What makes a healthy church?

by Bruce Hopler, director of Church Strengthening
church strengthening

“This is a football. “Green Bay Packer’s coach Vince Lombardi said this to his players after they experienced a devastating defeat to a team they should have never lost. It’s belittling because he is talking to a group of men who know offensive and defensive plays better than their children’s names. It would be like standing in front of a group of librarians and saying, “This is a book!” Yet in a world where razzle-dazzle, crowd-pleasing, risk-taking plays would fill a stadium, and high-tech gadgets will fill a library, it is also a surefire way to lose one’s identity, purpose and final objective.

It is no surprise to anyone that the American church is having a bit of an identity crisis right now. People want to be entertained, and they have a long list of expected religious goods and services. Pastors can find themselves caught up in having to come up with “cool plays” or throwing Hail Mary's, hoping for the best –only to receive emails from Monday-morning quarterbacks on how they could be doing church better. I watch so many pastors and church leaders fight hard for the kingdom cause, yet they find themselves being pushed further and further back from the battle lines they started on.

It is time to regroup. It is time get reoriented. Just as Lombardi had to periodically remind his players of getting back to the basics, I think it is time to say, “Leaders, this is a church.”

If we are going to strengthen churches, we must go back and ask, what is a healthy church? 

Below are characteristics I believe make a healthy church. By all means this is not an exhaustive list. It is a common-ground list of best practices I have noticed among heathy churches. I plan in the future to expand on each of the topics. In fact, once areas of weakness are identified, there are lots of tools we can then pull out of the toolbox to rebuild, reboot or reimagine what church health can look like.

  • Clarity of vision - Most churches have vision and mission statements, but many are so generic that they prove useless. Why has God placed this church with this pastor in this part of this city at this time?
  • Passionate service - Most churches treat tasks that need to be done as chores. Whether inside the church, the local community or internationally, service should set a fire of excitement as believers can participate in the kingdom cause.
  • Systems that flow - I once had a plumber explain to me that my pool pump kept burning out because the pipes had too many twist and turns. It was requiring 10 times the force to push the water through. If both hired leaders and lay leaders don’t love their ministry, it is a sure fire sign they are burning out over unnecessary structures. 
  • Humble leadership - Leaders that lead well ask not only tough questions of the organization, but tough questions of themselves. Additionally, these leaders not only love the vision God has called them to, they love the people God has given them even more.
  • Inspirational worship - While church is far more than just Sunday morning, it is the catalyst for the rest of the church. From the parking lot to guest services, to music, to the message and leading all the way back to their car, an attendee should encounter the presence of Jesus.
  • Authentic community - The Old Testament put great emphasis on the necessity of community. Jesus put great emphasis on loving one another. The Apostle Paul put great emphasis on relationships being healthy and functional. Healthy human relationships matter to God.
  • Spiritual transformation - We live in a culture that is rich with options. People not only have tons of alternative options during worship services, they have tons of options throughout the week that they may need recovery time for. If holistic spiritual transformation is not happening, the option of church is no longer compelling enough to bring them through your doors. 
  • Relational evangelism - Helping people encounter a life-changing God should be deeply ingrained in the culture of a church. Healthy disciples reproduce disciples. If you are not motivated to want your neighbor to want what you have, you either don’t love your neighbor or you don’t have anything worth giving away.
  • Truth and grace - Growing healthy church leaders have the tough conversations they should be having. They won’t allow fear of the potential negative kickback to keep them from being courageous. At the same time, this bold courage has to be born out of deep love and compassion. Healthy leaders don’t have a need to be liked or a need to be viewed as right. They just long for people to be healthy.
  • Generous living – Healthy, growing churches are generous in serving in ways unlikely to result in an immediate ROI (return on investment). Just as they teach to tithe, to give one’s first fruits, these churches show the same level of faith with their budgets. God has called all of us to tithe as an act of trust in his providence. Growing, healthy churches take the same risk of faith in giving away 10 percent or more of their time, energy and resources. These churches are planting churches, feeding the poor, supporting missions and other acts or selfless service, which may appear to have a negative effect on the budget or next Sunday’s attendance. On the contrary, these churches would argue that in God’s economy they are blessed beyond what they could have ever obtained on their own.

In the future I will discuss tools and pathways for churches to become healthy. Right now, I think we just need to be reminded what a football is.

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