Looking for a new church can be difficult. When we search for a community to join in worship, we're trying to find something we can commit to long term. But sometimes, we tend to compare potential churches with a consumer mentality rather than a kingdom perspective. And a church might have a lot of the amenities and styles we prefer but not be a place that will make us closer to Jesus.
And while our preferences will always be part of the decision-making process, it's vital to have some criteria for considering churches that aren't based entirely on our tastes. In fact, sometimes we experience excessive spiritual growth in healthy environments that run counter to our preferences. People who appreciate more traditional churches have sometimes found themselves flourishing in more contemporary settings. And others who prefer modern worship styles have discovered immense growth in churches with liturgical worship styles.
When it comes to our commitment to a community of faith, we must make health our primary focus. Once we nail down a few key elements, we can turn our attention toward the features we prefer.
Things to keep in mind about healthy churches
We don't want to go into churches with unreasonable expectations. So, before we dive into the signs of a healthy church, it would be helpful to offer some qualifications.
Healthy qualities express themselves differently
If you were to go to a financial counselor, they'd sit down and help you develop smart practices for handling and investing your money. If you sought input from multiple financial counselors, you'd notice they offered different kinds of advice. One might tell you to invest in a 401(k) and another might suggest a Roth IRA. But most of their general principles would be similar.
The same is true of churches. For instance, a discipleship focus is essential, but that focus will look different in various churches. One church might have a class-oriented academic program as their primary focus, but another might prefer a more organic mentoring approach. The key here is to look for ways a church elevates the discipleship process and not to hunt for recreations of discipleship programs you’ve experienced in the past.
Every church will have its weaknesses
We also want to be aware of the fact that there are no perfect churches. All we have to do is read Paul's Epistles to see that every church has strengths and weaknesses. The goal isn't to find a perfect place to worship. Think of these points as being touchpoints for recognizing strengths and identifying things that are critical to Christian community. From church to church, they're going to be present at varying degrees. It's a red flag if they're entirely absent, but each component won't always be present with the same vigor as the others.
If a church's weakness is an area that you're particularly passionate about, it could be that you have something to contribute to this community. Keep in mind that sometimes the missing ingredient in a congregation is you!
What the church looked like when it started
After Jesus ascended and the Spirit fell on Jerusalem at Pentecost, over 3,000 were immediately baptized into the community of God. Luke tells us what this new gathering of believers looked like.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47).
Considering this passage is helpful to examine for several reasons:
- These believers all shared the same miraculous experience, causing them to follow Jesus. This bonded them as a community in a profound way. This early picture of the church demonstrates Christian community in its passionate infancy before other influences began seeping in.
- These believers are being shepherded by the apostles—the men who sat at Jesus' feet. So not only is this early community expression influenced by the Spirit, but the disciples’ wisdom and experience also guide it.
So while we can't expect to recreate this experience, it's an excellent place to start as we consider what makes a healthy church.
Check out this passage from the "Book of Acts" film.
1. Healthy churches are committed to God's Word
The very first thing Luke tells us is that these believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching. They didn't just listen to this instruction; they dedicated themselves to it. They were fully invested in what the apostles' had to tell them. This makes sense because what the apostles had to share came directly from Jesus.
Now we might not have the apostles available to guide our churches, but by being committed to Scripture, we can also avail ourselves of the apostles' teaching—wisdom they received from God.
Scripture should penetrate every part of a faith community, not just the sermons. The church ministries should find their wisdom in God's Word. Bible studies should spring up naturally in small groups. And this communal dedication to God's Word should filter down into families who rely on Scripture to sustain and comfort them.
But more than simply reading and discussing Scripture, a dedication to its teaching should be present. James says as much in his Epistle: "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22). The whole purpose of being dedicated to God's Word isn't to be the person who knows it best or can recite it by memory; it should be driven by a desire to apply these teachings to our lives.
2. Healthy churches are invested in fellowship
Fellowship is one of those words used a lot in Christian circles, but it's never well defined. So a lot of the time, we think of it as simply being together. But when the New Testament writers used the term, it was about participating in divine life with other believers. That's why fellowship was about being with other believers, but it was also used when talking about financially contributing to the care of other Christians—even if distance prohibited gathering. (You can learn more in the post What Is Christian Fellowship and Why Is It Important?)
This commitment to one another extended beyond religious gatherings. Luke tells us that the believers:
- Were together and had everything in common.
- Met in the temple courts every day.
- Ate together in one another's homes.
And while we don't want to enforce fellowship by making rules about how often people gather and how they share with one another, it's important to recognize that in communities where Jesus' Spirit is present, people are drawn to gather and serve one another. It's almost a compulsion.
Gathering for one church service a week doesn't necessarily mean that fellowship is happening. There needs to be more participation in each others’ lives. Sometimes that looks like scheduled ministries and events, but ideally, it would overflow into personal lives. Truly authentic fellowship begins once we realize that we're closer to Jesus when we’re attending to His people—and they're taking care of us.
Luke further illustrates this fellowship through the expression "breaking of bread." This invokes both the casual sharing of meals and the Lord’s supper. Fellowship walks the line between being involved in each other's everyday lives and ministering to one another.
3. Healthy churches prioritize prayer
In a very real way, this could fall under the heading of fellowship. Luke expounds on fellowship by articulating, "by the breaking of bread and to prayer." These early believers weren't just hanging out and calling it fellowship; they were like one collective organism invested in seeking the Lord together.
Healthy churches make prayer a priority, and not just the corporate prayers that open a service or happen before a meal. Because they believe that every good and perfect gift comes from above (James 1:17), they're committed to seeking Him together.
It helps to remember that when Paul issues calls to prayer in his Epistles, he's talking to churches. We often read them as personal instructions because he says, "you." But that "you" is corporate—he's telling them to pray as a people:
- And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people (Ephesians 6:18).
- Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6).
- Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
It's entirely appropriate to take these as personal instructions to pray, but in their context, Paul is speaking to the church.
4. Healthy churches respond in worship
Everyone has their personal preferences about worship elements. Some people are drawn to hymns and others to more contemporary worship. Another group might find more meaning in responsive readings and more liturgical elements. But our preferred style of worship can become rote and empty.
Luke tells us that these early believers were in awe at what God was doing through the apostles. This "awe" is the raw material for worship. Hopefully, God is performing signs and wonders in our churches, too. People's lives are being transformed. Relationships are being reconciled. Communities are being impacted. The more aware we are of what God is doing, the more worship becomes our natural, organic response.
Worship isn't just something that happens during certain scheduled services. It's a condition that arises out of what God has done with and through us in the past, what God is doing right now, and in anticipation of what God will do in the future. So healthy churches understand the importance of communicating stories and testimonies about how God is moving in the life of the congregation, and that leads to wonder and awe.
5. Healthy churches demonstrate a spirit of generosity
In a consumer culture, it can be difficult to even imagine what it's like for a group of people to consider all of their belongings to be common. But that's exactly where the people in the early church found themselves. They obviously still had personal possessions (Luke tells us they met in each other's homes), but the way they thought about their belongings had changed.
When others were in need, they had no problem selling property to care for each other's needs. In fact, Luke finds this so commendable and surprising that he talks about it again in Acts 4:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32–35).
Obviously, this wasn't a dictate of the apostles. These believers weren't commanded to give up their possessions. Generosity was a natural response to what they were experiencing. And as modern believers, we need to be very reflective about how we view our own assets. Because our attitude becomes a simple thermometer revealing the truth about our spiritual temperature. Churches shouldn't have to continually browbeat congregants into generosity; it should be the response of worshipful hearts.
A critical flip side of this issue is that healthy churches (and ministries) need to be very careful and particular about how they treat this generosity. These people shared what they had to meet the needs of others. Mature churches respond to generosity by asking themselves, "What is the best way to invest these assets so that we can facilitate the Lord’s passions?"
6. Healthy churches are outward focused
Jesus told the disciples that the way they loved one another would be a sign to the world that they belonged to Him (John 13:35). We see this at work in Luke's words about the early church. He tells us that these Christians were enjoying the favor of all people and that God was adding to their number daily.
But it just wasn't their message everyone was embracing. Resistance to the gospel was building among the Sanhedrin, and it would soon erupt into full-fledged persecution. People were responding to what they saw in these new believers. They were enamored by the purity of their worship and their love for one another. People long for the kind of community and care shared among these early Christians, and seeing it in them helped to validate the gospel message.
Healthy churches take the Great Commission seriously, but they're also aware of the fact that the gospel's proof of concept is demonstrated in the way these Christians loved and cared for one another. When churches are healthy, the Lord adds to their number, but it's not a passive activity. These churches seek the lost and create a nurturing environment where these people can be transformed into disciples.
Find your healthy church—maybe you're in one now
All of these elements in a healthy church will manifest themselves differently in various environments. Things like fellowship, generosity, and worship express themselves in different ways, so it's important not to get caught up in specific expressions. Look for spaces where these signs are on display in the manner that best aligns with you.
Remember, most churches are going to be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. That doesn't mean that you should leave your community to seek out an idealized congregation elsewhere. Sometimes the Lord puts us in places where we can help encourage growth in certain areas.
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