Thursday, December 01, 2005
Contrasting Healthy and Unhealthy Churches
My view of the church has changed. I used to think that a true church was one that baptized people for the remission of sins, never used an instrument in worship, observed communion every Sunday, had a plurality of elders and deacons (and refused to call the preacher “pastor”), rejected all five points of Calvinism, and taught a millennial eschatology. I used to think that unless a church could be described by the list above it was not a "true" church. My legalistic 6-item checklist was very sectarian and exclusive. Moreover, the Lord Jesus Christ was missing from all six items! The Bible paints a very different picture of the church. The list below is not intended to be exhaustive, but it does provide some thought-provoking contrasts between healthy and unhealthy churches.** I like to frame my view of the church with the words “healthy and unhealthy” as opposed to “true church and not a church at all.” It just seems to be a more gracious way of viewing churches and does not appear to be as sectarian or exclusive because all churches are unhealthy in some areas and can be nursed back to health. Carefully read the contrasting statements below and reflect on each one. All of the references are from the book of Acts. Healthy Church - Focused on Christ (2:22-36) Unhealthy Church - Focused on church Healthy Church - Relies on the Holy Spirit (2:1-47) Unhealthy Church - Relies on human effort Healthy Church - Based on the Bible (2:42) Unhealthy Church - Based on tradition Healthy Church - Emphasis on grace (15:1-35) Unhealthy Church - Emphasis on works-righteousness Healthy Church - God gets all the credit (2:47) Unhealthy Church - People get the credit. Healthy Church - Faithfully practices the ordinances of baptism (2:41) and communion (2:42) Unhealthy Church - Fails to practice these ordinances or overemphasizes them. Healthy Church - Diversity is encouraged (2:9-11), and there is a respect for individual beliefs and cultural differences Unhealthy Church - Conformity is prized, and individual beliefs & cultural differences are devalued. Healthy Church - Prayer is a priority (4:23-31) Unhealthy Church - Prayer is talked about but not practiced Healthy Church - Communication is clear & direct (15:22-35) Unhealthy Church - Communication is unclear & indirect. Healthy Church - Repentance is stressed (3:19) Unhealthy Church - Repentance is whispered Healthy Church - Members feel empowered (4:31) and share power with one another Unhealthy Church - Members or leaders use power and control over others. Healthy Church - Assemblies are dynamic; Inspiring worship (2:43, 4:23-31) Unhealthy Church - Assemblies are dull, predictable and boring Healthy Church - Thinking and questioning are encouraged (18:26) Unhealthy Church - Thinking and questioning are discouraged. Healthy Church - Obedient to God (4:19) Unhealthy Church - People pleasing Healthy Church - Members trust other members and leaders, or at least they openly express any lack of trust. (5:1-11) Unhealthy Church - Mistrust is evidenced by an undercurrent of unexpressed hostility. Healthy Church - Culturally relevant while remaining doctrinally pure (17:16-34) Unhealthy Church - Fixated on doctrine and uses out-of-date methods. Healthy Church - Goals are clear and specific (1:8) and shared by the members - the church is lead to meet goals. Unhealthy Church - Goals are fuzzy, abstract, and general. Members have unclear personal goals or no goals at all. Healthy Church - Most members feel a sense of inclusion, and excluded members are invited to become more active (2:44) Unhealthy Church - Many members feel excluded and cliques are formed - there is fear of expressing feelings of being left out Healthy Church - The leadership functions are shared by the group; people feel free to initiate activities and be creative (6:1-7). Unhealthy Church - There are power conflicts among members and leaders. Creativity is discourage. Healthy Church - Large group assemblies and small group sharing (20:20) Unhealthy Church - Large group and middle size group only. Small groups are viewed with suspicion. Healthy Church - Sin is confessed (19:18) Unhealthy Church - Sin is hidden and rarely confessed Healthy Church - Members give their money generously 4:32-37) – the leaders are accountable and open in the way they handle funds Unhealthy Church - Members are not charitable - the leaders are secretive and unaccountable. Healthy Church - Organizational structure is functional and flexible (6:1-7). Gift-based ministry. Unhealthy Church - Organizational structure in inflexible and dysfunctional. Haphazard ministry Healthy Church - Needs-oriented evangelism (1:8) Unhealthy Church - Evangelism is rare - few people are saved Healthy Church - Cooperates with other churches in ministry (21:18 & 24:17) Unhealthy Church - Isolates themselves from other churches - exclusive and sectarian. Healthy Church - Cohesion is high; there is a close emotional bond among members. Members share with each other (2:44-45). Unhealthy Church - Division exists; people feel distant from one another. There is a lack of caring and empathy. Healthy Church - Organized ministry for the poor (6:1-7) Unhealthy Church - No organized outreach to the poor Healthy Church - Men and women are free to pray and prophesy (1:14, 2:17, 4:24, 21:9) Unhealthy Church - Women and young girls are excluded from full participation in assemblies & small groups Healthy Church - Loving relationships permeate every aspect of the church ( 20:36-38) Unhealthy Church - Members are distant from each other Healthy Church - Conflict among members or with leaders is recognized, discussed, and often resolved (6:1-8, 15:1-30 & 36-41) Unhealthy Church - Conflict or negative feelings are ignored, denied, or avoided. Healthy Church - Passionate spirituality (18:28) Unhealthy Church - Lack of enthusiasm - low morale Review the distinguishing marks of a healthy church listed above. Don’t view it as a legalistic checklist. View it as a list of inspiring qualities to work toward. No church is perfect. A church can be unhealthy in numerous areas and still be the church of God. Think about the church in Corinth. The Corinthian church was divided (1.10), immoral (5.1-13; 6.12-20), they were suing each other in civil courts of law (6.1-11), they had problems with divorce and remarriage (7.1-40), they were insensitive to weak believers (chapters 8-10), they observed the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (11.17-34), they were confused about spiritual gifts (12.1-30), their assemblies were chaotic (14.26-39), and their teaching on the resurrection was wrong (15.12-58). Yet, in spite of all of these problems Paul addressed them as the church of God in Corinth (1.2) and said that he always gave thanks for them (1.4). With the security of their salvation affirmed, he gave specific instructions to nurse this church back to health. This view of the church is very different than the prior view I described at the beginning of this post (i.e., the legalistic 6-item (checklist). This current view allows us to be just as grateful as Paul was, even for churches with as many problems as Corinth. We should stop ostracizing unhealthy churches and express gratitude for every church that confesses Jesus Christ is Lord. Think about each statement as it relates to your church. Identify strengths and build on them. Identify weaknesses and take measures to improve those areas. Work to improve the health of your church knowing that your salvation is secure. You are the church of God. One day Jesus will present his church to himself as perfect, without blemish. Until that time we pray and rely on the Holy Spirit as we strive to be all the Lord wants us to be as a church. _____________________ **FOOTNOTE: Where did I get the idea? The list of characteristics of a healthy church is adapted from Cory and Cory’s description of healthy groups in: Cory, Gerald. Theory and Practice of Group Counseling 6th edition. (2001) Wadsworth Press. Belmont CA. As I was preparing to teach a counseling course I was struck by the similarites between healthy and unhealthy groups and healthy and unhealthy churches. I took Cory's list and found relevant passages from Acts that described a healthy church.