Truth and Lies About a "Healthy Church"

This is an adaptation of a sermon I preached this past Sunday. Like many churches, ours struggles with feelings of “failure” because we aren’t a large church. I often preach a sermon like this every year or so to remind the congregation about biblical metrcis for understanding what a “healthy church” really is.

What is a “healthy church?” There are plenty of bad answers to answer this question. They’re usually driven by either (1) un-biblical ideas how salvation works, or (2) a pampered, consumer mindset that Jesus knows nothing about.

I recently had a conversation with two 19-year olds who grew up in our church. I wanted to encourage them to become members and encourage them to serve. Instead, they told me how disappointed they were about the church.

It isn’t a large church, so they told me “it feels like church is dying.” It isn’t a particularly hip church, so they told me “church should be a place where all people feel welcome.” These are common sentiments from many churchgoers in America.

In order to evaluate these statements, I want you to mentally export yourself away from your place as a resident in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Away from your wifi. Away from your apps. Away from your streaming video. Away from social media. Away from a world where you can buy an “Ember” temperature-controlled coffee cup, whose temp you can adjust from an app on your smartphone.

I want you to import yourself into rural Bangladesh, into Zambia, into Togo, into first-century Corinth, into Ephesus, into the world where the Apostle Peter told Christians, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed,” (1 Pet 4:12-13).

I want you to realize how stupid, selfish and un-biblical those metrics are for figuring out what a “healthy church” is (see also this insightful article). Most churches have ups and downs in attendance over the decades. It’s always good time to remind ourselves about common lies about what makes a “healthy church.”

Lie #1: Large attendance is success

Our culture likes numbers; they often mean success. If a diner is busy, it’s probably a good diner. If a coffee shop is always full, it probably serves good coffee. If a church has 300 people, it must be a “healthy church.” Makes sense.

Numbers aren’t necessarily “bad.” It’s good to have lots of people on Sunday. It’s good to have lots of people hear the Gospel and learn about God’s word. And, to be sure, there are two ditches to avoid when you consider these issues; (1) a pathetic pragmaticism that inspires contempt, and (2) a deliberate stiffness and iciness, wherein your church is colder than a junker car with a dead battery on a cold Wisconsin morning.

But, large attendance has nothing to do with a healthy church. It’s nice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything

What does the New Testament tell us about a “healthy church?”      

It tells us that, if attendance is a barometer for success, then Jesus was a failure, because He was abandoned during the last days of His life. The only time numbers are mentioned in Acts are to emphasize the supernatural “otherness” of the events (Acts 2:41; 4:4) – it isn’t the norm!

What do New Testament letters praise churches for in their greetings?

  • Faith and love for God = 5x
  • Love for the saints = 4x
  • Spiritual gifts = 1x
  • Partnership in the gospel = 1x
  • Spiritual fruit = 1x

The New Testament writers never praised churches because of their numbers; because God’s in charge of that!

What did New Testament letter writers pray for churches to cultivate in their lives; from their greetings and farewells?

  • Grace, peace and mercy = 4x
  • Holiness = 3x
  • Love for the saints = 2x
  • Spiritual fruit = 1x
  • Knowledge of God’s will = 1x
  • Thankfulness = 1x
  • Evangelism = 1x
  • Knowledge of God and Jesus = 1x

The New Testament writers never prayed that churches would grow in numbers so they’d finally be healthy; because God’s in charge of that!

What did Jesus praise and/or acknowledge New Testament churches for in the Book of Revelation?

  • Toil and endurance = 2x
  • Endurance in tribulation = 2x
  • They didn’t deny Jesus in persecution = 2x
  • Believing sound doctrine = 1x
  • Faithfulness amidst poverty = 1x
  • Their love, faith and works = 1x

Jesus never praises churches because they were large; He praised them because they were faithful. Churches don’t grow themselves; one person plants, the other person waters, and God gives the increase (1 Cor 3:7)

What does Jesus criticize churches for, in the Book of Revelation?

  • Believing false doctrine = 3x
  • Externalism = 2x
  • Having little love for Christ or each other = 1x

Jesus never criticizes churches because they were small; He criticizes them because they weren’t faithful.

What does Jesus exhort churches to do, in the Book of Revelation?

  • Persevere until His return = 4x
  • Be faithful while they suffer = 1x
  • Believe correct doctrine = 1x

Jesus never tells them, “if you’d just be as big as (insert church name here), you wouldn’t be such an embarrassment to me!” Instead, He tells them to be faithful and to hold on.

If you evaluate a church because of the attendance, then you’re making a mistake.

Satan wants you to make this mistake. He wants you to be discouraged. He wants you to feel defeated. He wants you to use fake and deceptive metrics to decide your church is unhealthy, and that you should run for the exits.

It’s a lie. 

Lie #2: Sunday mornings are for unbelievers

This is a pervasive lie and untruth; probably because part of it is true. We do want unbelievers to come to church. We do want to have nice, attractive facilities. We do want to do things well, with the resources we have. We do want to have a service order that flows smoothly and has a purpose.

But, that isn’t the primary reason why congregations gather on Sunday mornings. The comfort and warm-fuzzy feelings of unbelievers who might come on Sunday mornings is a secondary concern. Sunday mornings are for God’s family to gather for worship.

But, if you believe this lie, it’ll impact everything you do. Everything will be subordinated to providing the product you’re selling to the target audience.

  • Music: not about content, but about making people feel good
  • People leading music: must be young, hip, talented, attractive
  • Preaching: must not offend, but please people
  • Prayers: must not be “stuffy,” but light and fluffy – like IHOP pancakes
  • Atmosphere: must be casual, not churchy; holiness, repentance, sin, need of salvation – everything must be downplayed and minimized

In effect, to greater or lesser extent, everything “Christian” about worship must be scrubbed and sanitized away lest it offend. Again, there are two ditches to avoid on opposite ends of this spectrum – there is no need to be absurdly desperate or icily aloof. But, consider this:

  • Did God make the tabernacle (et al) for unbelievers to feel comfortable, or as a way for His people to worship Him?
  • When Solomon dedicated the temple, was his big worry that the Philistines wouldn’t find the temple rituals comfortable?
  • Did Solomon care that the Philistines would find monotheism strange?
  • Did the Queen from Sheba come to Israel (1 Kgs 10:1-10) because of Solomon’s seeker-sensitive methodology?
  • Did David, Asaph and Korah write the Psalms for the Amorites and Philistines, so they’d feel comfortable attending worship in the temple?
  • Do you think the Psalms, which are designed to be sung in corporate and private worship, are meant for believers or unbelievers?

What does the NT teach us about the purpose of Sunday mornings?

  • It teaches us that the church in Jerusalem devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).
  • It teaches us that the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common (Acts 2:32).
  • It teaches is that all of the NT letters are written to churches to encourage them as believers; as a group of insiders who have a message of love, grace, mercy and forgiveness for outsiders – if they’ll confess and forsake their sins.

Sunday mornings are primarily about God’s people; they’re only about unbelievers in a secondary sense. If unbelievers want to be comfortable, there are plenty of better places to come than a conservative Baptist church on Sunday mornings!

Truths

Jesus gave a church its mission (Mt 28:16-20). The mission of a church can be more than this, but it’s certainly not less:

  • know Jesus is in charge, because all power and authority on heaven and earth is His
  • make disciples
  • baptize new believers
  • teach believers about God’s word, over and over
  • know that Jesus will always be in charge, until the end of the age.

The Bible tells us what our role in salvation is, and what it isn’t:

  • the Father plans salvation
  • the Son achieves salvation
  • the Spirit applies salvation
  • our job is just to give the message

People only believe because the Spirit changes their heart and mind, because “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4). In order to be saved, people need a divine intervention. That intervention comes from the Spirit, to everyone whom the Father predestinated, so His people will believe in the Son.

The Spirit doesn’t change everybody’s heart and mind; but He does do it for the millions and millions of people who the Father chose. Lydia, in Philippi, only believed the Gospel because “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul,” (Acts 16:14).

The Lord opens hearts, changes minds, and then you repent and believe. People do have to repent and believe, but they’ll only do it if the Holy Spirit convicts them and changes their heart and mind first.

What does this have to do with anything?

Simple. It means we aren’t in charge of the attendance! It means we can’t change people’s minds about Jesus. It means there’s no show big enough, glitzy enough, cool enough, hip enough, and non-confrontational enough to make somebody repent of their sins and believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Most of the Gospel ministry in the world is and has always been done by little, anonymous churches with small attendance. Don’t believe the lies about a “healthy church.” Fulfill the church’s mission the best you can, with the resources you have. Just do your part, and let God do His.

1795 reads

There are 18 Comments

T Howard's picture

Things that are alive and healthy grow. In the case of a church, it should be growing spiritually, relationally, and numerically (Acts 2:42-47).

Craig Toliver's picture

The church I am a member of ... is healthier today than a year ago:

  • We had a pastor who showed favoritism to some in the church
  • He bullied others in the church
  • He had sycophants and devotees 
  • He left .... his devotees left
  • The remnant is much happier
TylerR's picture

Editor

That's awful. I am glad your church is in a better place now.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

We see numeric growth of the church in Acts, but the epistles don't emphasize that quite so much. Thessalonians and others reference the spread of their faith, so the implication is that growth was still happening at a pretty good pace (and we know this from history also). 

But it's interesting that where there is teaching on the topic of church growth, it is never about the number of people present. Second half of Ephesians 4 is a strong example. Then you have multiple references to increasing in faith and love, discernment, etc.

The absence of "increase your numbers" imperatives is very interesting.

T Howard's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
The absence of "increase your numbers" imperatives is very interesting.

When you consider that when Acts speaks of numerical growth it is attributed to the work of God or the Holy Spirit, it makes sense that "increase your numbers" isn't an imperative. However, gospel proclamation, discipleship, the one-anothers, and personal sanctification are imperatives.

Paul Henebury's picture

Why "should" it be growing numerically?  Where is the biblical warrant for that statement?

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

T Howard's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

Why "should" it be growing numerically?  Where is the biblical warrant for that statement?

Matthew 28:18-20

Bert Perry's picture

Probably the saddest part of the debates today over church growth is that most entities get it wrong.  The "winners" in today's church growth sweepstakes are generally taking believers from one church to another, not making disciples "from scratch".  On the flip side, the "losers" in the church growth sweepstakes too often take refuge in the notion that there is no significance to numbers whatsoever.  Both sides are missing the point of Matthew 28:18-20, in my view.  

Regarding the second group, if we said "numerical growth begins, properly, with the effective, Biblical, discipleship of the people we have", you've got a hearty "yes and Amen" from me.  But let's not act as if those numbers shouldn't be following in most instances.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

With great respect, Matt. 28:18-20 does not say anything about the local church increasing in numbers because it is healthy.  It is not even directed primarily at the local church (although it concerns it).  It refers to making disciples.  Ergo, those who come to a local church need to be discipled.  But the passage gives no guarantee that the church will grow numerically as it would spiritually.  The Philadelphian church in Rev. 3 does not appear to have experienced numerical growth from Christ's description of it.  

I believe numerical decrease can be as much a sign of growth as increase.  My point though, is that while increase in maturity, knowledge and spirituality evidence growth, increase in attendance does not.      

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

T Howard's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

With great respect, Matt. 28:18-20 does not say anything about the local church increasing in numbers because it is healthy.  It is not even directed primarily at the local church (although it concerns it).  It refers to making disciples. 

Yes, Paul, Matt 28:18-20 does apply to the church. Matt 28:18-20 commands us to make both more and better disciples. And, that is what you see happening in the churches in Acts (specifically, Acts 2:42-47). Is Matt 28 a guarantee of numerical growth? No. I never said it was. But, it does provide the "should."

I agree with Bert: many churches aren't really growing by making more disciples; rather, they are growing by adding existing disciples from other churches.

I'm not saying healthy churches = mega churches, but there should be continual growth taking place, spiritually, relationally, and numerically. That is the example we see in Acts. Now, the church's local context and community certainly plays a part in this. But, if your church is located in a growing community, yet the number of disciples in your church has remained flat or is in decline over 10-15 years, that's a symptom of an unhealthy church.

Paul Henebury's picture

I don't disagree with with your final sentence (though other factors have to be considered).  But I do think you are reading into Matt. 28.  It says absolutely nothing about "more and better", which is the basis for your "should."  And since I am questioning your use of "should" you are begging the question by inserting "more and better."  The passage simply says "make disciples." 

We must take care not to wrest the great commission from its context, which is not the formation and pastoring of churches per se, but rather apostolic ministry.  It applies to churches because they are to disciple their people.  And Acts 2 is hardly normative!  Other parts of Acts, especially the latter half, do not report large numerical growth.  I'm not saying it didn't happen.  I am saying it was not stressed as spiritual growth is stressed.      

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Bert Perry's picture

...a good illustration here is something from Deming; when asked about companies with problem employees, he asked them whether they hired bad employees, or whether they made them into bad employees.  Either way, the company bears a level of responsibility.

In the same way, if a church is consistently losing members, they bear a level of responsibility.  There are a bunch of possible reasons--members tiring of the church culture, not leading people to Christ at all, false fruit from VBS, etc..--but at the end of the day, if you've got declining numbers of disciples, you've got something of a gut check to deal with.

Put differently, while it is entirely correct that Matthew 28 does not specifically say that obedience will lead to big numbers in so many words, at the same time it is a reality that if a church takes Matthew 28 seriously, it ought to be seeing some people coming to Christ, growing in Him, and doing so in that local body.  If there's no water going into the barrel, or if the barrel is leaking all over, there is some 'splainin' to do. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Bert wrote:

There are a bunch of possible reasons--members tiring of the church culture, not leading people to Christ at all, false fruit from VBS, etc..--but at the end of the day, if you've got declining numbers of disciples, you've got something of a gut check to deal with.

This is why a plurality of elders is helpful; you have a perspective beyond your own hurt feelings. It's also why having some kind of trusted team of honest confidants inside the church may be a good idea. You can call it whatever you like, depending on what flavor of ecclesiology you have. The point is that someone besides YOU should be available to help you be introspective.

Speaking for the church where I minister, we have the very last of the people leaving because "they don't llike the new pastor," and we have people retiring and moving to be with grandkids. This population decrease is what prompted me to preach this sermon.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:
But I do think you are reading into Matt. 28.  It says absolutely nothing about "more and better", which is the basis for your "should."  And since I am questioning your use of "should" you are begging the question by inserting "more and better."  The passage simply says "make disciples."

Paul, it's really this simple:

Make disciples = add more disciples.

Baptizing and teaching to observe = better disciples

This is a command not just to the Apostles, but to every disciple of Jesus Christ. Consequently, churches that make more and better disciples (i.e. obeying the Great Commission) should be growing churches spiritually, relationally, and numerically.

Quote:
And Acts 2 is hardly normative!  Other parts of Acts, especially the latter half, do not report large numerical growth.  I'm not saying it didn't happen.  I am saying it was not stressed as spiritual growth is stressed.

Is Acts 16:5 or Acts 21:20 considered the "latter half" of the book?

Sorry, Paul, but Scripture does indicate that God is concerned about the numeric growth of disciples. That growth ultimately comes from him, but he does expect us to obey the Great Commission and proclaim the gospel to all the nations so that myriads upon myraids will ultimately one day offer up praise to him (Rev. 7:9-10).

Dean Taylor's picture

Ephesians 4:1-16 is a key passage on church growth. 

Note especially verses 15-16:

"Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love." ( ESV)

Verse 13 states how growth is measured: "...until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ...". The whole passage outlines the factors that cause growth. 

Growing to "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" includes maturing as a body but also resembling Christ in the community, which generates evangelism and disciple-making. 

              DeanHTaylor.com 

Paul Henebury's picture

I don't want to keep harping on this, so with respect this is my final "say":

Your way of putting it is faulty.  You say, 

"Paul, it's really this simple:

Make disciples = add more disciples.

Baptizing and teaching to observe = better disciples"

A healthy church can be making disciples without seeing an increase in attendance.  This may be because people come and go (e.g. a friend of mine ministers in a college town where students leave every year.  Sometimes others replace them; sometimes they don't).  Again, it may be because another church opened up and took members.  Or it could be because the town is dying, etc.  

As for baptizing and teaching meaning "better disciples," I think this is an instance of parallelism where to "make disciples" includes baptizing and commanding them.  Therefore, the Great Commision is not promising an increase in church members.  

"Consequently, churches that make more and better disciples (i.e. obeying the Great Commission) should be growing churches spiritually, relationally, and numerically."

But your premise is wrong, so your conclusion is too.  And if you were right, then the growth should be exponential.  But the examples above, and that of the Philadelphian Church in Rev. 3 (and the church of Smyrna in Rev. 2) show that this is not necessarily the case. 

Acts 16:5 concerns the salvation results of Apostolic ministry, not of local church discipleship.  Acts 21:20 is a retrospective report of the salvation of Jews.  It is not a report about a local church making disciples.  Of course, people getting saved and being added to the church results in more disciples, which is good.  But since we are dealing here with Apostolic ministry and the initial growth of Christianity, not with 21st Century America, which has rejected Christianity, we must note the differences before drawing conclusions about numerical growth being normative.  Today many believers who ought to be being discipled in healthy churches are supporting less than stellar ministries for their own reasons (though often couched in pious language).       

Of course we ought to be telling people the Gospel.  That is our job.  But faithfulness in evangelism does not automatically mean scores of people will get saved and added to the local church.  It may be the case where you reside, but I live in a very dark area of N. Cal. and am originally from England, and though I have done a great deal of open-air preaching, door-to-door, etc., I can tell you that the "results" have been meager. 

No, the NT does not put emphasis on numerical growth as a sign of a healthy church.  In fact, it gives an example (Laodicea) of a church that was "growing" numerically did not even have Christ in it (cf. 2 Tim. 4:3).  A healthy church upholds Christ's name and Word.  It exhibits love and service.  It does not compromise to get people in.  In today's culture it may lose people because they don't feel "encouraged" or don't like the programs, or music or whatever. 

In an ideal world, numbers would indeed denote God's blessing.  But that is certainly not always the case.  But it is wiser to focus on the growth in knowledge and spirituality (e.g. Col. 1:9-12; Eph. 1:17-19; 4:13-16; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 1:5-10.etc).  These indicators of growth are the signs of a healthy church and are stressed.       

If we are faithful with God's truth there will be this kind of growth.  But there may or may not be numerical growth.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

T Howard's picture

Thanks for the interaction, Paul.

Continue your faithful ministry in Northern California.

 

Paul Henebury's picture

No offence intended.  Blessings on you and your ministry

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.