5 Signs of a Healthy Christian Church, Part 1May 15, 2016 12:56PM ● By Bonnie Lyn Smith
I think from time to time it’s good to do a “wellness check” on our churches. Over decades of church participation, I’ve been able to reflect on unhealthy congregations from the vantage point of safe, healthy ones.
With some regularity, I watch hurting folks crawl out of churches, still strong in their faith, but damaged and limping from the psychology of unhealthy leadership. Twice in my life, I, too, had to detox from churches that damage.
Why is that? How did well intentioned, theologically sound, God-fearing pastors and ministers of the Word end up being instruments of harm?
And really, no church is going to be perfect, so what’s the big deal?
To be clear, I do not have a theology degree. I do not currently have a paid staff position of ministry (although I have in the past). I have been merely an observer of brokenness within the church and have studied what it is that leads faith-filled, humble people to run for the exit ramp after years of trying to make it work.
I prefer to take it from the positive side. If you find your church has most of these elements, then I would say you’re in a good place. No church will do all of them 100 percent well. Like any other institution, churches are filled with flawed people and leadership.
1. Christ is the center of conversations, preaching, teaching, programs, prayer, worship, and all decisions.
Maybe this seems like a no-brainer to you, but then maybe take a look once more. Of course our churches should be based on the core belief in Jesus Christ, but that doesn’t simply mean His name is in the title of the church or He’s occasionally referenced. Is the gospel message of salvation—brought about only through the Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection—regularly preached?
Or is something else the focus? Is it a church hyper-focused on end times prophecy, as one example? Love me some Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel, but the church was not built on the end times. It was built on Jesus.
If Jesus is merely on the periphery of your church, find one that puts Him in His rightful place: the center.
John 3:16, ESV, Jesus speaking
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV, Author unknown
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God [emphasis mine].
*To me, this particular issue is a deal breaker. Other items on this list are warning signs or areas of concern. This one is vital to your growth in a faith setting focused on Christ. If Jesus isn't regularly preached and the very center of your church, I’d find a new one.
2. Conviction (repentance) and grace are both present.
The message that we’re sinners is an important one. Certainly we should be reminded regularly of the need for repentance, but if we’re merely browbeaten from the pulpit week after week and can never get past that Jesus hung on the cross because of our wretchedness, then we are missing why Christ even came.
Grace must abound because that is what Jesus bought for us. We can’t have a lack of repentance, but likewise, we also can’t miss the message of grace. They both need to be present, in equal measure.
John 1:14-17, ESV, Apostle John narrating
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John bore witness about him, and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'")
For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Nothing is more unpleasant than a pastor working out his own unresolved issues from the pulpit by beating his parishioners over the head with the areas of sin he has not defeated yet. A pastor (and leadership) has to understand how grace plays out in his own life if he is to lead us confidently near the “throne of grace.”
Hebrews 4:16, ESV, Author unknown
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
3. The Church welcomes and includes children, individuals with special needs and disabilities, and the mentally ill. This takes place from the top down.
Whoa, there, Nellie! That’s a lot to ask.
Is it? Is it really?
I mean, we can’t have chaos in the pews, or needs beyond what we can manage, or people freaking out in the aisles.
According to Jesus, we certainly can.
Luke 14:21, ESV, Jesus speaking (in a parable)
So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.'
Matthew 19:14, ESV, Apostle Matthew narrating
But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
Along with this list, women should be valued. Jesus gave them a lot of airtime in the Bible. Ministry to women and young moms should be key. When we nourish the moms, we are often feeding and discipling a significant portion of teachers and servants in the church. If we value filling these moms, they will feed their own families and ministry with the Word.
But they must be fed.
Find ways to offer them ministry with childcare through moms’ or women’s ministries and regular time in the worship service.
I can’t say this enough: Be extremely wary of a church that doesn’t value ministry to women or children.
1 Timothy 4:12, ESV, Apostle Paul speaking
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
4. There are sinners, still working through their sanctification, in the church.
If you don’t have any women married five times (John 4:16-18), drug addicts, thieves, liars, cheaters, or adulterers turning their lives around in your church, you might only have Pharisaical hearts that point their fingers out in condemnation and don’t self-reflect and repent.
Should sinners ultimately hear the gospel and become new creations in Christ within your walls? Yes. But they start out as sinners. If you don’t see sinners in your church, you probably aren’t in the right place.
Luke 5:30-32, ESV, Luke the Physician narrating
And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"
And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
5. The pastor is not a solo act. He is accountable to his denomination and/or affiliation and his congregation.
That may sound really basic to those of you in a very established denomination, but among independent, nondenominational churches, a pastor running a solo act is more common than you might think.
Do not pass “Go”; do not pay $200 if you see a pastor without accountability to peers in Christ and leadership above him. If He claims God alone directs him, that’s certainly important, but He gave us the fellowship of believers to keep us accountable here on earth.
It does not go well when a pastor becomes the “god” of his own church, no matter how well intentioned he started out.
Here is an example of why Paul chastised Peter to correct a problem that could have misled many.
Galatians 2:11-17, ESV, Apostle Paul speaking
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.
And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?"
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!
Hopefully this serves as a good starting point. For this series, I chose not to get into the sticking points of how often your church serves communion or if you have male or female pastors, elders, or deacons.
We will add to this list next week.
If you feel there are only a few areas of concern, pray about approaching your church leadership about it. Leaving is not always the right answer. God will direct you. If your leadership is unwilling to pray about these items, the absence of humility and accountability may be concerning.
What do you think? Would you add to or take away something from this list?
Author Bonnie Lyn Smith writes about parenting, marriage, mental health advocacy, special education, faith in the valleys of life, the healing cloak of Jesus, drawing healthy boundaries, relational healing, renewing our minds, walking with a Holy God, and much ado about grace. Join the conversation at Espressos of Faith.
Her book, Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day, offers anecdotes on all of these subjects and Scripture for each situation as well as Book Discussion Questions for deeper exploration.