5 SIGNS YOUR CHURCH IS HEALTHY
Written by Doug Ponder on February 28, 2016
The Importance of a Healthy Church
The church is not an afterthought, like a bonus to the other blessings we receive in Jesus. On the contrary, the creation of the church is the reason why Jesus died (Titus 2:14; Eph. 2:14-22; 3:10-11; Acts 20:28; Matt. 16:18).
The church is where we are introduced to the gospel and given new life that comes through faith (Rom. 10:17). The church is where Christians are nourished with the truth (Eph. 4:15-16). The church is where God’s people care for one another (Gal. 6:1-10). The church is where God cultivates in us a greater likeness to Christ (Col. 3:5-11; Heb. 3:14).
That’s why it’s essential that every Christian not simply “go to church,” but belong to a healthy one. While it’s true that no church is perfect—and never could be, as long as people like you and me are part of it—it’s also true that not every church is equally healthy. This matters deeply, because it doesn’t take long for the illnesses that infect a church to spread to you, too.
Here are five signs that your church is healthy. They are drawn from the description of the early church’s life in Acts 2:42-47.
1. Healthy Churches Are All about Jesus
As its name suggests, Christianity is all about Jesus. The Bible is all about Jesus (John 5:39; Luke 24:27). The apostles were all about Jesus (Col. 1:28; 1 Cor. 2:2). Even Jesus was all about Jesus (Matt. 11:28-30; John 7:37; 8:12; 11:25-26; 14:6).
So when we read that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), there is no need to guess who they were talking about. (Hint: It was Jesus.)
A church is sick when they can only generically talk of “God”—or worse: “the divine.” We don’t worship a generic deity. We worship the God who has revealed himself in Jesus (John 1:18; Heb. 1:1-3). Every healthy church knows this and constantly talks about him.
Almost as bad are churches that only ever talk about the Holy Spirit. Jesus told us plainly that the Holy Spirit’s job is to point away from himself to Jesus (John 14:26; 16:13-14). The Holy Spirit’s role in the life of a believer is indispensible (you can’t be a Christian without him). But the Spirit not our focal point; Jesus is.
2. Healthy Churches Rejoice in Grace
There are ways to be “all about Jesus” that misunderstand (and misrepresent) who he actually is. A healthy church is therefore not just “all about Jesus” in some kind of excited but confused way. Rather, they are all about Jesus because they rejoice in his grace.
Grace is God’s favor, his blessing, his love, his mercy, his kindness, and his help—all of which is given to us freely in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 8:9). In other words, God’s grace is a gift, not a reward (Eph. 2:8). Everything we need is supplied by Jesus. We contribute nothing to our salvation. God saves sinners by his grace!
This is the good news of the gospel, which is literally “the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). It’s not a word about Jesus the Rule-Giver, Jesus the Life Coach, Jesus the Rewarder, or Jesus the God who helps those who help themselves. The gospel is the good news about what the God of all grace (1 Pet. 5:10) has done in Jesus to make us right with him (Rom. 3:24-25). Every healthy church rejoices in this gospel of grace.
3. Healthy Churches Have Real Love for One Another
Jesus wasn’t lying when he said the world would know his followers by their love for one another (John 13:35). Maybe this says something about the people who walk away from the church (1 John 2:19), but it definitely says something about the people who remain involved in the lives of each other.
Let’s face it: sin makes relationships hard. But “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). And it’s not some kind of self-propelled love for our fellow man. The love that fills the church is the love of Jesus himself (2 Cor. 5:14). It is the knowledge that the brother or sister God has brought into our life is someone that Jesus loved enough to die for.
But healthy churches don’t just talk about God’s love; they actually show his love to one another: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and generous hearts…” (Acts 2:44-46).
4. Healthy Churches Give All the Credit to God
The missionary William Carey famously said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” That expectation should be gloriously strong in the life of every healthy church—but only as long as it is connected to an even stronger desire to give God the credit for every good thing.
Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and healthy churches believe this! They know that “nothing good dwells in me” (Rom. 7:18) except whatever has come from our Father’s hand (Jas. 1:17). No gift, no talent, no strength, no real success ever occurs in the life of a church apart from the work of God himself.
That is why the early church sought God’s help through prayer (Acts 2:42) and give God all the credit through public praise (Acts 2:47a). Healthy churches follow their example in believing that “From him and through him and to him is everything. To God be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). In every healthy church, God always gets the glory.
5. Healthy Churches Grow (Slowly, But Surely)
Living things grow. Even when humans stop growing bigger, we still grow older. We only stop growing when we’re sick unto death. The same is true of churches, although many people are confused about what this means.
Some people think church growth is all about numbers, as if warm bodies in the chairs on Sunday morning represented something substantial. We ought to remember that movies, sports, and concerts also gather crowds (and much bigger ones, too). So, simply having a large crowd of people is not “proof” that a church healthy. God also cares about maturity, which is an essential sign of health in the life of a church (Eph. 4:15-16).
But numerical growth does matter to God. As the cliché rightly puts it, “We count people because people count.” In fact, the last sign of the early church’s health was this: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). Certainly, this time period in redemptive history was unique in many ways. We cannot reduplicate Pentecost, and we shouldn’t expect to see thousands coming to faith in Jesus every day through the efforts of just one church. But if your church has not seen even one adult come to faith in Jesus in years, then you’re long overdue for a check-up.
My Church Is Unhealthy—What Can I Do?
What happens if you read the words of Acts 2:42-47 and conclude that the church where you belong looks almost nothing like what you read there? What should you do?
First, you ray for your pastors, pray for your church members, and pray for yourself (Phil. 4:6). Your church didn’t get sick by relying too much on God, and it won’t ever get well until it believes it can do nothing apart from Jesus (John 15:5).
Second, don’t gossip (1 Tim. 5:13) or stir up division (Titus 3:10). Instead, talk with your pastors as those God has charged to keep watch over your soul (Heb. 13:17). But don’t grumble or complain (Phil. 2:15). Just express your concerns and ask if there is anything you can do to help.
Third, be ready to serve (Mark 10:45). Most sick churches are full of sick people who act like consumers and critics instead of servants who delight to sacrifice in the name of Jesus (Eph. 6:7).
Fourth, if nothing improves, be prepared to leave. Unless you are a pastor called by God to lead his church (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), the reality is that you may be powerless to help ‘turn the ship around.’ But before you consider this option, take care that you are only leaving for serious matters of pervasiveness sickness, and not preferential issues.
Finally, if you must leave, then seek a new church family—a healthy one!—as soon as possible. A Christian out of the church is like a fish out of water: you’re away from home and slowly dying.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.