What signifies a healthy church? Is it a building? Or the number of people who attend on Sunday morning? Or the number of activities the church has available? Or the number of people baptized in a given year?
While all of these things might be ways that we determine whether a church is healthy, God’s definition of a healthy church as spelled out in the Bible is completely different.
In his booklet Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (PDF), pastor and author Mark Dever identifies nine biblical characteristics of a healthy church. While this list is not exhaustive of all the characteristics a healthy church should possess, it provides a framework upon which a biblical church can be built.
1. Expositional Preaching
Simply put, expositional preaching involves examining a passage of Scripture and then attempt to answer three questions: what does the passage say, what does the passage mean, and how do we apply the truths in the passage to our lives?It is not simply a style of preaching but a concerted effort to put God’s Word at the center of our worship and move from being just hearers of His Word but doers of His Word (James 1:21-25).
2. Biblical Theology
Not only is the method of teaching important but so is the quality of that teaching. The apostle Paul exhorted his pastoral protégés Timothy and Titus to hold onto “sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 1:13, Titus 1:9, Titus 2:1). He also warns of a day that will come when teachers turn away from the truth of God’s Word and tell people what they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
The practical application of biblical theology is determining as a body what the essential beliefs are that unite us and allowing either limited disagreement or complete freedom over other beliefs where it is not necessary for their to be complete agreement in order for the church to grow.
3. A Biblical Understanding of the Good News
Dever explains this point very succinctly:
“A healthy church is filled with people who have a heart for the gospel, and having a heart for the gospel means having a heart for the truth—for God’s presentation of Himself, of our need, of Christ’s provision, and of our responsibility.”
4. A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
Too often in presenting the gospel to a non-Christian we focus on Christ as a means to obtaining something that we are missing such as peace, joy, love, happiness, etc. The decision to accept Christ becomes an emotional rather than intellectual decision. As a result, an individual may profess faith in Christ but their life never exhibits the fruit evidenced by a true change of heart (see Matthew 13:18-23).
Furthermore, we must understand that we cannot make a change on our own. Ephesians 2:8-9 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast”. When we choose to follow Christ we not only accept Him as our Savior, we also accept him as our Lord. In doing so, we allow ourselves not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the power of God in us through Christ (Romans 12:2).
5. A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
Too often we think of evangelism as our ability to persuade someone else to accept the gospel. As a result, we tend to remove the difficult truths of the gospel in order to make it palatable to the non-Christian to accept. What we should realize is that our job is simply to present the truth of the gospel and allow God to draw the person to himself (see John 1:12-13, Acts 16:14).
Dever notes three important truths that he wants to convey when presenting the gospel:
·“first, the decision is costly (and therefore must be carefully considered, see Luke 9:62);
·third, the decision is worth it (and therefore should be made, see John 10:10)”
6. A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
The Bible makes it clear that anyone who is a Christian needs to be involved in a church (1 Corinthians 12:14-26). This means more than just showing up on Sunday morning for worship. It means being involved in the lives of other members, encouraging each other to grow (Hebrews 10:24-25). It means taking care of one another, especially those who are widows (1 Timothy 5). It means gathering together for teaching and for fellowship (Acts 2: 42).
7. Biblical Church Discipline
Since we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), it is no surprise that he would want His church to reflect His glory. We are encouraged to discipline ourselves for the sake of godliness (1 Timothy 2:7b-8). Church discipline is necessary in order for the body of believers to become more like Christ. Dever lists five reasons that church discipline is necessary:
“Its purpose is positive (1) for the individual disciplined, (2) for other Christians as they see the danger of sin, (3) for the health of the church as a whole and (4) for the corporate witness of the church. Most of all (5) our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride’s sake, but for God’s name’s sake.”
8. A Concern for Promoting Christian Discipleship and Growth
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” said that “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” Many of today’s churches are full of so-called “baby Christians.” In other words, they are full of people who have never moved beyond salvation to grow in Christ.
The apostles wanted to see fellow believers grow in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 10:15, Ephesians 4:15, Colossians 1:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:3 and 1 Peter 2:2). Growing deeper in Christ also enhances our witness among non-believers (1 Peter 2:12). As a church, we should make discipleship a primary goal.
9. Biblical Church Leadership
The Bible is clear that the pastor is not supposed to be the sole leader of the church. Rather, the church is to be led by a plurality of elders (see Acts 14:23, Acts 16:4, Acts 20:17, Acts 21:18, Titus 1:5, and James 5:14). The pastor is one of the elders with a specific role and occupation as teacher (see 1 Corinthians 9:14).