Christians through the ages have always been interested in evaluating the health of a church.
During the Protestant Reformation, they came up with several “marks” of a healthy church:
- Are you preaching the Word of God rightly?
- Are you administering the ordinances (baptism and communion) rightly?
- Are you exercising church discipline rightly?
These were (and are) foundational questions for evaluating the health of a church.
But how does a church become unhealthy? How does liberalism creep into the church? It almost always comes through people concerned with evangelism.
Consider three influential church leaders: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rick Warren and Billy Graham. Schleiermacher earned the title “Father of Modern Liberal Theology” for his attempt to reconcile Enlightenment thinking with orthodox Christianity. Rick Warren is famous for his book The Purpose Driven Life and for advocating a seeker-sensitive approach to church. Billy Graham is widely known for his massive evangelistic crusades. All three have strayed some in their doctrine (some more than others), but their general reasoning for doing so has been to make it easier (in their mind) for people to come to Christ. The warning here is that sickness often enters a church by attaching itself to genuine concern.
Most church growth movements are built on the assumptions that fruit is apparent. There is a subtle, unspoken pragmatism that often creeps into our ministries: if we’re doing the right thing, God will bless it in tangible, evident ways. But sometimes doing the right thing does not result in immediate fruit. The Bible is full of examples of people who did the right thing but did not immediately see the fruit of their right choices. There are places in the world today with hundreds of thousands of believers because of the faithful testimony of a missionary who died after years without a single convert. If no immediate fruit means failure, then most parents should be written off as failures.
This way of thinking is dangerous in another regard. Genuine, godly men and women with this wrong expectation have a tendency to create “false fruit” so they appear blessed. Everyone likes big numbers and great statistics; no one likes to talk about consistent service with no results. Our friends become Job’s friends: “What have you done wrong to incite God’s wrath?” But our primary responsibility is faithfulness—to sow and to water. It is God that gives the increase: in His time, in His way.
These are some of the marks of a healthy church:
- Expositional preaching: When we preach expositionally, we learn more than we need to (in a good way). Topical preaching is not bad or sinful, but it’s healthy and wise for our church members to hear the preacher deal with all of scripture systematically.
- Biblical theology: Is solid, biblical theology reflected not only in the teaching, but in the choices that are made in the church?
- A Biblical understanding of the gospel: The gospel needs to be preached, clearly and frequently. Don’t assume that church members are saved. Many regular attendees of Bible-believing churches do not understand the gospel. What God has done, what man has done, how do you respond?
- A Biblical understanding of conversion: Salvation is not just a massive New Year’s Resolution. It’s transformative. It changes people’s lives and lifestyles.
- A Biblical understanding of evangelism: We need to be honest about the cost and urgency of our message.
- A Biblical understanding of church membership: The Bible commands us to join a fellowship of believers. This does not just mean a vague fellowship with all Christians, but a particular pastor and a particular church. Membership is a commitment to attend, love, serve, and submit to a congregation of people—and a commitment not to be entered into lightly. All of the “one another” passages in Scripture have very little significance without the context of local church.
- A Biblical understanding of church discipline: If you’re not practicing church membership correctly, don’t start practice church discipline! Correct church discipline without a correct view of church membership can be damaging. For example, you have nothing to do with the life of the person sitting next to you in church until they commit adultery, then you’re expecting to be an integral part of disciplining that person? It’s incongruous. Turn up the heat on church membership before trying to exercise church discipline.
- Concern for promoting discipleship and growth: A healthy church is not just concerned with getting by, but with equipping saints for the work of the ministry.
- Biblical church leadership: Healthy church leaders are honest, humble, peaceful. They need to be surrounded by godly men who can pray for them, keep them accountable, encourage them and give them greater insight.
Notes from a message delivered by Mark Dever on September 9th, 2012 at Ocean City Bible Conference.