Blueprint for a Healthy Church
November 9, 2006
What makes a great church? We hear that expression often–”a great church”–but no one knows exactly what it means. How do you know when a church has truly become “great?”
Perhaps it refers to bigness. I think that’s what most people mean. A great church is a big church with thousands of people attending on Sunday. There’s only one problem: We all know that not every big church is a great church and many truly great churches aren’t very big.
Perhaps greatness involves having a famous pastor. It’s true that big churches usually have well-known pastors who write books, have a radio ministry and appear on TV. Often, those pastors speak around the country to huge audiences. Does that mean their churches are “great?”
It could refer to having large facilities-a huge sanctuary, an enormous parking lot, and a steeple you can see a mile away.
Or greatness might refer to the number of programs in a given church. Some big churches will have over 300 events in any given week. That’s certainly impressive, even if it isn’t “great.”
Sometimes people associate greatness with having a good reputation. That’s not to be sneezed at, since good ministry ought to have a positive influence in the community.
Finally, some people think that great churches are “market-driven.” By that they mean that great churches stay in close touch with the wants and needs of the surrounding community.
What Makes a Healthy Church?
Let me substitute a word at this point. Suppose instead of asking, “What makes a great church?” we ask “What makes a healthy church?” That’s an entirely different question, isn’t it? After all, a church may be great in the eyes of the world but not be healthy at all, and many truly healthy churches may not be “great” in the eyes of other people. Greatness touches matters on the outside, while health touches the unseen realities of the heart.
Romans 12:3-8 supplies three essential qualities of a healthy church. While these three aren’t the only ones we might think of, they are vitally important because Paul focuses on three qualities that involve the way we look at ourselves, the way we look at each other, and the way we look at our own personal involvement.
These three qualities allow us to evaluate the church as a whole and our personal lives.
First of all, a healthy church is marked by …
I. Honest Evaluation
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (v. 3).
In this verse Paul uses one particular Greek word (and its compounds) four different times. It’s the word that is translated “think.” A literal translation might read something like this: “Do not super-think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but rather think of yourself with sober thinking.” The idea is that Christians ought to have a realistic appreciation of themselves—not puffed up with conceit and not dragging themselves down into the mud.
The key word is humility, which might be defined as the virtue which, when you think you have it, you’ve lost it. Humility is knowing who you are in God. Pride comes from “super-thinking” about yourself, blowing your own horn too often, bragging about your accomplishments one too many times, dwelling on your own supposed greatness.
Against all that, Paul says, “Know yourself. Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Know what you can do and what you can’t do. Don’t live in a dream world thinking you can do it all. You can’t. The sooner you figure that out, the better.”
Some people struggle with this area because they are afraid to admit their weaknesses. So they constantly boast about their accomplishments, seeking to win approval by drawing attention to themselves. Others go to the opposite extreme, playing Uriah Heep by constantly bad-mouthing themselves. They do it, hoping you will say, “There, there, you’re really a nice person. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Either way pride is the motivating factor behind the comments.
But if you know who you are in God, you don’t have to brag and you don’t have to beg. You can just be yourself. Your gifts will make themselves evident sooner or later.
This week Gordon MacDonald wrote a penetrating analysis of the widely-publicized removal of Ted Haggard as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and as pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. There is no need to rehearse the sordid details that led up to these tragic events, but it is worthwhile to ask what we can learn from them. MacDonald writes from the perspective of a man who has been where Ted Haggard is now. He offers this telling analysis:
It seems to me that when people become leaders of outsized organizations and movements, when they become famous and their opinions are constantly sought by the media, we ought to begin to become cautious. The very drive that propels some leaders toward extraordinary levels of achievement is a drive that often keeps expanding even after reasonable goals and objectives have been achieved.
Like a river that breaks its levy, that drive often strays into areas of excitement and risk that can be dangerous and destructive. Sometimes the drive appears to be unstoppable.
Times like these call for prayer and honest self-examination. I’m sure thousands of Christian leaders took a deep breath when they heard about Ted Haggard. What happened to him could happen to any of us. I cannot explain why he did what he did, but I am reminded of the English writer who remarked that there is no man who, if his thoughts were made public, would not deserve hanging a dozen times a day. To which I reply, only a dozen times? All we like sheep have gone astray, all have sinned and fallen short, and there but for the grace of God go I. His fall may be a blessing in disguise to the American church if it produces a healthy sense of self-examination and a new humility in all of our leaders.
When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” he told us that the church itself is his creation. He is the General Superintendent of a building project that has been going on for 2000 years. Sometimes the Lord uses stones that under pressure crumble into dust. But the church goes on because it is built on the Rock that cannot be shaken.
We must not give in to despair. Let us join together and ask the Lord to raise up a generation of pastors who will lead with honesty, integrity, compassion, godly vision and Christlike character.
There is nothing more important for any of us than to obey the ancient maxim—Know thyself! This will be the work of a lifetime, to truly know your strengths and weaknesses, to understand your temptations, to look at yourself with sober judgment, and to find a way to use what God has given you without falling into the twin traps of vanity and false humility. When God’s people take Romans 12:3 to heart, we’ll see a change in the attitudes of people around us. Pride builds walls. Humility builds bridges.
It’s okay to say, “I don’t think I can do that.” It’s certainly better to say that than to pretend you can do it all. Healthy churches are filled with healthy Christians who have a healthy sense of their own limitations. They know they can’t do it all, so they don’t try to do what they can’t do.
Happy is the man who knows what he can’t do! Therefore, he won’t waste time trying to do what he can’t do, which gives him more time to do what he can do! That’s what I mean by honest evaluation. It gives you more time to do what you can do and sets you free from the impossible burden of trying to do it all. But honest evaluation is only the first mark of a healthy Christian attitude. It leads directly to the second important quality.
II. Faithful Cooperation
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (vv. 4-5).
The church is like a body. It has many parts with many functions yet they all serve a larger purpose. If you want to know what the church is like, stand in front of a mirror and look at your own body. You will discover three truths about your body and about God’s church:
1. Your body has many parts—visible and invisible.
2. Every part is important.
3. Every part depends on every other part.
If you doubt that last fact, think about the last time you had a toothache. Probably you never stop to think about your teeth until they start hurting. But when your teeth hurt, you can’t think about anything else. It’s the same with every part of your body. You don’t think about it until it hurts.
The principle involved is unity amidst diversity. We’re not all alike in the body of Christ. We have different functions, different gifts, different backgrounds, and different preferences. God didn’t cut us all from the same bolt of cloth. Some of us are like burlap, others like shiny satin, some are khaki, while others are a bright plaid. That truth would have been especially important in Rome where Jews and Gentiles struggled to find a common ground inside the church. Two thousand years later the struggle continues as black and whites, Asians and Hispanics, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, blue collar workers and white collar workers, men and women, young and old, the contemporary crowd and the traditional crowd all struggle to find a way to work together in God’s church.
A healthy church is one made up of all kinds of people from many different backgrounds who join together based on a common faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t have to share the same politics or like the same music or eat the same food or drive the same cars. That’s not what it’s all about. What we do share, however, is a deep-seated love for Jesus Christ. That ought to be enough to hold us together in the hard times. Healthy churches are filled with people who work together in spite of their differences.
That leads directly to the third mark of a healthy church.
III. Individual Participation
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (vv. 6-8).
Paul says we all have different gifts. The Greek word for “gifts” is charismata, from which we get the English word “charismatic.” That’s a loaded word these days, one that many of us shy away from. But it’s a good, biblical word. It simply means “grace gift.” All of God’s gifts are “grace gifts.” None of them come from within us, but all of them are given to us by God when we trust Christ as Savior. In that sense, we’re all charismatic Christians. If you’ve got a spiritual gift (and all Christians have at least one gift), then you are a charismatic believer.
Don’t let that thought scare you. It doesn’t mean you have to speak in tongues or do anything that makes you uncomfortable. Being charismatic in the biblical sense simply means that you have been given a spiritual gift by the Holy Spirit.
Here are three basic truths about spiritual gifts:
1. Every believer has at least one spiritual gift.
2. No believer has all the gifts.
3. Your spiritual gift enables you to serve the body of Christ effectively.
Here is the final mark of a healthy church: It’s a church where every believer is using his or her spiritual gifts for the good of the whole congregation.
Seven Spiritual Gifts
Paul lists seven gifts in Romans 12. In other passages (I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4), he gives other lists, which when you combine them together, result in a total of about 19 different spiritual gifts. Actually, I think there may be hundreds of different spiritual gifts, of which we have a small sampling in the New Testament.
First of all, he mentions prophecy. This gift is the ability to speak authoritative truth from God. In the first century, it probably referred to receiving direct messages from the Holy Spirit. Today it refers to those people who can take the Word of God and make it shine (the root meaning of the word).
Serving is a general term that means to “wait on tables.” People with this gift prefer to work behind the scenes. They don’t seek the limelight and they don’t want to be rewarded for their work. They quietly go about their business, finding ways to help others.
Teaching is one of the most important spiritual gifts, widely distributed in the body of Christ. Teachers have the ability to take the Word of God, explain it clearly, and apply it to the lives of the hearers. This gift may be exercised in many venues—on Sunday morning, in a small group, or in one-on-one discussion.
Encouragers are those Christians who instinctively gravitate to those folks who are struggling to stay in the race. They see a friend who is faltering and they reach out a helping hand. This gift has enabled many people to keep on going when they would otherwise have quit. Thank God for the encouragers who put courage into us (the literal meaning of the word) when we felt all hope was gone.
Did you know that giving can be a spiritual gift? All Christians are commanded to give generously, but some believers have been specially gifted by God in this area. These Christians may or may not be wealthy, but they find special joy in sharing their resources with others. Very often, these folks do their work anonymously, giving large sums secretly, neither wanting nor needing any public thanks. Paul says they should give “generously.” The word actually means “single-mindedly”-—referring to the fact that they should give “as unto the Lord”—not for any earthly reward.
Then there is the gift of leadership. The word means “to stand in front of a group.” This gift enables a person to take charge of a group or a meeting and lead that group in a positive, productive direction. People with this gift should do their work eagerly, gladly, with energy and full commitment.
Finally, Paul mentions showing mercy. This gift enables the believer to reach out to others who are hurting with the love of Christ. In England these people are often called “hospitallers” because their work carries them to the sickbed. What a crucial ministry this is. The challenge for mercy-givers is to do their work “cheerfully.” The word means “with a smile on your face.” One translation puts it this way: “If you come with sympathy to sorrow, bring God’s sunshine on your face.” A long face and a sour disposition are no recommendation for the Christian faith. We’ve all been visited by well-meaning sourpuss believers who made us feel better only because they finally left us. How much better to come with a smile and God’s love in our hearts. It will do so much more than being grumpy and unhappy.
Healthy Christians Make Healthy Churches
What makes a healthy church? The answer is not hard to find: Healthy Christians. After all, the church is more than the building or the organization. The church is the people and the people are the church.
Healthy churches are made up of healthy Christians who share three crucial qualities:
That leads me to ask a penetrating question: What are you doing with the gift God gave you? Are you using it for his glory? Or are you letting it go to waste?
Let me put the question another way: Suppose that everyone in the church were like you, what kind of church would we have? Would we still be able to staff our ministries? Would we still support missionaries around the world? Would we still reach people for Jesus Christ? Let that question sink into your soul. If it feels uncomfortable, perhaps the Holy Spirit wants you to do something about it.
If we want better churches, we need better people in our churches. And that will not happen by accident. In times like these, when pastoral failures have become front-page news, we could easily give in to despair, but that is precisely what we must not do. We all need the Lord desperately, and we need him much more than we know. Lately I have reciting the Jesus Prayer to myself. Arising out of the Orrthodox tradition over 1,000 years ago, it is striking in its simplicity: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Our churches will be better when we have better pastors and better church members, and that won’t happen until we together cry out for mercy from the Lord. The happy news is that God delights to hear the cries of his people when they call out to him.
The bottom line is very simple. Before we pray for the world to be changed, let us pray for our churches to be changed. And before we pray for our churches to be changed, let us pray for our pastors to be changed. And before we pray for our pastors to be changed, let us pray that we ourselves might be changed. That’s a prayer God will always be pleased to answer. Amen.