Over the last several years, I have been concerned about the overall health of the American church. This is not only because I want a church that I have the opportunity to be a part of to do well but also because of statistics that show that church attendance and the percentage of people that claim to be Christians is declining.
This is resulting in churches closing and even denominations folding. This concern has put me on somewhat of a quest to try to figure out what a “healthy” church actually is.
What I have noticed is that every church that I have been part of (since I became involved in the church in my adolescent years) would probably consider itself as healthy (or at least healthy enough).
But each of those churches had different cultures, environments, worship styles, leadership structures, decision-making policies, discipleship strategies, and doctrinal emphases.
Some of those churches were growing, some were stagnant, and others shriveled up. Surely, every one of those churches could not be equally healthy, could they?
So, What Is a Healthy Church Anyway?
In the dictionary, the definition of the adjective “healthy” includes phrases such as free from disease, beneficial, well-being, prosperous, flourishing, and not small or feeble.
I have also heard many times that “healthy things grow.” While these definitions are helpful in understanding the word in general, how do we apply them to a church?
I asked my small group this question recently (as we were studying through 1 Corinthians 11), and their response was that a healthy church has an active membership, unified leadership, biblical values, connectedness and community, a good reputation, and is centered on Christ.
In addition, I looked at several reputable resources online and on my bookshelf and discovered that I was not the only one asking this question.
One writer for NAMB (that has studied this topic quite a bit) wrote that a healthy church must have the “trifecta” of Bible preaching, relationships, and vision.
The Center for Healthy Churches gives a similarly simplistic definition for a healthy church: “a community of Jesus followers with a shared vision, thriving ministry, and trusted leadership.”
Another man that studies churches for a living, Thom Rainer, said that (among many things) healthy churches lead their congregations to read the Bible daily and be part of a healthy small group. While that might seem overly simplistic, there is much truth to it (especially because much of his research is on why churches decline or die).
Mark Dever gives the good news that a healthy church “is not a church that’s perfect and without sin. It has not figured everything out.”
However, he also explains that it “continually strives to take God’s side in the battle against the ungodly desires and deceits of the world, our flesh, and the devil. It’s a church that continually seeks to conform itself to God’s Word… [It is] a congregation that increasingly reflects God’s character as his character has been revealed in his Word.”
Dever is actually so committed to researching and teaching about church healthiness that he and his team came up with 9 “marks” of a healthy Church that include guidelines regarding preaching, salvation, evangelism, membership, church discipline, leadership, and more.
The International Mission Board surpassed Dever’s nine marks with their own 12 characteristics of healthy churches that included most of the same “marks” as well as worship, ordinances, and giving.
Lastly, one of the most popular understandings of a healthy church came from the best-selling book titled Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren.
To him, a healthy (or “purpose-driven”) church grows warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, stronger through worship, broader through ministry, and larger through evangelism. Despite the controversy that some people have with Warren or his book, that description seems pretty solid.
So, as I think back through my 30 years of experience being in the church (with 20 of those being in some sort of leadership), and as I consider all the resources I have found, I see a healthy church as being oriented in four “directions”: up, in, out, and ahead.
If a church stops striving in any of these directions, it begins to lose its healthiness in that area, which begins to affect the other areas as well.
1. A Healthy Church Is Oriented Up
To be oriented “up” means that a church’s worship is Christ-centered and biblical. It begins with salvation, continues daily as we “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), and culminates in heaven and eternity. Our worship celebrates through music and art who Christ is and what he has done. As we worship, we are inspired and moved by the Holy Spirit’ presence.
Since the Church is a bunch of “little churches” (or “temples” according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19) coming together for worship, then the spiritual state of the individual Christians is critical.
That is why Jesus said that our worship must be in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) — which means that the position of the heart and mind is focused on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any other focus will not produce correct worship.
To be oriented up also means that we read, study, teach, and apply God’s Word in as many ways as we can and to every generation. We preach salvation through Christ alone and believe that true transformation happens over time as the Holy Spirit works through expositional teaching and study of God’s Word.
A healthy church knows that preaching only the parts of Scripture that we like (and that we typically take out of context) will result in malnourished, immature believers or (at worst) false converts.
A healthy church also prays together and for each other, recognizing that God desires for us to have a reciprocal relationship with him.
Our worship, prayer, and teaching come together in a tangible way with our ordinances — primarily baptism and communion.
2. A Healthy Church Is Oriented In
An inward orientation is about the fellowship or “community” of a church. True, biblical community comes from our love for God and for each other.
We recognize that we cannot live life on our own, so we band together and strive to live out the “one anothers” in the New Testament: love one another (John 13:4), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32), encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24), and submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).
This is rare because it requires humility, consistency, and vulnerability from everyone, not just one or two people who are paid or positioned to care for everyone else.
The healthy church’s standard of community is found in the prototype of the Church in the Book of Acts. Good fellowship might be initiated in the “big group” or worship service, but it is lived out in all kinds of “small groups” throughout the week in homes and public places. This type of fellowship is what Jesus said would show the world that we are his disciples (John 13:35).
A healthy church also does not rely on chance or accident for discipleship and community development. Instead, they are strategic and systematic in their approach to welcoming new people and getting them oriented and acclimated into the church family while also caring for the people already in their church family.
3. A Healthy Church Is Oriented Out
The best word for an outward orientation is ministry. God created every Christian to do good works, and he has called us to use our time, talents, and resources to bless and serve others in love (Galatians 5:13).
Ministry is not the privilege of some but the responsibility of all. It is never about title or position (although depending on our gifts, we may have a title or position) but about serving others.
The cry of the minister is, “someone’s got to do it; it might as well be me.” When a church is full of people with hearts of service, then the church will have an outward orientation.
Of course, the main ministry of the church is to preach the gospel to all people (Ephesians 3:10). That does not mean that we will not have other functions and activities (and some of those activities will not even seem spiritual at all, which is fine), it just means that everything we do has the ultimate purpose of preaching and teaching the gospel and leading others to Jesus.
A healthy church never sees its team roster as full but instead is regularly praying that God will send more laborers and servants to work the harvest (just as Jesus said to pray in Matthew 9:35-38 and Luke 10:2).
A healthy church leadership does not care who gets the credit for the ministry that is done because they recognize that Jesus is the only name that really matters.
4. A Healthy Church Is Oriented Ahead
The last orientation of a healthy church is ahead. This means that everyone from the leadership to the greeter and door-holder shares the same vision to do as Jesus said and “go… make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). And outward-oriented never feels like they have “arrived” even when goals are met, and dreams are realized.
They recognize that they are never “home” on this earth. Their heart beats with evangelism, their hands are always reaching out, and their feet are ready to go wherever God leads them.
They desire more than addition — they desire for multiplication through evangelism, disciple-making, missionary work, starting more small groups, and eventually church planting until Jesus returns to take his Church to him (1 Thessalonians 4).
A church that is moving ahead keeps its mission and vision in front of them at all times by communicating with them regularly, celebrating any advancements in them, teaching them periodically (especially to new members), allocating funds to reach them, and supporting ministries that help accomplish them.
They may not have a permanent facility, charismatic leader, much money or resources, robust ministry catalog, large congregation, or deep staff. But what they do have is energy and focus for the mission.
A church that is healthy in this regard highly values strong leadership at all levels as part of (not separate from) the church body. They structure their leadership for quick decision-making, strong accountability, and to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12).
Even more, they understand that Jesus is the true head and Great Shepherd of the flock, and they recognize that apart from Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, they and the church can accomplish nothing.
A healthy church is never complacent with what they have but is constantly working at developing more biblically qualified leaders to accomplish even more for the kingdom of God.
Moving Forward as a Healthy Church
Everywhere we live (from the world down to our own cities and towns) are becoming more secular-minded, immoral, and anti-Christian. As the world’s population grows larger, churches are declining, and some are closing.
But just starting more churches is not the answer; we need more healthy churches. We need more people willing to go from being just a disciple to a disciple-maker, from being a church member to a church planter, and from being a church consumer to a church giver.
And as we do, I believe that God can do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
And the end result of a healthy church is that Jesus will offer her to himself “in splendor” (Ephesians 5:27) because a healthy church glorifies God.