If you have been around churches for a while and talked about church growth, one of the things you will hear is the line, “Healthy churches should be growing churches.” At a basic level that saying is foundational to all that the Bible teaches. If we are making disciples, all churches should be growing and healthy.
Sometimes a growing church may look healthy by the numbers, or by its activities, but that's not necessarily a true indicator of its health. Take the human body for example; there are a lot of growing “healthy” bodies that are not necessarily producing healthy things–take cancer for example. Like our human bodies, the church is also not immune to spiritual disease. That's why we cannot assume that “growing” churches are always healthy churches. Jesus spoke about the church at Laodicea in Revelation chapter 3:14-18 as being a church that was rich and in need of nothing. The church looked great to all that were within, but upon a closer look, it was a very sick church. To the church at Sardis, Jesus said, “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead”. (Rev. 3:1). Word on the street had it that this church was a happening place!
Church leaders cannot afford to be duped about what they perceive to be the health of their church. The real question is not what we think, but what does Jesus think? Lots of action and lots of programs do not always make for a healthy church. Other things are of a grave importance to Jesus. If we choose to ignore these things, we do so at a great danger to the health of the church. Several churches in chapter three of the Book of Revelation were rebuked by Jesus for their tolerance of sinful people, their teaching and their behaviour.
Maybe you would like to hear some good news about the church. Well, here it is–the church is like a family. Wow, isn’t that exciting! But unfortunately there is some bad news about the church as well. Ready to hear it—the church is like a family! And just like a lot of families, churches are dysfunctional too.
Families tend to tolerate a lot of things thinking they are being so loving and accommodating. Actually, these families are being too permissive and enabling. A lot of churches tend to function in much the same way. Churches and their leaders must never mistake numbers for health or permissiveness with abundant grace. Sometimes, just like in our families, we have to practice tough love. So why don’t we? Ken Sande, from Peacemaker Ministries, said, “Unfortunately most churches don't employ formal discipline until offenses are so terrible, relationships so shattered, and patterns so ingrained, that the chances of restoring someone are very small”.
Charles White tells in his book, "Spare the Rod and Spoil the Church," how John Wesley lived a disciplined life and was not afraid to hold other Methodists to a similar standard. His journal gives the impression that he spent as much time throwing people out of Methodist societies as he did persuading them to come in. During one early visit to Bristol, he purged almost 20 percent of the society for sins including drunkenness, dishonest business practices, gossip, theft, arguing in public, and cheating on taxes.
Later, when he found a whole group of Methodists whose behavior was substandard, he "told them in plain terms that they were the most ignorant, self-conceited, self-willed, fickle, intractable, disorderly, disjointed society that I knew in three kingdoms." Evidently the group listened well, for Wesley reported that "many were profited" and not one was offended. Can you imagine the response John Wesley might get today?
Healthy churches will call their members to godly living. That’s how a church gets healthy. They will remind the church that they are to be salt and light in their communities. Consider Paul’s charge to all who would follow Christ in Ephesians 4:17-31. If all churches had people who truly lived as Paul challenges us to do in Ephesians, we would have healthy and growing churches.
Thankfully, there are many small, mid-sized and larger healthy growing churches which serve their communities well even though they don’t make the 6:00 p.m. news. They are doing a great work and often in less than ideal circumstances. To the church at Pergamum Jesus said, “I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city”. (Rev. 2:13) Yes, you read that correctly! Some churches are carrying out their ministry witness in some real difficult circumstances–even where Satan has set up his throne.
Healthy churches cannot be measured by numbers alone. Yet, numbers cannot be ruled out as an indicator that a church is growing and healthy. The problem with some leaders though is that they are driven to “make something” happen just so they can have more numbers. They want to “grow” the church anyway possible. That often translates into lots of hype and busyness but without the much-needed depth of discipleship.
Leaders need to understand that all the marketing and social media genius in the world is not going to produce sustainable growth or health in a church. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it. But God is the One who made it grow. So, the one who plants is not important, and the one who waters is not important. Only God, who makes things grow, is important (1Cor. 3:6-7). We must not overlook the much-needed recognition of God’s role in church growth and health. Without him, we truly are nothing.
Yes, we are to do our part, but we are not the ones who are important. God is the only one who can make things grow in a healthy way. So, if we are not seeing sustainable and healthy growth, then maybe you are not doing things God’s way.
Several years ago, an incredible research project and aid to helping churches become healthy was developed by Christian Schwarz in Natural Church Development. Schwarz’s work provides a comprehensive strategy for evaluating the environmental factors and the climate in order for a church to obtain healthy growth. Schwarz, in search for answers to the church growth problem, embarked upon the most comprehensive church growth research project ever. After carefully studying initially over 1,000 churches (now over 40,000) in 32 countries and 6 continents, from many denominations, theological persuasions and cultural settings, Schwarz discovered marked differences between growing and declining churches. His conclusions were that the churches that were growing had a greater quality than declining churches in the following eight areas of church life. Those areas were as follows: Empowering Leadership, Passionate Ministry, Gift-oriented Spirituality, Functional Structures, Inspiring Worship, Holistic Small Groups, Need-oriented Evangelism, and Loving Relationships.
I served as a coach for Natural Church Development for several years. I can substantiate their findings after having worked with many churches who went through the program.
The emphasis on the adjectives in the above eight categories is extremely important. Natural Church Development does not attempt to “make” churches grow, but rather seeks to help every church learn how to release the growth automatisms with which God Himself builds His church.
Jeff Berrie, a former Director of Natural Church Development in Canada said the following in support of what NCD can do in helping churches to attain a healthy status,
“Let me ask you this question, “If someone spent millions of dollars discovering the differences between growing and declining churches around the world, would you be interested in the results of the research”? If you could then apply the results of the research by accurately evaluating your church to determine your health and growth potential, would you be interested? I have heard story after story of churches that have been transformed and energized as they understood and implemented the growth principles discovered in the Natural Church Development research. I hold a strong conviction that the most important thing your church will do this year is discover your growth barriers and implement changes to address them”.
If you are looking to improve the health of your church, you can check out Natural Church Development here at https://ncd-canada.com.
So, remember, not all growing churches are necessarily healthy, but churches will grow and become healthy if they diligently apply Biblical principles.