WHAT DOES A HEALTHY CHURCH LOOK LIKE?
'The church is full of hypocrites.'
'Well, yes, true, but there's room for another one!'
One Sunday night I visited a small 'non-denominational' church in rural
Victoria, Australia. They had big black Bibles - and severe expressions! I
decided to preach dialogically, so asked them to tell me all the good
qualities they could think of about the Pharisees. Their list: Pharisees
knew their Bible very well (most - off by heart), they were disciplined in
their praying, they tithed, they were moral (many could say 'All these
commands have I kept from my youth'), they fasted, some were martyred for
Yahweh and the Torah, they were regular 'church-attenders', their beliefs
were 'evangelical/orthodox' and they were evangelistic (even crossing the
ocean to win a convert - and Jews don't make good mariners).
Then. a deep silence. I asked the extrovert Peter if anything was wrong. He
said, 'Yes, that's us!' I responded: 'Really? But Jesus said these people
were "children of the devil!"' The silence got deeper. 'Obviously,' I
suggested, 'There's something wrong with that list. Everything Jesus said
was 'most important' isn't there. It's a good list - but a healthy church
will have other qualities...' (Now, class, 'go figure': start with Matthew
6:33, 15:8,9, 22: 24-39; 23:23, Luke 4:18-19; 11:42).
Healthy churches are being cured of their 'pharisaism'. (For Jesus,
love/acceptance of persons preceded their repenting; with the pharisees
ancient and modern it's the other way around). Such churches are
grace-filled, not legalistic or abusive.
Most of the world's 34,000 Christian churches/denominations  are having a
hard time, from at least three causes:
1. Self-inflicted wounds (the sins of televangelists, pedophile priests,
spiritual abuse, internecine fights over women's ordination, biblical
inerrancy, sexual orientation, abortion etc.)
2. Persecution, including torture and death. More Christians were killed for
their faith in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined.
3. Spiritual lethargy, nominalism, triumphalism (Western/older churches)
and syncretism (sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America). Researcher George
Barna says 44 % of Americans are 'notional Christians' - considering
themselves to be Christian, but they do not claim to know their eternal
destiny and are less likely to embrace core Bible doctrines. 
Evangelical leader John Stott claims there are four main pressures facing
the Western church today - pluralism ('tolerance' of other religions which
asserts that they all have their own validity); materialism (preoccupation
with 'things' which suffocate our spiritual life); relativism (which waters
down the absolute standards of Christ), and narcissism (an infatuation with
Now, an important principle: The devil is active in a unique way in all of
the 34,000 Christian churches/denominations (even those too sophisticated to
believe in the devil!). And, I believe, the Holy Spirit is active in most of
them. (I can't see any evidence of God at work in some quasi-Christian
cultish groups). How do we find out who's doing what? The way we always
have: God sends us prophets. Your church doesn't have them? Well, it's
probably more convenient to regulate our beliefs with creeds, and our
behavior with constitutions, and we won't be challenged as much (smiley
What does the devil do? There are many demonic strategies (remember C. S.,
Lewis' Screwtape Letters?). One of them is to separate what God has joined
Three examples: in the apostolic churches the question 'Who, under God,
governs the church?' was answered several ways. There were apostles,
prophets, teachers, bishops, elders. Today we might add another (unknown
back then): grass-roots democratic 'ownership' of decision-making.
Another: how do people come to know God? In his magnum opus, Streams of
Living Water, Richard Foster suggests there are six broad Hebrew-Christian
answers: from the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice,
evangelical, and incarnational traditions. The devil's job is make these
Back to narcissism, for another: have you noticed charismatic-flavored
Generation X'ers tend to write Christian music that is predominantly
'I-me-my-ish'? Half the contents of the biblical Psalms and Prophets, which
express negative emotions or a passion for social justice, don't often find
their way into modern songs.
Why don't we model our churches on 'The Early Church'? Well, which one? Paul
Minear offers 96 images for the church in the New Testament.  Raymond
distinguishes at least nine major ecclesiologies in Christianity's first
century of existence. 
A church's size, per se, is not an automatic indicator of health. Some
healthy churches are large; others are small (some people prefer
supermarkets, others boutiques). But large churches can be unhealthy - and
fat; and small churches can be malnourished. Certainly, healthy churches
generally grow - they are welcoming, so people come back again! But 'one
size fits all' doesn't work any more, for churches as for the commercial
Liberal and mainstream churches are declining, all over the world: there's a
general pattern of resilience as we move from 'left' to 'right' across the
Protestant spectrum. But why are evangelical/conservative or
charismatic/Pentecostal churches - particularly 'megachurches' - holding
their own or growing? Simple: musical chairs - 'church hopping growth'. One
survey in the U.S.: 'more than 80%' is transfer growth; another in Canada:
only 5.5% of church attenders come from an unchurched background. 
In the Roman Catholic church the situation is also complex. In the U.S.,
according to Time's (April 1) lead article 'Can the Catholic Church Save
Itself?' congregations are growing (due, among other factors, to an
increasing influx of Latin-Americans), but there are now more priests over
90 than under 30! Twenty seven percent of Catholic parishes have no resident
priest: so more are now led by deacons.
Another interesting question: why is there anecdotal evidence for more
Christian priests/leaders becoming Buddhist, rather than in the reverse
direction? Why, in some countries, is the number of pastors/priests joining
Orthodox churches greater than the movement of Orthodox priests the other
Here are the five essential tests of a healthy church - rural or urban,
greying or 'Generation X', Western or in a pre-industrial setting.
Biblical worship is
* Eremitical/reflective/solitary. All of God's key leaders spent a
disproportionate amount of their lives in deserts. Read the astonishing
statement in Luke (5:15,16): Jesus left people unhealed and ignorant to go
in the desert to pray! Does your church encourage spiritual retreats?
* Reverential/eucharistic/'Temple' - Catholic and Orthodox churches
* Scripture-centred/'Synagogue'- the Puritan tradition, Baptists,
* Relational - small groups and house churches
* 'Festival' - charismatic/pentecostal churches
* Worship as whole of life (Romans 12:1,2).
Each helps us to relate to a different aspect of who God is for us.
Authentic worship vitally connects 'worship services in church' with our
'secular' vocations. Whatever our liturgical preference, we are 'lost in
wonder, love and praise' before our great and wonderful God. We worship with
'all that is within us' (Psalm 103): the child in us is joyful, or
charismatic; our minds and wills respond to God's truth through God's Word
(in Scripture, via prophets, in preaching); and we relate meaningfully to
others in the context of worship.
'They'll know we are Christians by our love'... Will they? Our love is to be
shown in deeds and in words. Suggestions: at Parish Council or Elders'
meetings, begin by sharing life-experiences. Then pray for one another. And
sometimes in the 'passing of the peace' agree to pray for one other person
every day the following week. Serious praying in twos and threes will happen
after the benediction in churches that are healthy - where people share one
another's burdens and joys. I also like the practice in some churches of an
invitation to be prayed for by the pastors/elders at communion, or at the
end of the worship-service. (But allow people to be private too). Does your
church have a food bank for the poor/sick? A prayer-chain, connecting people
by phone or email to pray for those in need?
Spiritual formation is the process whereby the Word of God applied by the
Spirit of God to the heart and mind of the child of God makes us more like
the Son of God. Our aim is to become more like Jesus. And that does not
automatically happen by 'going to church'. Keith Miller wrote about a man
who occupied every office in his church except the pastorate, and after
hundreds of sermons and committee meetings confessed that he didn't know
God! We must desperately want to be changed. Eugene Peterson (The
Contemplative Pastor etc.) has helped us understand that the pastor is not
primarily CEO of the church-as-institution, but rather spiritual director,
helping us get to know God. ('Pastors are busy,' he says, adapting some
wisdom from C. S. Lewis, 'because they're lazy!' Figure that one out!).
Christian mission is doing in our world what Jesus did in his. It has three
dimensions (Micah 6:8, Matthew 23:23): justice, mercy, and evangelism.
Justice is the right use of power. So who in our community/world is the
victim of others' abuse of power? 'Justice is figuring out what belongs to
whom and returning it to them' (Walter Brueggeman). Mercy asks: 'How can I
fulfil Francis of Assisi's injunction, 'Preach the gospel: use words if
necessary'? What do others need - practically and emotionally - that I can
supply?' Then the ultimate faith/evangelism issue, addressing what Jesus and
St. Paul calls our 'lostness': 'How do we relate personally to God? Healthy
churches witness a regular procession of people 'coming to faith'.
How do we do mission? That depends on the sub-cultures your church
identifies as its major constituency. (Jerry Springer's people don't go to
Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung says the Western church has experienced
six major paradigm shifts. One was the Protestant Reformation - where 'the
Bible was put into the hands of ordinary Christians.'  We now need
paradigm shift, renouncing clericalism and giving ministry back to ordinary
Christians. The key functional test of a healthy church is how well it
trains its members so that the church ministers to itself! Does your church
have at least 70% of Sunday attenders in 'faith development' groups? Does it
have a bookstall/ tape library? Do you run Alpha courses, or workshops on
faith development, biblical subjects, counseling ('How to Help Your
marriage preparation, parenting, an overview of church history,
introduction to Islam etc. etc.? 
In Sunday School we used to sing 'Have I Done My Very Best for Jesus?
America's leading church consultant in the last century, Lyle Schaller, has
emphasised that the best thing even a small church can do is figure out what
its one or two primary strategies ought to be, and pursue them with
Was it George Gallup who said 'American religion' - read European,
Australian, etc. - 'is 3,000 miles wide and three inches deep'?
However, Jesus loves his Church, though it is not-yet-fully-redeemed. So
1. Discuss the reasons why churches become legalistic - or even abusive.
2. What can we do about the Pharisaism in all/most of us? Where does it come
3. 'The devil has a strategy to destroy what God is doing in every Christian
group/individual.' How do we discover the devil's strategy? What can we do
about this 'cosmic conflict'?
4. Christians are persecuted in about 40 countries. What can we do about
5. Lethargy, nominalism, triumphalism, syncretism, pluralism, materialism,
relativism, narcissism are mentioned in the article as evils within the
church. How would you define these? How can they be cured?
6. There are at least six biblical understandings of 'worship'. How can we
incorporate each of these into our church's (and individual) life?
7. How can we better create 'community' in our group/church?
8. The Dalai Lama asked contemplative Thomas Merton: 'How can your idea of
union with Christ be understood and measured?' Well, how?
9. How do you do 'mission' in your area? How would you apply the three
dimensions of biblical mission - justice, mercy, evangelism - to what you
do - as churches, groups of churches, or individuals?
10. What's your church's plan to 'renounce clericalism'?
11. 'Pastors are busy because they're lazy'. What does Eugene Peterson mean?
12. Why is it difficult to love the church as Christ does?
1. David Barrett et al, World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey
of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200, Oxford University Press, 2001
2. George Barna, 'American Faith is Diverse', January 29, 2002.
3. See http://www.episcopalian.org/cclec/paper-stott_nonconformity.htm
4. Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, Westminster,
5. Raymond Edward Brown, John P. Meier, Antioch and Rome: New Testament
Cradles of Catholic Christianity, Paulist Press, January 1983. Raymond
Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, Paulist, 1984.
6. For 100 Marks of a Healthy Church see
For just 34 - from a case-study of the 'model' New Testament church,
8. See, eg., Don Pittman, 'The Seminary and Its Theological Discourse,
9. Rowland Croucher, In Search of Pastoral Excellence,
Rowland Croucher, April 2002