“After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.”
“But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.”
—1 Corinthians 3:10-15
What does a “healthy” church look like? For church leaders and builders, it is the fundamental question of our time, deserving sober thinking and wide-open, undefensive discussion. With most of us having spent the last 4-5 years identifying and extirpating unhealthy patterns and practices in our congregations, we now have a pretty good idea of what doesn’t edify the church and what doesn’t lead it to maturity.
But we need more. As cooperating congregations, most of us now seem able and zealous to take the spiritual offensive against Satan’s schemes. As we do so, we need a clear and hopeful picture of what does bring maturity and edification in the church. Extending God’s own metaphor, we need to know what keys and catalyzes a healthy body, what constitutes “vital organs” and their maintenance, and what we should look for to prevent acute or chronic disease. This really matters because our good and painstaking reforms have not exempted us from spiritual attack. Are we, in 2008, ready and fit to fight?
Go See the Doctor
Recently in Seattle, we began a multi-week series on the book of Revelation. As much as we were looking forward to exploring the symbolism of the book, we found ourselves, predictably, preoccupied with the startlingly concrete letters Jesus sent to the churches of Asia. There we learned again that Jesus was walking among the churches (Revelation 1:20-2:1), seeing what we do and don’t do, where we stand and don’t stand, what we’ve suffered and what we need. He is the Great Physician who not only heals the lame and the lost, but examines the churches and alternatively offers them stiff medicine and soothing balm, depending on the need.
Most of us don’t like to go see the doctor. It’s an emotional issue: an annual checkup offers the possibility of bad news. We might prefer to just “let life happen” and take our chances. Yet logically, it’s obvious what a difference regular checkups with a skilled physician can make—in fact, it might make all the difference between life and death. We need to take care, then, not to define ourselves by our freedom from accountability. Pretending isn’t health.
Some of us love to see the doctor—it’s called hypochondria. We affirm ourselves by our possible illnesses and hope the doctor will confirm. It’s a control issue. We keep checking: “Am I well? How am I doing? How about tomorrow? How about now? How about five minutes from now?” We seek too much evaluation and define ourselves by accountability. Obsessing with our “health” isn’t health either.
Healthy people measure their fitness in reasonable ways and at reasonable intervals. So do healthy churches. Church leaderships need to take subjective inventory by reading their Bibles and applying scriptural examples and principles in every way they can. They also need to approach more objective inventory by periodically having other leaders from outside their church culture give them a “checkup.” Seeing the doctor is a good thing. Without it, we tend to deceive ourselves, perhaps fatally.
The other day, I went in for my annual checkup and my doctor sat me down, looked at my toenails, checked behind my ears, listened to my ipod for a minute, rubbed my kneecaps, shook my left hand with the secret handshake, threw my shoes up to the ceiling, looked at tea leaves, ordered me to spell all the planets in our solar system, and asked me 3 questions about my favorite red wines. He then pronounced me fit as a fiddle.
Of course I’m being ridiculous. Doctors have a logical and scientific algorithm for determining where you and I are on the health continuum. It’s a serious exam. For good reason they check blood pressure, heart rate, reflexes, and run appropriate series’ of blood tests. If symptoms warrant, they order more tests, all they way up to an expensive MRI. The goal is to evaluate and respond to the prime indicators of health. There are particularly concerned with vital signs that speak of our vital organs.
And what are these prime indicators for our churches? Last week the full time leaderships of all the northwest churches met for three days to share our best practices, sharpen one another, revel in our transparent fellowship, and address this crucial question: “What is health?” All experiences and opinions were welcome and it was remarkable, after breaking down into four small group discussions, how much of a consensus emerged:
- Health means growth—individually and as a church. All healthy living things grow, but not out of control (we call that “cancer”). God, in His wisdom and timing, “makes things grow” as they should (1 Corinthians 3:7). This means the church grows both in maturity (Ephesians 4:13ff) & numerically (Colossians 1:6). Let me emphasize that healthy churches feature both.
- We grow in our walk with God—in intimacy and imitation (Ephesians 5:1). How does this become manifest congregationally? We might look for a congregation’s joy, zeal, willingness to serve, and its ability to raise up leaders according to their gift sets.
- We grow in our spiritual relationships. Whether or not you call it “discipling,” “faith partners,” “the one another way fellowship,” or something else, the reality is that healthy churches preach and train Christians to practice the familiar “one another way” scriptures: encouragement, depth, confession, “seeing to it” (Hebrews 3:12-13, 12:15ff), spurring, and more. In Seattle we have “discipleship partners/faith partners”—every member agrees to commit to at least one relationship in the body with whom that member can be transparent or “real.” We also seek out specific mentoring, as appropriate, in areas such as full time ministry training, parenting, and marriage skills. The “fellowship” ought to be primary, vibrant, stimulating, comforting, encouraging, full of love in fact, and full of magic in feel. Remember our relationships when we first came to Christ?
- We grow in our love for the lost. Jesus came to seek and save what was lost (Luke 19:10) and commissioned each and every Christian to go and do likewise (Matthew 28:18-20). Historically, we have been a family of churches who have given heart, mind, soul, and strength to this worthy cause! God has blessed that commitment abundantly and miraculously over the years. We have, however, sometimes confused commitment with evangelistic results. Now we know better: we cannot control the decisions of non-Christians. (Read that 10 times in a row). But we can control what we do, that is, our part. Healthy churches preach a passion for the mission and challenge every single Christian to be “in the game” rather than on the sidelines. In Seattle, we challenge everyone to pray about and work towards bringing their neighbors to church or Bible Talk, but especially to be involved in a bible study with non-Christians. These are things ALL of us can strive to do. It’s not a matter of talent, but of commitment and understanding my role. It is not my role to manufacture evangelistic fruit; that’s between God and the non-Christian I love and serve. It is my role to sow and water to the best of my ability. By faith, we know God will eventually bring the increase, because he loves the lost even more than we do.
- We grow in our service to the poor. The brevity of this statement is enough because there’s nothing to clarify. May we individually and congregationally, locally and globally love and serve the poor!
Of course, there is much more to a vital church than these few vital signs, but no church will be healthy independent from them! We want to give attention to any need in the body, but not all body needs are vital organs. I may have the world’s best manicure, but if my liver isn’t functioning, I’m not healthy and I need to get help as quickly as possible. I’d rather have the good liver and bad nails. May we urgently attend, then, to vital organs!
Taking Stock versus Taking Aim
Vital signs aren’t the same thing as living itself; they are a mere snapshot of life, meant to inform changes that may be needed in my health trajectory. I, for example, have many meaningful long-term goals in my life but a measure of low blood pressure isn’t one of them. When I review and renew my life’s mission statement and goals, I don’t list, “low blood pressure” as one of them. Of course, if my blood pressure is too high, I will certainly need to do something about it. But BP represents something deeper and more meaningful: perhaps my body needs more exercise and better food, less stress and more time with best friends—goals I wouldn’t mind listing with my mission statement at all.
It is the same with the body of Christ. We can and should look at meaningful measures of body life. We can and should, for example, learn something important, if not urgent about our evangelism by noting church attendance patterns, numbers of souls saved, churches planted, and more. We can similarly measure the quality of body experience by interviewing or taking surveys of our members: are you using your gifts to serve God and the church? How would you rate that service—is it growing? Is Christianity a joy to you or a burden? In what ways? How are your Christian relationships? Have they grown or declined? These measures of church experience aren’t necessarily the same thing as church goals.
In Seattle, we want to take aim and believe that setting meaningful goals is a spiritual practice (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). But what kind of goals? Christian Schwarz, in his groundbreaking Natural Church Development, exposes two common fallacies about goals and structure. The first, called “technocratic thinking” over-emphasizes the value of practical strategies and programs; the second, called “spiritualistic thinking” under-emphasizes the value of practical strategies and programs. Because of these tendencies, Schwarz advises the setting of “Quality Goals” in place of quantitative results. In evangelism, for example, a quantity goal might be, “baptize 100 people this year,” but a quality goal might be, “encourage and pray for every disciple to start a new study with a non-Christian this year.” Good quality goals are informed by knowing what is and is not “my part”—a basic distinction of spiritual maturity.
Let me point out that sometimes Schwarz has been misunderstood by Christians who have spent too much of their lives being technocratic. Burnt-out from too many detailed, sometimes legalistic goals and programs, they over-rebound towards the spiritualistic side, wary of planning and goals, and suspicious of basic leadership processes in the church. I have certainly succumbed to this reaction myself from time to time. I had to realize that ultimately, becoming spiritualistic is just as big a mistake as being too technocratic. God brings the crops, but steward-farmers must use their wits as well as their faith, and are expected by God to have a vision, make a plan, get the right equipment, work diligently, and pray for rain! Let me emphasize that Schwarz’ approach is very interested in growth—both internally and in numbers, including the multiplying of church plantings! He differs, though, from purely results-driven movements in separating quality goals we can sow and quantity results which God will bring. These subtle differences are worth understanding; church building isn’t rocket science, but neither is it child’s play.
Healthy churches, then, know how to measure what has happened (or not) in the church (Did new leaders rise? How many were baptized? Did most stay faithful? Did our programs meet the needs of the disciples?) without confusing or conflating it with appropriate quality goals. I need my MRI results, but they do not constitute my meaningful goals for tomorrow. We need to both take stock and take aim and they are often not the same thing.
Health and Faith
I grew up in a church tradition that seemed to have drifted from effective leadership. I remember my Dad being frustrated by endless meetings in which almost nothing was decided. One of the great reforms/restorations of our family of churches from the 60’s through the 90’s was what we might call Faithful Leadership. We made decisions and got things done. We were not afraid of authority and raised up, perhaps with unprecedented speed, vast numbers of full-time and lay leaders of tremendous ability and faith all around the world.
It’s true that this model became, for the most part, authoritarian, but this is not surprising considering the youth of the movement. Today we are much older and prayerfully much wiser. We recognize the need for process in decision making, for respect, for patience in hearing many views and opinions, and for give and take.
Yet bold decisions are needed and must be made. Are we bold? Are we decisive? The portrait we know of Jesus and of the first century church is one of courage, faith, risk, and action. How do we reaffirm our commitment to bold decision-making while upholding mature process? Such a topic may deserve its own article, but for now, may we embrace this foundational step: encourage spiritually gifted leaders to lead—especially full time leaders (after all, we are paying them to lead!). When leaders hesitate in the name of consensus, the whole church becomes a waiting church and not an active church. Full-time leaders should realize that the default of busy, pressured lay leaders tends to be sincere skepticism and hesitation, not boldness. This is precisely because such leaders simply do not have the time to research and facilitate bold measures.
Healthy churches’ full-time leaders consult, facilitate, encourage process and dialogue, but do not wait for consensus to develop within groups; rather, as faith-leaders, they lead their groups to mature unity and action. Group process is essential for creative thinking, for emerging wisdom, and for “buy-in” to a plan, but healthy leadership must step up and supply the faith and boldness needed to move the church forward. May God raise up generations of elders, teachers, evangelists and the like who are not only empowering and consensus-building, but also brave, visionary, and bold. Will the son of man find faith on earth? We all want the answer to be “Yes!”
In the end, only Jesus will judge the churches. Yet we want to be worthy of His faithful judgment and do our best to fulfill His will on earth while we yet have time. If we shrink in this life from clear thinking about health—personally & congregationally—we invite surprise and possibly disappointment at the end of our days. If we embrace maturity—fearlessly taking stock while conscientiously taking aim—we have an opportunity to learn from the past while boldly claiming the future for Jesus. As He walks among our churches, may we pray for sensitive hearts to hear what the spirit says to the churches!
Some practical suggestions
- Bring in outside eyes at least once a year to offer an objective “checkup” of the church. Have these ministers/consultants interview a broad spectrum of your membership and leadership.
- Affirm growth vital signs to your congregation. Christians need to know what our mission or missions are in a clear way. Evaluate those vital signs with lay leaders at least once a year.
- Encourage members to set goals: in personal growth, in relationships, in evangelism, in serving the church and the poor. Goals are not our Master but help orient our spirits and should be prayed about with humility.
- Encourage your leaders to lead with process but also with boldness and faith
- Be legalistic about goals; they are to serve not to enslave. We all miss goals, so what? G.B. Shaw put it this way: “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
- Confuse goals and results. Instead, use results to shape future quality goals—goals that resonate. Help disciples distinguish between what “my part” is and is not. Quality goals help bring godly growth results, but in God’s time and way.
- Confuse maturity with hesitant leadership
- Be either technocratic (over-controlling) or spiritualistic (irresponsible)
With more love and respect than an article can convey,