Many churches today cannot be considered healthy because they have too many unhealthy members for the church to be considered “well.” Just about any church you go to, there is a mix of healthy and unhealthy members. To what proportion the healthy and unhealthy members exist in a church, to a large extent determines the health of that church as a whole. The ideal, of course, is a church that is heavy on the healthy members, with the unhealthy members getting better, becoming healthy members to contribute to the overall health of the church which leads to a greater effectiveness in not just the continued “healing” of the unhealthy members, but also in what should be the focus of the church: the salvation and integration of new members.
As followers of Christ, church members should be doing all they can to maintain their spiritual health. Unhealthy members should be setting aside those things that have made them ill and be seeking spiritual healing. Unbelievers should find in the church healthy members who can introduce them to Christ and wellness.
In my over half-century of life, I have had the opportunity to either attend or serve dozens of churches and chapels in the United States and in several countries around the world. This has given me a certain amount of insight into the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy churches as I have at times been able to observe from the periphery while other times have experienced it from within. I have discovered many people are confused over what a healthy church looks like…or would rather not deal with their illness, preferring instead to maintain the status quo for some reason. The unfortunate part is, when members choose to remain unhealthy, their lack of health can infect other members whose immune system may still be weak, or else they pull down new members who have not yet achieved a mature health, contributing to the decline in the overall health of the church instead of the ideal growing health.
While no list can be all-inclusive, I offer these ten characteristics of a healthy church from what I have learned and observed over the years, with the prayer that the healthy members will grow healthier and the unhealthy will find new health.
1. In a healthy church, members enjoy coming together to worship. I remember one Sunday when I was a child of about 11 or 12 coming out after church and telling my dad that I really enjoy going to church. There was something about that church of my youth that drew me in and satisfied me. With me not knowing what I needed, the church met my needs and gave me a sense of satisfaction. In a healthy church, people want to be there. People want to be a part of the Body of Christ that is the church. Whenever the doors of the church are open for services (or service), the healthy members are there because they want to be. There are times when either sickness or obligations keep members away, but healthy members guard against those times so they are few and far between. Unhealthy members, on the other hand, look for reasons to not be there instead of clearing the way to ensure they are.
2. A healthy church is not necessarily large. Many small churches are healthier than larger ones. It is not the size that makes the church healthy, but a preponderance of healthy members, and they doing things in a healthy way. I recall a church I attended that seemed to continually get more healthy as a whole as it shrunk in size. The decrease was caused by unhealthy members leaving (not willing to move on to health) which enabled those who remained to grow more healthy. Eventually, that church likely would have also grown in size since a healthy church is introducing new people to Christ, though again, large does not always equal healthy.
3. In a healthy church, conflict is dealt with biblically, which is probably why members enjoy coming together to worship! In a healthy church, when someone is offended, they follow the biblical instructions and properly deal with the offense. When someone sins, the church follows the biblical instructions to help that person be restored. When there are attitudes or actions for which the Bible requires discipline, it is done Scripturally and in love. When there are disagreements, they are discussed and there is reconciliation even if not agreement. The problem with unhealthy churches and, in fact, the modern church as a whole, is that it is easier to just go to the church down the road or across town instead of dealing with problems or issues that arise where you are. In the same way, church discipline is less effective since there’s nothing to keep the offending member part of the church. But a healthy church is able to deal with whatever problems arise in a biblical, loving and healthy way so that reconciliation takes place and the family, the Body of Christ, is restored. When conflict comes (and because the church is made up of humans, conflict will come), the healthy members run toward each other while the unhealthy members run away.
4. In a healthy church, members come to give instead of to receive. Healthy church members have discovered that their relationship with Christ means that they have become servants. They serve. They give. When it comes to worship services, the healthy come to offer worship not to receive a blessing. The healthy members do not judge the “success” of a service by what they got out of it but rather by what they put into it. However, unhealthy members come to a service for what they can get out of it, to have their needs met. You often hear them say, “I just don’t get fed there!” The ironic thing about it is that those who come to get seldom are satisfied while those who come to give receive more than they ever expected!
5. In a healthy church, the pastor and his family feel loved & blessed and are sufficiently cared for. Healthy church members realize the role of the pastor is a difficult one and understand the Scripture mandate to care well for him and his family. Healthy members are an encouragement to the pastor, even when they may have disagreements. Healthy churches are generous with their pastor and family on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. Healthy members accept the role of the pastor in the church and give him freedom to minister as God leads; and if they do have a difference with the pastor they go to him instead of others to discuss it. Unhealthy members often try to squeeze the pastor into their mold instead of allowing him to be faithful to God and his calling. Unhealthy members try to manipulate the pastor instead of blessing him. Unhealthy members resent the use of church funds to provide a reasonable subsistence, not to mention “extras” for the pastor and family. When an unhealthy member has a problem with the pastor (often as a result of a misunderstanding or difference of opinion) unhealthy members talk to others about it instead of going to the pastor as Scripture instructs.
6. In a healthy church, members serve in areas where they are gifted and are satisfied with their service. I have always been of the opinion (and probably read it somewhere) that a church should only do those ministries that it has healthy members gifted in those areas to do. I firmly believe that God “gifts” a church to do the ministries that He wants it to do. When the church tries to fill positions with any warm body regardless of their gifting, not only does the ministry suffer but also the people who are squeezed into the wrong positions. The healthy members will have a sense of their gifts and will serve in those areas where they then receive confirmation from the church and satisfaction from their service. However, even if a member has been gifted in a particular ministry, if they are not healthy, they are unlikely to be satisfied. Because of their unhealthiness, they won’t put sufficient effort into preparation or presentation and it will become a drudgery for them, not to mention to those to whom they are trying to minister.
7. In a healthy church, finances aren’t an issue. There are a number of reasons for this. First, money just isn’t the focus in a healthy church; seeking God and doing his will is. Second (and likely a cause for the first), healthy members give generously (and cheerfully) so there is always enough. Third, since a healthy church only does the ministries that God has gifted that church to do, there is plenty of money to go around. It is the unhealthy members who make money an issue. They sometimes feel they need to control where every dollar goes to make sure nobody is getting an advantage; or else they feel like since they have given some of the money, they should have a say where it goes, complaining if funds go toward a project they don’t agree with. The funny thing is, often the people who are most controlling over how a church’s money is spent are the ones who give the least, or the least cheerfully.
8. In a healthy church, gossip, division, dissension and discord do not take root. Healthy members shut down gossip from unhealthy members before it begins. Instead of sowing discord and dissension, healthy members strive for unity. Unhealthy members, on the other hand, seem to thrive on gossip. It’s like they have to make sure everyone knows what someone did wrong or even what someone may have done wrong. Unhealthy members get together with other unhealthy members to form sides to get their way. Extremely unhealthy members even continue to influence other unhealthy members after they have failed to biblically deal with disagreements or offenses and instead have left the church.
9. In a healthy church, there aren’t hostages. Unhealthy churches, or unhealthy members, will “hold hostage” their tithe & offerings, their attendance, or even their membership to get what they want. If they don’t like what the church is doing with their money, unhealthy members will withhold their tithes and offerings. If an unhealthy member doesn’t like how a particular ministry is being run (or the person who is running it), they’ll withhold their attendance. If an unhealthy member doesn’t like something the pastor does, they’ll withhold their membership and maybe attend the church across town. The healthy member, on the other hand, remembers that it’s all about giving and not receiving, so they don’t have to approve of how the church spends its money, or how a ministry is run, or what the pastor does. The healthy members are there to give, to serve, to bless others, not for what they can get or to have their way.
10. A healthy church realizes that sometimes unhealthy members will never become healthy. This is a sad acknowledgement, but sometimes unhealthy members are so ravaged with their spiritual illness that there is little hope of recovery. Grant it, God can do more than we can ask or imagine, but the unhealthy have to want to become healthy for God to bring healing to their lives. Many times they have their own will so ingrained within them that they have long since mistaken it for God’s will and won’t see things any other way. It is at this point that the healthy church needs to be willing to let go of unhealthy members for the sake of the church’s survival. To continue to enable unhealthy members to bask in disease or allow them to hold the church hostage to get their own way is to prevent the church from truly becoming healthy.
There is, what a former District Superintendent of mine called, blessed subtraction. When an unhealthy member refuses new health, discipline and/or reconciliation in favor of remaining unhealthy or getting their way, it can be a blessing for the church to let them go (or even to ask them to leave). When the doctor discovers cancer in a human body, he first tries to heal that part of the body. If the cancer hangs on, if healing isn’t possible, the doctor cuts it out, completely removes it, eradicates it in order to save the life and restore the health of the rest of the body. Sometimes, this type of radical surgery is necessary to save the life and restore the health of a church.