health of the individuals, the fellowship groups and the congregation in which they took part. The church grew in spirit and number.
The last crucial characteristic of a healthy church I will touch is that of promoting justice. This often ignored, even feared, trait of a healthy church too has roots in Scripture and the church.
Governing authorities opposed the early church because Christ’s claim to “all authority” threatened their power (Matthew 28:18). Yet Christians who stoutly viewed themselves as loyal, albeit sometimes critical, citizens found traction on the slippery roads of Roman society. Twice in Acts Paul claims his birthright of Roman citizenship when unjustly arrested (16:35 ff. and 22:25 ff.).
Far from being selfish ploys, Pauls claims as a loyal citizen recognize the duties of governments and officials to their subjects. As Paul himself later writea in Romans 13, governments are responsible to provide citizens a climate of safety and well-being. If Christian individuals and communities fail to hold governments accountable or to encourage them when they do good, they are not solid citizens of the lands where God places them. That is part of giving God and Caesar their due, as Jesus says in Matthew 22:21. Christians owe limited respect to governments—even totalitarian ones.
Even where Christians do not at first promote justice, health can bloom from sickness. Take Onesimus, a runaway slave from Philemon, the host of a house church. Where is Philemon’s sense of justice? Where is runaway Onesimus’s respect for his master? Such is the ethical conflict in which Christians can become tangled because we are, willy-nilly, part of complex societal systems. Yet Paul does not uncritically accept Roman slavery. He urges Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother—not as economic property.
The congregation meeting in Philemon’s home was doubtless healthier after Onesimus became a brother than when he was a slave. Possibly not everyone recognized or liked the new situation. Still, to stay healthy the young church had to stretch with new counter-cultural exercise of justice–or it would have died.
And today? Many congregations have developed programs to host refugees, feed and sometimes house homeless people. Some have complained about “undeserving poor” or even “those foreigners.” Such people forget that not only are we all sojourners; many were refugees and immigrants two generations ago.
Often in the course of such programs congregations must deal with unjust or inconsistently applied government policies. Take the situation of Benjamin Osei, youth pastor with several churches in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. Before and after his deportation early in 2004, churches across Canada communicated diligently with high immigration officials, finally gaining promises of cooperation. He returned to Canada with his family a year later and continues his ecumenical community work.
Such principled and persistent work will not merely win a hearing from the greater society for churches working in the name of Christ. The congregations will grow healthier, stretching to a society that needs to see them. Also, in doing good to the least of Jesus’ brothers, they mysteriously do good to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). Or, as Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, angels will find hospitality without our knowing it. What could be more delightful and healthy than serving angels food?