Is Your Church Healthy? Five Underrated Marks of a Healthy Church
I remember when I was younger, I didn’t pay much attention to my health. I would often eat whatever I wanted and would sleep whenever I wanted. But the older I get, the more I’m realizing just how important it is to pay attention to my health. That’s because at my age, I’m beginning to feel the consequences of my unhealthy eating and sleeping habits.
Similarly, when I first started pastoral ministry, I didn’t pay much attention to church health. I just wanted to teach the Bible, make disciples, and grow the church. But the older I get, the more I’m realizing just how important it is to pay attention to a church’s health i.e. that a church is functional, sustainable, and life-giving. In fact, I’d argue that it’s perhaps the most important thing a church should pay attention to.
Yes, the church should focus on making disciples and reaching the ends of the earth (Mt 28:18-20). That is clearly the church’s mission. But I’d argue that a church can’t really accomplish her mission unless it’s healthy enough to do so. And churches that don’t pay attention to health may do incredible things…for a while. But unfortunately, they won’t do so in a way that’s sustainable.
So what makes a church healthy? Perhaps one of the well-known answers are found in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks Ministry which argue for nine healthy church practices such as expository preaching, prayer, membership, etc. But while I affirm those nine marks, I think most pastors try to practice those yet still notice something feels off. That’s because I think there are a few more, overlooked practices that are also critical to a church’s health.
What are those overlooked practices? Here are five.
1) Healthy Churches Have a Genuine Plurality of Leadership
Biblically and practically, it seems obvious that churches should have a plurality of leadership. But is that enough to ensure health? In his book Healthy Plurality = Durable Church, author David Harvey argues simply having a plurality of leadership doesn’t ensure health. Here’s the more important question: What’s the quality of that plurality? In other words, it’s not enough to have a leadership time in place; rather, what’s the dynamics of that leadership team?
This is so important because so many churches have the appearance of a plural leadership but in reality, it’s the senior pastor who runs the show. So even though there’s an illusion of plurality, in reality the church functions like a monarchy. For example: Decisions are rarely challenged; individuals are never called out; and passivity permeates the culture.
So how do you know when your church has a genuine plurality of leadership? Well, ask your leaders. Would they say in their meetings that they can speak honestly to each other, have godly disagreements, and call out any B.S. they see? Or look your church as a whole. Does your church culture reflect the personality of one leader or the leaders as a whole? Those questions are a start to determine whether your leadership is genuinely plurality or not.
2) Healthy Churches Create and Honor Processes
How does your church train leaders? How does it discipline members? How does it evaluate church staff? I realize there are so many churches out there that simply try to “do church” without any formal processes how things should get done. Or if there is a formal process, it’s not written down anywhere. Or if it is written down, it’s hidden away in a random folder and is never honored.
Now I understand why some churches don’t have processes. For some, processes seem irrelevant. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone choose a church based on their healthy bylaws? For others, they don’t want to be tied down by rigid protocols. Still, others will say they want to rely “not on process but on prayer” or something overtly spiritual like that. But I think most churches don’t do it because, well, they’re lazy. Processes are hard to create. Worse, they’re boring. However, I think they’re necessary for a church to be healthy.
Why so? Well, for one, processes allow for important decisions to be made more carefully. They don’t allow leaders to make decisions on the whim but to have guardrails to guide them. Second, processes hold leaders accountable. Leaders can’t simply do what they want but must submit to the bylaws they’ve created. Lastly, processes help build trust. When decisions are made without a process, how do members know if leaders are playing favorites or maneuvering out of self-interest?
So to build a healthy church, it would be wise for leaders to create, honor, and trust the process.
3) Healthy Churches Multiply Rather Than Franchise
Whenever I see a growing church planning multiple Sunday services or starting multi-site campuses, I can’t help but cringe. Now I have nothing against large churches or multiple services, but I can’t help but think “Why don’t you guys church plant?” Instead of managing your church size, why not plan to send people in your church out? Now I understand that starting church plants isn’t easy. You lose resources, leaders, and members. I get it.
But I’m a suspicious guy. I can’t help but think that a lot of churches who try to manage rather than multiply their size do so because, well, they feel validated by their size. As a pastor myself, I can understand how it feels to lead a church of 200 vs. a church of 500. That’s why most pastors who talk about wanting to be a church planting church are pastors of young churches. But once their church gets big…those talks are replaced by multiple services and campuses.
In other words, we’re franchising our churches.
However, I think healthy churches are willing to let go of power, size and influence. They see how important it is for established churches to start up new, independent ones. They don’t see size as a source of validation. They’re not afraid to lose key members. In fact, I’d say the healthiest churches are the ones most willing to lose them because they know church isn’t about building Babels higher and higher but about spreading the gospel further and further.
4) Healthy Churches Participate in Kingdom Work Outside Their Church
When you look at the early church, it seems like a lot of them were participating in the work of ministry together. For example, when a famine hit Jerusalem, all the saints seemed got involved in helping the Jerusalem church (2 Cor 8:1-5). However, when you look at churches today, most of them seem content doing their own thing.
Now while I agree that a local church should focus primarily on its own congregation, I think they become unhealthy when they only focus on their own congregation. When pastors and churches don’t ever rub shoulders with other pastors or churches, they often grow narrow-minded and even suspicious of other Christians. Why so? Social psychologists call this phenomenon group polarization where homogenous groups tend to become tribal.
I see this happen in local churches that stick to themselves and think the only way to do church is their way. But when your church participates in kingdom work, your church members are reminded that God’s kingdom is never limited to your local congregation. It’s diverse and filled with different people and practices. At the very least, such kingdom work will humble a church and I can’t help but think that perspective is healthy.
5) Healthy Churches Empower Its Members
The Bible uses many metaphors to describe the church. Temple of God. Holy Nation. Royal Priesthood. But one of the most popular metaphors that God uses to describe the church is “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). When a church is functioning the way it’s supposed to, it looks like a body where every part is active, involved, and caring for the church’s well-being.
However, when you look at most churches today, you’d think the body of Christ is paraplegic. That’s because most churches tend to operate where the pastors do the work of ministry while the members simply come to receive. So when things go wrong or members are in sin, members think, “What are the pastors going to do about this?” We’re like a body where the mind is working great but the hands and legs are wheelchair bound.
When I see a paraplegic church though, I don’t blame the members. I think this is first and foremost a leadership problem. That’s because the Bible instructs leaders not to do the work of ministry but rather to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12). Members won’t step up unless leaders activate them through intentional discipleship. Only then will the church function like a healthy body.