When your child is sick, you begin a process of gathering information so you can determine what is wrong with her and what your next steps should be. Perhaps one of your first steps is to check her temperature. If the number on the thermometer is close to 98.6° you can relax a little and move on to your next step in making her more comfortable. If the numbers are too high, you know your child is not healthy and you need to act quickly. Numbers can be very helpful. They make good gauges and guides, but they make poor goals. Your child’s health is your goal, not the numbers on the thermometer.
The same is true in the church. Numbers are helpful gauges, but poor goals. We can count people, guest cards, Facebook likes, donations and a myriad of other things in church. The information we gather from those numbers is valuable, but the numbers cannot be our goal because they just help us evaluate something much more important. Numbers tell us whether or not we are growing, but as the Body of Christ, our goal is not just growth, but health. Not everything that grows is healthy. Cancerous tumors grow, but are by no means healthy. As the church, we should see numbers as the way we evaluate growth, and we should see growth as only one aspect of the more important goal which is church health.
The key to understanding church health is recognizing the church is an organism more than it is an organization. Obviously, the church requires administration and structure, so it is functionally an organization, but it is much more than that. The church is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). That is not just poetic imagery. The church is literally the physical presence of Christ in today’s world. Christ indwells believers through His Spirit, so believers make up His Body and function as His hands, His feet, His voice, etc. The church is a living organism. While growth is an adequate goal for most organizations, health is the primary objective of an organism, and as such, the church must focus on being healthy and not just on growing numerically.
With that in mind, we should be able to determine the health of a church, much like we can determine the health of our own bodies. Scripture provides some characteristics of healthy churches that we can use when performing spiritual check-ups on the Body of Christ.
Organs and Appendages
The healthy person has a heart that beats, lungs that breathe, arms and legs that move, etc. Likewise, the healthy church has organs and appendages that do what they are intended to do. Paul taught, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as He wanted them to be (1 Cor. 12:18 NIV).” The Creator knit together the human body in wonderful ways so that each part has been put in exactly the right place to fulfill its purpose. In the same way, He has placed each believer in the church and gave him spiritual gifts that enable him to fulfill his assigned function in the Body. The church is healthy when all the believers are in their correct places and doing the tasks for which they have been equipped by the Holy Spirit.
Muscles and Joints
Often, we hear of knees or hips being replaced because they have grown unhealthy over time. In the case of a “bad knee”, the problem is not with the upper portion of the leg or the lower portion, but with the joint that links the two. Similarly, the church can become unhealthy if care is not given to the relationships that link the members. Paul taught, “From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does it work (Eph. 4:16 NIV).” In a healthy church, not only do the parts do their work, but they are joined together in the right way. Our relationships are the muscles and joints that keep us working together and growing in healthy ways.
Strong Vital Signs
Only looking at church growth is like a pediatrician who only measures the height and weight of your child without checking the internal aspects of their health. You want a doctor who is going to thoroughly examine your child, including her vital signs. Vitals sign evaluate functions that cannot be seen on the outside, but can cause very clear and obvious problems if they are not as they should be. Various local churches may have different signs they consider “vital,” but there are at least three signs that are vital for every church regardless of size or setting. A healthy church will experience:
Healthy organisms reproduce in one way or another. Healthy churches reproduce through evangelism. They make disciples who make new disciples (Matt. 28:19). There may be no greater demonstration of a church’s health than its ability to give birth to new disciples, new groups, or perhaps even new congregations.
Healthy bodies grow. Even after we stop growing taller, cells produce new cells and muscles continue to develop as long as the body remains healthy. Healthy churches grow as well. Growth is not our goal, but is can be one of many signs that we use to determine our church’s health. Growth by itself is not enough, because some growth is unhealthy. Some bodies grow into obesity because of unhealthy habits, and some churches grow because of unhealthy habits as well. Therefore, we do not only look at growth, but when taken along with the other characteristics of church health described above, growth can be a helpful means of determining how healthy a church is.
Fortunately, the Body of Christ is not on its own when it comes to being healthy. The One Who created the Body, gave us a book full of instructions for staying healthy. He gave us His Spirit to empower the Body. He even gave us His Son to be the Head of the Body (Col. 1:18). Jesus leads His own Body! Let us keep it as healthy as we can for His glory!
John Crowder serves as pastor of First Baptist Church West.