What Does A Spiritually Healthy Church Look Like? [Part 3]

My desire is to pastor a “healthy church”. Sadly, as I noted in Part 1 & Part 2 of this post, we see more and more examples of spiritually unhealthy churches in the evangelical world. To help me stay properly focused on God’s purposes, here is my attempt to lay out the principles and guidelines that can help a local church become a place of spiritual health.

Note: I considered listing the Bible verses that serve as the foundation for each of the following points, but ultimately decided this was unnecessary. I believe these principles will make sense to anyone who is reasonably familiar with Scripture.

1. A healthy churchy is not perfect, because it is comprised of broken people; recovering sinners who together are striving to learn how to live together as a community in Christ. We will strive to work out our issues and resolve our conflicts through an over-riding commitment to prayer, to biblical truth, and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

2. The church will make every effort to connect with the culture, but we will not let the culture define us. Nor will we use cultural trends as the yardstick to evaluate our ministry. We will define ourselves biblically, then ask God to help us find culturally meaningful ways to communicate the good news about Jesus.

3. We will affirm the biblical truth that “spiritually healthy people produce spiritual fruit”. We will strive to live in faithfulness to biblical principles…and we will trust the Lord to produce such fruit from our efforts as He sees fit.

4. Pastors and leaders will not make plans for the church and then ask God to bless our plans. Instead, we will approach God humbly in prayer and ask Him to set the agenda for His church. In other words, we will not view our primary role as one of “holding meetings” and “making plans”. Our role is to intercede for, and on behalf of, the church.

5. We will plan worship services to be as participatory as possible so believers can use their spiritual gifts. We will strive for excellence, but we will not turn the service into a production. All of the elements – vocal music, instrumental music, prayer, communion, offering, preaching, and even announcements – will be viewed as an act of corporate worship to the Lord.

6. Preaching will largely be “text-based”, with message topics and themes derived from the Scriptures. In other words, we will preach from the text and through the text, letting God’s Spirit and God’s Truth drive the preaching agenda. Whenever I preach and teach, I will prayerfully open God’s Word, determine the main point of a Bible passage, make that the main point of a sermon, and then – with God’s help – apply that eternal truth to modern life.

7. The goal of our biblical proclamation will be: to reach lost people with the gospel, and to help believers become more like Jesus in thought, word, deed, and character. Therefore, we will promote an ever-deeper relationship with God through His Word, to allow the Spirit to continually transform us from the inside out.

8. We will welcome visitors and strive to do all within our power to make them comfortable… without watering down the difficult message of the Cross. We will be a safe place for spiritual seekers to ask questions and wrestle with spiritual truth. We will provide regular opportunities for seekers to choose to follow Christ, and we will do so by fully explaining the gospel message:

• We are separated from God by sin.
• Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, so that we could receive God’s forgiveness.
• When we confess our sins, and repent of our sins, then God will choose to extend His mercy to us.
• To respond to the Father’s great love, we must choose to be baptized and demonstrate our desire to live a new life in relationship with Jesus Christ.

9. We will place a high value on “membership”, and we will ask members to commit themselves to live together as a covenant community. Members will be expected to give of their time, their talent, and their tithes. When conflicts and disagreements occur (as, of course, they will) members will be expected to engage in biblical principles of reconciliation. And the church will, when necessary, practice loving discipline to help members grow in godly character.

10. Church members do not exist to serve the pastors; the role of the pastors is to serve the members. We will do this primarily through (a) pastoral care of the members and (b) by developing people to use their gifts, so they can find their place and fulfill their purpose in the Kingdom of God. In other words, we will focus on actually equipping people for ministry…not just recruiting workers to staff the programs.

11. People who are called by God to serve as church leaders - whether paid or volunteer - will be interviewed and evaluated before they are placed in positions of authority. And while they serve, they must be willing to submit to ongoing evaluations of their character, lifestyle, and quality of ministry.

12. We will create community through small and medium-sized groups. These groups will be built around Bible–based discussion, participatory prayer, and member care.

13. The church will prayerfully determine how our ministry can have an impact that is local, regional, and global in nature. All such ministries will be subject to ongoing evaluation.

14. Recognizing the biblical mandate to help grow the Kingdom of God (whether or not our church grows), we will strive to be a church-planting church and a missionary-sending church.

15. The teaching ministry at all levels of the church will be unified and will function under the oversight of the leadership. All curriculum or topics will be subject to oversight and review. When new teaching ministries or programs emerge, or when a staff member desires to teach a new curriculum, it will be reviewed and approved before it is presented to the church. 

These principles may seem to be ambitious…perhaps even idealistic. I do not expect them to be easy to implement, because life together in community is a messy business. But I believe these principles are biblical in nature, and will lead to a healthy, life-giving, and reproducing church.

My prayer is that God will lead me to a church where I can - in partnership with godly men and women - learn how to truly live out these principles so that together we can be the church of Jesus Christ.

- Bruce

What Does A Spiritually Healthy Church Look Like? [Part 2]

Some pastors like to say that “healthy things grow”, and this principle is designed to support their drive for the continued physical (i.e., numerical) growth of the church. Seldom is this statement challenged, but it is arguably untrue…both biologically and biblically.

Biologically: as human beings, we grow physically for only a very short portion of our lives. To remain healthy, we obviously need to continue growing after adolescence in all sorts of ways - such as intellectually and emotionally - but we are not designed to keep growing physically. In fact, continued physical growth for adults is usually unhealthy (i.e., we just put on more weight).

Biblically: the Bible does not promote numerical growth as the cardinal virtue. Jesus tells us that healthy things “produce fruit” (see John 15, for example). As followers of Jesus, we can produce fruit in all sorts of ways…numerical growth being just one of those ways, as we share our faith and other people come to know Jesus. However, there are many…many…other ways to produce fruit, such as the fruit of a transformed life (Galatians 5:22-23) and using our spiritual gifts to enrich the lives of others (1 Corinthians 12:7).

The over-emphasis on numerical growth (described in detail in Part 1 of this post) is just one of many indications that too many pastors have stopped thinking biblically about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. This produces a huge ripple effect, because the volunteer leaders appointed under a system where numerical growth is the primary value therefore are not trained to think biblically about the role of the church. All they know is that the church is “supposed” to grow. They have been conditioned to believe that a numerically growing church is - by definition – “healthy” (and therefore a church that is not growing must be unhealthy).

When it is time for such volunteer leaders to recruit a replacement for their pastor, the language of growth permeates their recruiting because they simply do not know anything different. Here are some examples of what I encounter in ministry want ads:

• “We are looking for a pastor with a proven track record of exponential growth.”

• “We desire a leader who knows how to grow a church above 500 people” (or 1000 people or whatever the leaders have picked as their magic number).

• “Our next senior pastor will have a proven method for using the latest technological tools to grow the church.”

• “We are looking for a man who knows how to read the culture in order to grow a church.”

• And the worst ad of all: after bragging about the numerical growth of their church, and describing what they wanted in a new pastor, one church summarized their ideal candidate by stating, “We are looking for a man that God can get behind.” [This statement is simply amazing. When I read my Bible, I don’t find the Father looking for people He can get behind. Rather, I find the Lord looking for repentant sinners who will respond to His mercy and grace by simply striving to be faithful to whatever He calls them to do.]

Every time I review such ads…and there are many of them…my reaction is one of despair. It makes me wonder if any of these people actually read their Bibles and have any understanding of what the church of Jesus Christ is to be and to do. But then I listen to the podcasts of the sermons these church leaders have been hearing…and I understand why they do not have any grasp of basic biblical truths. Far too many of these volunteers have been raised on a spiritual diet of cultural baby food.

As a result, these churches really are not looking for pastors – they are looking for marketing managers, or sales representatives, or strategic planners. And it breaks my heart to realize that dozens and dozens of pastors will respond, each claiming to have just the right track record to fulfill the desires of the search committee.

But as pastors, how can we dare to guarantee that numerical growth will occur? How can we claim that the numerical growth which may have occurred in a prior ministry will automatically occur in our next ministry?

When pastors tell search committees that they know how to numerically grow a church, then they are relying on themselves and their methodology…they cannot be relying on the Spirit of God. Why? Because sometimes God desires a church to grow in ways other than simply by adding numbers. And sometimes God allows a church to engage in efforts that fail in order to build the character of the leaders.

By God’s grace, I have been privileged to create, start, oversee, and perform ministry in a variety of ways. Some of these efforts have been numerically significant…some have not. Some of these efforts have produced numerical growth…some have not. Virtually all of them, however, have produced some kind of spiritual fruit.  So I cannot, and will not, even begin to attempt to guarantee numerical growth. Unfortunately, that is not what many search committees want to hear, because they have been conditioned to think culturally – not biblically – about the church.

The only thing I can “guarantee” to a search committee is this: God has equipped me to proclaim His Word through preaching, teaching, and writing. As a result, I have been able to help many people encounter God through His Truth. And God has made a firm promise that His Word always will accomplish His purposes (see Isaiah 55:11). Note that this is God’s promise…not mine. Therefore, when people encounter the Living God through the Word of God, they will begin to grow and produce spiritual fruit in all sorts of ways as He determines.

Beyond that…everything else is in God’s hands. Not mine.

I believe that a primary task of a new pastor is not to implement a system, or impose a methodology, or push for numerical growth. A newly called shepherd must join with the leaders of the church and prayerfully ask, “Father, what do you want us to be doing in this new season in the life of our church?”

I believe God will answer such prayers by revealing specific ways in which the church should live out core biblical principles, such as The Great Commandment and The Great Commission. And, as the church obediently carries out the Father’s will, then spiritual fruit will be produced. And if God so wills, He will bring about numerical growth at the times when it pleases Him to do so, because it is the Lord – not us - who adds to the church (see Acts 2:42-47).

Unfortunately, when we make numerical growth the over-riding goal, we so easily can fall prey to the temptation to manufacture results through our own efforts. Instead, we must focus on faithful service to the Lord and His truth. When we choose to live in obedience to His Word, then spiritual fruit can – and will – result in His way and in His time.

So as I search for a new ministry opportunity…I prayerfully wait. I read a lot of ads…pass many of them by…and I ponder. And each day I ask the Father to lead me to a church that is not enamored by the culture or the crowds. A church where the highest value is placed on God and His Word, and on the mission of proclaiming the gospel. A church where we faithfully can carry out our responsibilities...and leave the results up to God.

In Part 3 of this post (next week), I will lay out a list of my own personal principles where I try to answer the question, “What does a spiritually healthy church look like?”

- Bruce

What Does A Spiritually Healthy Church Look Like? [Part 1]

Since becoming a Christian at age 17, I have been something of an observer of Protestant Christianity, particularly the Evangelical wing of the church. I have had behind-the-scenes glimpses of numerous churches and parachurch ministries. I have attended many different church services, and I interact with many different pastors. I read extensively in the internet “blogosphere”. And because I am searching for a new ministry role, I have been visiting church websites and reading ministry “want ads” from churches across the country.

As a result my observations, I find myself concluding…sadly…that we have far too many unhealthy evangelical churches. Even worse, in many cases the unhealthy churches are celebrated as the most “successful” examples of how to do church.

Here is an overview of the all-too-common approach I observe in church after church:

• Pastors and volunteer leaders (such as Elders and Deacons) seldom pray together or study the Scriptures together. Very little time is spent seeking God in any meaningful way, or striving to discern His will for the church. Staff meetings and elder meetings are, simply, business meetings with little-to-no spiritual components. [One business executive stated, “There is one…and only one…difference between the board meeting at my church and the board meeting at my corporation: at the church, the meeting starts and ends with a brief and perfunctory prayer.”]

• Numerical growth, as measured by increased attendance and offerings, is assumed to be the result of God’s blessing. As a result, pragmatism…not biblical truth…becomes the guiding principle of the church, because the over-riding goal is to increase the size of the crowd. Ministry leaders most often ask, “What will work?” (i.e., draw a crowd). Such leaders seldom ask, “What is true?”

• Because pragmatism is the reigning value, for many pastors the wisdom of “the culture” now trumps the wisdom of God. [“…no one who reads the New Testament could come away with the idea that we are to turn to the culture for our methods of doing church and evangelizing. The seeker movement, however, is entranced with the wisdom of the culture. Especially the wisdom that comes from marketing, management, business, public relations and psychology. The warning sirens of Scripture about this kind of wisdom have gone unheeded among the seeker pastors.” – Michael Spencer, The Internet Monk.]

• In this environment, staff are evaluated by how well they numerically grow their programs. Little effort is made to discern and promote spiritual transformation and the growth of godly character – either within the staff, or within the congregation.

• To make the church more palatable to the larger community, topical sermons are offered that sound like Dr. Phil or Oprah…with a little Bible thrown in to make things spiritual. Difficult and uncomfortable subjects - like sin and the need for repentance – often are avoided. [As theologian and professor Dr. R.C. Sproul has stated, “By presenting a God who wants us to look at ourselves, who doesn't judge and command, who has a wonderful set of insights on how to have a happy, healthy marriage…we put God's imprimatur on narcissism. There's nothing evangelicals like more than to be told that God loves them just the way they are.”]

• To move people toward a response, pastors increasingly appeal to emotions…and can become emotionally manipulative. [Like the pastor who cried, right on cue, at the exact same point during each of his multiple weekend sermons. Like the guest preacher who asked, “When I speak, do you want the congregation to laugh? To cry? Tell me what kind of response you are looking for and I’ll give it to you.”]

• The worship service has become a weekly scripted stage production, with producers and creative staff who manage this “event” down to the minute. [As I watch these services unfold, I find myself asking: “If God’s Spirit wanted to break in and do something unplanned…would anyone on the platform even be listening for His voice?”]

• The church presents a menu of programs that appeal mostly…and in some cases solely…to surface-level “felt needs”, such as how to improve your marriage, how to manage your money, and so forth. The deepest needs of the soul often are not addressed at all.

• Small groups increasingly engage in “sermon discussion”, which often focuses more on what the Pastor said than on what the Bible says.

• Newcomers are encouraged to move through a series of canned courses that ostensibly teach them how to connect with God and discover their “spiritual gifts”, but in reality teach them how to function as the volunteer labor force for the church. [As one pastor told me, “We need to get people plugged into small groups so they have a place to belong…and then we need to put them to work.”]

• When people join the church, get in a small group, and find a place to volunteer, then leaders assume that such people are experiencing “spiritual growth”.

• At ministry conferences across the country, the celebrated heroes are the pastors who have large, growing churches. For pastors who attend such conferences, the message is clear: pursue growth and you will achieve success in the eyes of your peers.

• This numerically-driven, success-oriented model encourages pastors to be “church-growth entrepreneurs”, rather than “shepherds of the flock.” The result is an increasing number of pastors who are largely inaccessible to their church members. Isn’t that an oxymoron? [A church member once stopped by the office to meet with her pastor. She was told, “Pastor does not have time for meetings with lay people.”]

• As a result of these trends, we now live in the age of the “Rock Star Pastor” and the “CEO Pastor”. These church leaders show up at the office during the week to run meetings where they plan events and programs…they show up on the weekends to wow the congregation from the platform…then they return to their offices during the week to plan more events and programs. Is this what Jesus really expects from His shepherds?

• Anyone who disagrees with numerical growth as the justification for change is viewed as an unspiritual naysayer; a detractor who does not care about “reaching people.” (As if drawing a crowd is proof that the church is actually reaching people with the gospel.)

• Many faithful believers are leaving these kinds of churches, because the pastors seem to care more about their image and their success than about the proper care of their congregations. [A pastor who was making changes fast and furious in his church told me, “Hundreds will leave…but thousands will come.” He was oblivious to the fact that every one of those hundreds he drove off would be wounded because their community of faith was being dismembered in his pursuit of rapid numerical growth at all costs.]

The business world has a saying that goes something like this: “Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results that it currently produces.”

Other than producing numbers, the church “system” described here has little to commend it. Survey after survey shows that our evangelical churches are filled with people whose attitudes, values, and lifestyles differ little from people who are not part of the church. Even worse, some recent studies show that Christians who become serious about their spiritual growth find that the church is unhelpful – and even a barrier – to their growth. While these kinds of churches may be drawing crowds…they are not producing faithful followers of Jesus in any significant way.

Clearly, then, this system is not designed to produce a faith community of Christ-followers who are on a life-long journey of spiritual transformation for themselves and their communities. This system produces crowds to generate volunteer workers who fund the church, serve in the ministry programs, and fuel the engine for more numerical growth.

In other words, many of these organizations are “churches” in name only. They really have become religious businesses, perpetually seeking growth in customers and income.

It grieves me as I see more and more evangelical churches falling into this trap that is so spiritually unhealthy. And – as a pastor who desires nothing more to than shepherd a flock where spiritual transformation can take place – I increasingly feel like a square peg in a round hole in the evangelical world.

In Part 2 of this post (next week) I’ll talk about how this trend in the evangelical world is affecting my search for a new ministry role.

- Bruce