by Dr. Larry Taylor
A denominational official recently told me that 80 percent of his denomination’s churches in New England are dying, as indicated by steadily hemorrhaging attendance, an ever-increasing mean age of the members, a perceived lack of relevancy in the secular community at large, and the accompanying financial strain that comes from decline.
On the other hand, I had lunch recently with a pastor whose church is alive, vital, growing and vibrant. What makes the difference between the two? What does a healthy church look like? What are its characteristics and attributes? Just as there are symptoms of disease and decay, there are also symptoms - indications – of health in a church, viz.:
1. A healthy church studies the Bible. The reason God created and redeemed us by His Son’s vicarious death on Calvary’s cross is that we might know Him -- indeed, knowing Him is the primary purpose of life, without which we will never feel satisfied and complete. But we can only know Him through the revelation of His Word, so we study His Book -- all of it, verse by verse -- in order that we might know Him better every day. The primary responsibility of the shepherd, the senior pastor, is to teach the Bible to God’s people. Jesus said “feed my sheep,” and in the Old Testament God said His Word was wheat for our souls. In a healthy church, you will find congregants regularly studying the Bible together because they are deeply hungry to know God.
2. A healthy church is filled with people who pray. Paul said to pray without ceasing; Jesus said people ought always to pray; Samuel thought it a sin against God to not pray; King David cried to God day and night; Martin Luther prayed from 3 to 6 a.m. every morning. Every revival and movement of God in history was under-girded with faithful prayer-warriors who cried out to God day and night. Heaven sits still until earth prays, but where God’s people will call upon Him in earnest, He will answer in power.
3. A healthy church worships in Spirit and in truth. A misunderstanding often exists between those who prefer older hymns and those who prefer more modern choruses to be sung in worship. The fact is that both can be dead and cold, and either can be alive and vibrant. We can use many different kinds of songs in worship -- hymns, choruses, ancient and modern; and we can use all sorts of musical accompaniment -- organs, pianos, keyboards, guitars, drums, bass, brass, woodwinds, to play all different musical styles - folk, rock, jazz, classical, rap, and so on. People often think that if one group prefers choruses and another hymns, we should try to blend them or have different services with different kinds of music.While that may be helpful, eliminating hymns is not the goal -- the goal is heartfelt worship. A healthy church is a church where people pour out their hearts in adoration and praise of God, regardless of what kind of musical accompaniment is used. We do not want to eliminate hymns, we want to eliminate dead worship that does not move the heart and soul, and create a worship atmosphere where people will enter in and adore God fervently, emotionally, lovingly.
4. A healthy church is filled with people who love one another. Jesus said the earmark of discipleship is our love for each other; John said if we do not love each other, we are not truly followers of Christ; the early Christians were known for their reputation of loving each other. Biblical love is not a feeling, not a warm emotion, as we often think of love. Biblical love is action, it is not what we feel, it is what we do. If we feel warm and fuzzy toward someone but never do anything to express love, we do not love them, according to the Bible.
Conversely, if we feel nothing, or even a touch of repulsion toward another, but do practical things to help that person, we love them in the biblical sense. A healthy church is filled with people who care for each other, who surround one another with comfort, who telephone each other just to encourage, who pray for each other, who stop by to wash dishes, who take a shut-in for a drive in the country, who are warm and friendly to all, who fix a single mom’s car for her, read to someone whose eyesight is failing, put up storm windows for a neighbor, paint a house for someone who cannot afford to have it done, give someone a ride to a doctor’s appointment, baby-sit a couple’s children so they can have a date to enrich their marriage, who take strangers to lunch after church on Sunday, and have coffee in the morning with a new member. A healthy church is filled with people who express God’s love in small, everyday, practical, creative ways. When you walk into a healthy church on meeting day, you can feel the love in the air.
5. A healthy church is growing in numbers, not because adding more bodies is a goal, but because a healthy church is filled with people who love God so much that they want to share that love with others, so they are consequently involved in evangelism, outreach, missions and social ministry. A healthy church is filled with people who tell other people about Jesus - not about the church - no one is attracted to an institution, but about Jesus. Everyone needs Him -- not our programs -- Him!
In a healthy church, some people are regularly out on the streets telling passersby of the Savior who loves them, others are calling on old friends and sharing the gospel with them. Others are going on short-term mission trips to take God’s love to developing countries, still others financially support missionaries, while others help out in crusades and evangelistic outreaches of all sorts. Others visit strangers in hospitals and nursing homes to tell them of Christ, while others volunteer in soup kitchens, pregnancy centers, hospices and social service agencies so that they can let needy people know of the God who loves them unconditionally. In a healthy church, everyone has a burden, a burning desire, to see others know Jesus.
A healthy church is a Bible-learning church; a healthy church is a praying church; a healthy church is a worshipping church; a healthy church is a loving church; and a healthy church is an evangelizing church. How healthy would you say your church is? What can you do to make it healthier so it will join the ranks of the vibrant and alive and avoid the fate of the dying?
© 2001 by Lawrence Russell Taylor, Ph.D.
This essay may be reproduced and distributed freely without charge under the condition that it is reproduced and distributed without any changes, in its entirety, including this notice. While we appreciate feedback, we are unable to respond personally to all comments. The views and opinions herein expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other individual, group or organization. Dr. Taylor is the senior pastor of Calvary Church, located at 60 Hastings Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. Our phone number is: 978-459-9598.