The conversations tend to go like this: “I like my church. My pastor preaches the Word. There are some wonderful people in the church. But something is wrong. There’s no life together. People don’t seem to really care for each other. Conversations are superficial. I’m not sure that people even know one another in our church.”
Have you had those conversations? Maybe you have even said the same thing to someone out of concern for your church. That seems to be a good starting point for doing some thinking about what it means to have a healthy church.
Many of you reading this post have found help in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Dever identifies nine essential characteristics of healthy churches: expositional preaching, biblical theology, biblical understanding of conversion, biblical understanding of evangelism, biblical understanding of church membership, biblical church discipline, concern for discipleship and growth, and biblical church leadership. While we might add to that list, e.g. biblical understanding of mission, we would not subtract anything from that list to characterize healthy churches.
Yet how does a church get out of the starting block toward a healthy condition? Obviously, it starts with expositional preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit. It would be impossible to institute biblical church membership or biblical church discipline or biblical church leadership without first laying a solid foundation in the church’s understanding through expositional preaching. Otherwise, any attempt to do so will result in either a church split or a short pastorate.
But here is where I want to offer one thought to consider in the process toward establishing a healthy church. Teach and preach about the nature of the church. I know that seems obvious, or should, but it appears to be presumed by pastors and leaders. We can think that a church surely knows what it is as the people of God, the pillar and support of the truth, the body of Christ, the temple of God corporately indwelled by the Spirit, et al. We can presume that one who consciously joins a church at least understands what the church is.
However, may I suggest that we delete that presumption from our memory banks? Over and over in conversations with both members and leaders from one church to another, I’m brought to the stark reality. Church members, as a rule, do not understand what the church is. They do not understand the price of its existence through the bloody death of Christ. They do not grasp its corporate standing before God and corporate functioning as the people of God in community with one another. They do not see that they have responsibility for one another to love, exhort, serve, forgive, be kind to, encourage, bear burdens, and accept. They fail to see that the church is the focus of the redemptive work of Christ rather than merely the individual. They are more influenced by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in their thinking than Jesus, John, and Paul. They think individually rather than as a family of believers in covenant with one another to live out the gospel.
So, in the journey toward church health, please don’t neglect intensive teaching, preaching, and training in what the church is. That understanding and practice won’t happen overnight or in a year or two, in all likelihood. It takes much patience to set forth that essential foundation for church health. And it must be constantly repeated, rehearsed, and gloried in. It cannot be programmed into existence. As a matter of fact, understanding the nature of the church takes the work of the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of a congregation to understand the clear teaching of Holy Scripture.
But our gracious God kindly opens eyes and transforms understanding about the church. Let’s be faithful, not presumptuous, in laying the foundation for the church to know what it is in Christ.