Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Healthy Church

So what makes a church healthy?  I suspect most people who are involved with a church have some opinion on this question.  Or at least feel like they can identify if a church is healthy or not, even if they cannot define why.  Church health is actually a topic that generates much discussion and many books, but apparently is a topic where consensus is hard to find.

Now I don't pretend to be an expert on church health, although I have been involved with many churches in the past few decades.  I would describe some of these churches as at least marginally healthy, some that were a bit sickly, and even a couple that have had the plug pulled on life support.  And over the years I have developed a gut feel for the health of a church, although it was hard to quantify.  But I have spent a bit more time with that question recently and have some more specific criteria now.

One of the metaphors used in the Bible for the church is that of a body.  The church is the body of Christ, with Christ as the head and each member of the church acting as a body part.  I like this metaphor in the context of church health and will use it extensively here.  It seems like there should be some good parallels between my health, and the health of 'the body'.

Connected to the Head

My own health is highly dependent on the rest of me remaining tightly connected to, and taking direction from, my head.  It is highly unusual for a human body to operate in a healthy fashion independently of its head.  So too the church.  If it is not tightly connected to its head, to Christ, then it is not only unhealthy, it is dead, or dying.

So is the church you belong to connected to its head?  That can sometimes be hard to know for sure, although other times it is obvious one way or another.  Does your church seek direction from the head in everything they do?  Do they keep their focus on the head, or are they more focused on money, people, programs, or problems?  Are they excited about Jesus, enjoying life with him, or are they just going through the motions, following their traditions.  How do they respond when a soul is saved?

All the Parts Working in Harmony

One of the signs of a healthy human body is that all of its parts are working correctly and in harmony with each other.  If even one part is sickly and/or not functioning correctly, then I am unhealthy.  And the more parts not working correctly, the less healthy I am.  While I can continue to function, it is at a less than optimal  fashion.

The body of Christ is very similar is this regard.  When all of its parts are functioning correctly and doing their part, the body is healthy and productive.  But if members of the body are not correctly filling the role God has placed them in, the whole body will suffer.  And the more body parts that choose to do nothing, or serve incorrectly, the greater the harm to the body.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. - Ephesians 4:16 NIV

Disease Free

Disease is another problem that my body faces.  This is actually similar to having the body functioning incorrectly as discussed above, but I am choosing to make a distinction here between the two; a distinction that not all may agree with, but that's OK.

I have had cancer, and currently have heart issues.  Both of those are caused by my body not working correctly.  I am also in the process of recovering from a cold.  The cause of this is something outside of my body, a virus, launching an attack on me.  And that illustrates my somewhat arbitrary distinction between functioning incorrectly and dealing with disease; disease being something that is caused by some outside agent.

Disease agents, viruses and bacteria and other creepy crawlies, are all around me, looking for a way to break through my bodies defenses.  And occasionally one of them does, and I get sick.  Normally, if my body is healthy enough, it will quickly fight it off and health is restored.  But there are times, depending on the state of my health and the severity of the attack, that it might be debilitating, or even fatal.

The local body of Christ also faces many disease agents: false doctrine; compromise; adoption of shortcuts to attract more people; persecution; bitterness; the easy way; faithlessness, etc.  Each of these are like a virus, just looking for a weakness to attack and spread.  A healthy body will be able to fight off most with little problem, but sometimes a weakness is found and the body is infected.  And as the virus spreads, unless the body is able to successfully fight it off, the body will grow sickly and ineffective, and maybe even die.

My body fights off disease primary by avoiding it in the first place, but if infected, the bodies resources are committed to overcoming the attack.  The same strategy will work for the church.  Avoid contamination in the first place.  But if contamination does occur, fight it off rather than allow it to spread.

Get Plenty of Exercise

One of the questions my doctors always ask me concerns the amount of exercise I get.  While physical activity does not guarantee good health, it does make it more likely.  The more active I am, the stronger my body will be, and the better prepared it is to fight off disease from outside, and breakdown from within.

A body that is actively involved in the Lord's work is also much more likely to be healthy than one that does little.  The healthiest churches I know of are those whose calendars are filled with opportunities for service.  A church that is working, going, and reaching is much more likely to be healthy than one that is at rest and content.

It is worth pointing out that just being busy will not make a church healthy; in fact, it could be a sign of being unhealthy.  What is it that fills the calender?  Providing opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people around us is much healthier for a church than providing a multitude of entertainment opportunities that only benefit the body members.

Good Nutrition

Another primary question my doctors like to ask concerns my nutrition habits.  Am I eating the rights things?  Do I avoid tobacco, drugs and alcohol?  I used to be able to answer positively to all of these questions, until suddenly my cholesterol became too high.  Now I am forced to look more closely at what I eat, trying to avoid saturated and trans fats and cholesterol.  I am painfully discovering that much of what I enjoy eating is not really all that good for me.

How important is good nutrition in the life of the church; Bible study and preaching?  Are we willing to hear what God has to say to us (good nutrition), or do we prefer to hear what makes us feel good (junk food).  Preaching and Bible study are not guarantees of good health, but hearing and responding to a genuine message from God makes church health much more likely.

The Signs of Good Health

The are a number of indicators that people sometimes use to judge the health of a church.  Stay tuned for a discussion of some of these, and how they are often misleading.

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