What Does a Healthy Church Look Like?

oaktree

Some time ago, I received a question via private Facebook message that made me stop and ponder.  The person said something like, “I think I might be in an unhealthy church environment right now.  But before I leave, how am I supposed to know what a ‘healthy’ church looks like?”  I answered her question the best I could at the time.  However, I still found myself pondering that important question.  I even threw it out at our local pastor’s prayer group.  I dare say that their response was very similar to my own.  As I was, they were caught a bit off guard by such a simple but direct question.

I think the hesitance of a seasoned pastor to quickly answer this question is caused by the need to reflect on past experiences and current situations.  As we reflect and evaluate, we find ourselves asking more questions like: What is the Biblical definition of a healthy church?  What does “healthy” look like? And probably the most important question for each of us, “Is my church healthy?”

I will be the very first to say that I certainly do not have all the answers.  However, I am willing to ask the hard questions and I am willing to wrestle with answering them.  I think there is definite value in the wrestling and reflecting.  So… in my wrestling and reflecting this is what I have come up with so far.  I have tried to keep my thoughts as simple and concise as possible.

Here are my reflections on what a healthy church looks like:

  • A healthy church is centered around authentic relationships that have real depth. These relationships extend beyond Sunday mornings.  Authentic relationships require time, trust, love, communication and grace.
  • A healthy church practices discipleship and realizes that discipleship is much more than a sermon, class, or a program. Authentic discipleship requires authentic relationships.  I like to say, real discipleship happens when “life rubs up against life.”  This is how Jesus did discipleship.
  • A healthy church experiences organic evangelism.  Organic evangelism happens because the Christians who make up the church are maturing and are naturally reaching out to those around them.  This is not because of a top notch evangelism campaign or a flashy church sign, it is simply natural.  Keep in mind, this growth does not need to be explosive -and it is probably better if it is not.  Some of the best church growth is… s-l-o-w.  That large oak tree in your back yard did not get there over night, -but the weeds around it may have.  Think about that.
  • A healthy church has a plurality of New Testament leadership.  Call them elders, deacons, or just “the leadership team.”  The label that is used does not matter.  What matters is: there is more than one or two of them, they are clearly biblically qualified, are gifted to be elders, take the role very seriously, are in authentic relationship with each other and are accountable to each other.  BTW, you cannot be accountable to someone you are not in authentic transparent relationship with.
  • A healthy church is diverse.  Diverse in its people. Diverse in age.  Diverse in opinions.  Diverse in experience. Diverse in it’s creativity.  And diverse in the expressions of the people who form the church.  God made us all different; if he wanted us all to be the same, he would have made us robots.  I believe a healthy church celebrates the diversity of its people rather than forcing everyone to be the same.
  • A healthy church is governed by Grace AND Truth.  If all we focus on is the grace of God, then “anything goes” and our sin nature reigns. If all we focus on is the law and rules, we become legalistic pharisees who are constantly casting stones at each other. I have seen both extremes and neither one is healthy or God honoring.  However, if we allow the Holy Spirit to govern us by grace AND truth a beautiful thing happens.  -We begin to be transformed into who God created us to be. The theological termed used to describe this process is called “sanctification.”  Sanctification naturally happens in healthy churches as well as healthy people.
  • And obviously, a healthy church is a group of people who are in relationship with God.  Meaning than that prayer, the Word and worship are practical parts of their everyday lives and continuously steer them along the journey of following Jesus.

 

Why I Almost… left the Church

LeavingChurch

I almost left the church, the “established” church that is….  And sometimes, I still feel like leaving the church.  There, I said it.  Yes, Eric Starkey: husband, father, devout Christian and maybe most relevant to this post, “pastor” has seriously considered leaving the church, or at least “the church” as we know it.

Why???

I guess the answers to that question are both simple and complicated.  I am hesitant to publicly share many of my thoughts on this subject because I fear that I will offend friends.  Nevertheless, I feel this post might be a valuable exercise for me to write -and for you to read.  Perhaps if we wrestle with a few of these “reasons” you and I both might be better for it.  And perhaps, the Church could be better for it.  With that being said, I want to make it clear that my goal is not to insult or take cheap shots at anyone or any local church. My goal is to transparently share why I sometimes find myself nearing that point where I want to say, “Enough is enough!”

  • I got burned out.  I entered the ministry at age eighteen; I preached for the first time on Sunday morning at nineteen and experienced early “success.”  Sometimes I believe that early “success” was actually a “curse.” From that point forward, it was full speed ahead and no looking back.  I put the Church and ministry before everything –and I mean everything.  After doing that for over fifteen years, the inevitable finally… happened: I burned out.  I am surprised I lasted as long as I did.  I often wonder why someone did not stop me earlier.  Many people in many different churches had opportunities to grab me and put their arm around me and say, “Eric, slow down.  You have your whole life ahead of you.  Slow down and enjoy your college years.  Slow down and enjoy your young family.  Slow down and enjoy life.”  Very few people offered me that wise caution and still fewer leaders ever did.  Honestly, I cannot think of any other pastors who ever advised me to slow my pace.  It was not until “I” put on the brakes (at God’s prompting) that I finally got that message –independent of anyone within the Church.
  • I got incredibly frustrated with many of the people in the Church.  Religious people, legalistic people, “super-spiritual” people, mean people, hypocrites, needy people, manipulative people, leaders who worry more about themselves than the people who they are leading, highly educated people who are illiterate to the simplest Biblical Truths, insecure people, etc.  Everywhere I turned (in the Church) there seemed to always be someone who met one or more of the aforementioned descriptions.  These people sucked the passion, energy and life right out of me.
  • I began to notice the lack of authentic relationships in the church.  There is so much that could be said here but I want to keep this post short.  Let me just say that most churches that I have been a part of have shallow relationships with various undercurrents running through them.  Church leadership is more about politics than shepherding.  If you doubt my observation, just watch what happens when controversy or disagreements arise. Church relationships often (not always, but often) have little depth and are disposable   *This is not a loose accusation that I am making. I make it after eighteen years of being heavily involved in various local churches.
  • I am not comfortable inviting my un-churched friends to church.  Approximately four years ago, my wife and I made a commitment to purposely start living our lives OUTSIDE the walls of church buildings.  Part of this commitment was to begin building relationships with people who did not attend a church.  As we have slowly made this transition, we have realized that we are not comfortable inviting our un-churched friends to church with us.
  • Much of the contemporary Church is “dumbing down” the Gospel. In our efforts to grow and attract people to our churches, we have watered down and “dumbed down” the Gospel to where “following Jesus” is not following Jesus. We have forgotten what it means to “take up our crosses.”  We have made it too easy. We have made it too simple.  Sometimes I think we may even insult the intelligence of un-churched people when they attend our churches. Don’t talk to un-churched people like they are stupid. Share Truth! Challenge people! Preach the Gospel!  Teach the Word! That is what the people are there for; that is what they desperately need. Challenge them; that is what will cause them to see their need for Christ and authentic Christian community.
  • I have not gotten anything out of many of the church services I have attended.  Sorry, I am just being honest.  When we extricate authentic relationships and dumb down the Gospel, what do you think is going to happen? Church should be more meaningful than checking a box off on our weekly Christian “to do list.” And please do not try to attract me with just music, I can always find better on Pandora.
  • Most churches look nothing like the Church in the New Testament.  I am just being honest –again.  Why should I force myself to attend a weekly meeting that calls itself one thing and then has the characteristics of something completely different?  Most churches “Major on the minors” and “minor on the Majors” of the things that are important to New Testament Church culture. We invest our time and treasure in buildings and programs rather than people –and then we wonder why we are losing “people.”  Hello…..?
  • I was never good at “Playing the Game” –nor did I ever want to play.  I have no passion for the “the game.”  I have no energy for “the game.”  I find no life in “the game.”  Honestly, when I sense that “the game” is being played, I run fast and far from it. “The game” disgusts me now.  I am so tired of political games.  I am so tired of people games.  I am so tired of church games.  I just want to be a part of something real.  I am not looking for perfect, (I know it is not out there) but I am looking for “real.”
  • Because of the above characteristics, I find many of our churches to be full of under discipled, under utilized, immature, lethargic Christians.  I think that is the real fruit that our church marketing, flashy programs and flowery sermons have produced for us.  Frankly, this reality absolutely disturbs me.
  • I got tired of excuses.  You can come up with an excuse for anything, -if you try hard enough.  And we have become very astute at making good excuses in the Church.  Our excuses disgust me.

Why should I attend a weekly “celebration service” that has no real depth and screams “fake,” with other people in a community almost completely divorced of authentic relationships, where a watered down weak (and/or twisted) gospel is preached, in an atmosphere where I am not comfortable inviting my un-churched friends, with “church people” who often incredibly frustrate me?

 These are the reasons why I have had serious thoughts about leaving the established church.  *For the record, my family and I have not left the Church nor do we plan to; we still faithfully attend.  But, I have to wonder how many people have already abandoned the Church for these same reasons.  I would bet all of my earthly possessions that the numbers are far more than just a few…

Perhaps we should all take a step back, stop making our ridiculous excuses and wrestle with some of these areas of dysfunction while there is still time.  -Because the era of “going to church just because you are supposed to” is over.

I invite you to comment with “your reasons” below -or feel free to offer a rebuttal to mine.  Let’s please keep our comments as positive and productive as possible.   -Just an FYI, I plan to write a post next week entitled, “Why I did not leave the Church.”

The Basic Elements of the Church: Relationships

We were created by God to know and to be known, -by Him and each other.

Matthew 22:34-40 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Our Relationship with God:

“Legalism is not your answer, correct doctrine or politics is not your answer, a euphoric feeling is not your answer, a man on a stage -or a TV screen is not your answer, the answer you are looking for will only be found in having a relationship with God through His Son Jesus.”

Why did God create us anyway? If you haven’t, please stop and think about that. -Go ahead, I’ll wait………

Did God create us just to be His servants? or robots? or His pets??? I believe the whole of scripture tells us the love story of a God who “created us in His image” so that He could “know us.” -So that we could we could know Him. After all, Jesus once defined eternal life as “knowing God.” Yes! The God of the universe wants us to know Him. God created us. God loves us. Despite our sin, God has been very patience with us. God humbled Himself and became a man for us. Jesus died for us -to redeem us. The Holy Spirit pursues us. The Holy Spirit indwells and empowers us. And Jesus is coming back for us.

I think just about any Christian with good spiritual common sense and an elementary understanding of the Bible would agree with those Truths. All of these Truths point to a very simple theological fact: God wants an intimate relationship with us. And as Keith Green would say, “He wants more than Sundays and Wednesday nights.” God wants to be a vital part of our everyday lives. He wants His presence to be “real” in our lives, just as real as the presence of our spouses, children, parents and close friends. The foundational element of the Church should be our relationship with Him; this is exactly why Jesus calls the Church His “Bride.” Our Groom is passionate about His relationship with us. -And He wants us to be passionate about our relationship with Him.

Furthermore in regards to worship, authentic worship is born out of authentic relationship. How could we ever worship a God that we simply did not know? How could we ever fully give ourselves in authentic worship to a God who we refused to trust as our Anchor, -for everything in our lives? Music -and talented worship leaders can certainly facilitate a worship experience, but authentic worship demands the depth of a relationship. Therefore, as our relationship with God matures, how could we ever “not” worship Him? As a believer matures, worship should be an almost automatic response to God working in their lives. Authentic worship is a natural fruit of an authentic relationship with God. I fear we are, at times, attempting to “induce” worship in our church services -rather than facilitating it. My concern is that there is often a stronger connection to the music and those leading it, than there is to God.

In the end, the above Truth must escape our doctrinal statements, church website verbiage & blogs and be driven as an anchor to tether our church culture. Our churches should not be anchored with talented ministers, beautiful buildings, emotional worship experiences, the traditions of man, financial wealth, innovative programs or even well established “correct doctrine.” While all these things are “good,” we begin to worship them (rather than God) when they are used to anchor the Church. When our relationships with God are not anchoring the foundations of our churches, all types of perversions are possible -from extreme legalism, to ultra liberalism and almost any perversion in between; “balance” is lost. Unfortunately, this point can be easily proven by running a Google search on “church scandals.” Please note that these scandals are not limited to any particular denomination or doctrinal group; they are equal opportunity byproducts that appear across all veins of Christianity. Our churches must be anchored by living, breathing, authentic relationships with God through His Son Jesus. –Absolutely nothing else can replace this.

Our Relationships with One Another:

“How much visiting do you have to do?” and “I just want to preach.” -These are two phrases that I have often heard from other pastors over the years. I restate these quotes here because I think they illustrate our problem with relationships between each other in the Church. The Church in our culture has been reduced to sitting in large rooms and auditoriums, participating in corporate worship and listening to teaching/preaching for a few hours per week. I love to preach and I love hearing good preaching and teaching. I love to worship God corporately and I don’t mind listening to talented worshipers, worship God. I am even OK with there being somewhat of an “entertainment value” in a worship service; I do not think God wants church services to be boring. BUT, if we call a group of people seated in a building with worship music and preaching: “having church,” we have got major problems. Please pardon my bluntness, but calling that the Church is like calling a man and a women lying in bed together “a marriage.” While we should like and enjoy what happens in the bedroom, it does not make a healthy marriage by itself; -divorce statistics clearly demonstrate that sex is not enough to make a healthy marriage. I would never settle for a wife that just showed up at my house a few hours per week. Frankly, I am looking for something deeper; I want to share my life with someone. Jesus expects nothing less from His Bride. The Church is the people; the Church is people loving each other and participating in relationship. I am sorry friends, but that does not happen during a Sunday morning worship service in a large room or auditorium in the midst of a crowd.

Christian relationship happens when love, time, grace, truth, sacrifice and people intersect. When “life” rubs up against “life;” in other words, when we get to know each other. -And we make a decision to put up with each other, -even though we “know” each other! Another word could almost be used here, “family.” Seems like we may have heard that word used in the Bible a few times when God’s people are described. No matter how elaborate the building, how good the music or how entertaining the teaching and preaching is, it simply cannot serve as an adequate substitute for relationship. As messy as the process might be, there is no substitute for “life rubbing up against life.” Jesus modeled this principle HImself by sharing His earthly life with His disciples and spending much less time with the crowds. He could have catered to the crowds, but He knew better. Who are we to think that our strategy is better than His? Jesus focused on authentic relationships that had true depth. Therein lays the beauty of the Church; and therein lays Her power –when we learn to love each other as God’s love is revealed to us.

In addition, our pursuits for numerical growth and “success” in our churches often overshadow our pursuit of “relationship” with God and each other. Then when we become successful, we no longer “need” God or each other. Often times, we sacrifice these relationships in the process of becoming “successful.” As a result, at a certain point we belittle God to His place in our doctrinal statement, written core values and Sunday rhetoric and we throw each other away. (Please note my use of the word “we.” I include myself in these allegations.) I have been in the ministry for 17 years and I have personally watched this scenario play out multiple times, in multiple groups and in multiple denominations; it is simply the nature of “the system.” *This would not happen if “relationships” were the core element and deeply driven anchor of the local church. We do not “belittle” or “throw away” those who we dearly love and authentically care about. Do Jesus’ Words in Matthew 22 make better sense now?

And He said, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Relationship is not everything; but everything hangs on relationship. Without proper relationships, the Church predestines itself to be much, much less than what God designed Her to be.

We were created by God to know and to be known, -by Him and each other…

The Basic Elements of the Church: introducing the elements

Before we begin discussing the elements, can we just be honest and admit that scripture can be (and has been) twisted to defend almost any position out there? Seriously, how many cult leaders and politicians have you seen use scripture to defend their agendas?  With that being said, before we continue this discussion I want to set a few ground rules:

-We are leaving out the popular doctrinal arguments.   Calvinist vs Arminianist vs Charismatic, etc.

-We are leaving out the tradition & style arguments.   Traditional vs Contemporary vs Post-Modern, etc.

-We are leaving out the political arguments.  Republican vs Democrat vs Libertarian, etc.

-And we are leaving out the historical arguments. Catholic vs Protestant vs all the other “flavors” that Christianity has to offer.

I would really like to isolate this discussion from the hazy fog of the differences mentioned above. The Church is made up of people like you and me, all flawed human beings.  If we focus on our differences, we will never make it to the basics; we will never be able to see the beautiful forest because of the numerous overgrown trees.

Furthermore, rather than pleading my case by listing endless scripture references extracted from their original context, I am going to ask you to use your “spiritual common sense” and draw from your knowledge of scripture as a whole.  I might reference a few passages here and there, but I DO NOT want to base these basic elements on just a few verses pulled from the Bible.  Rather, my intent to support these basic elements with the whole of scripture, using the entire love story that God’s Word tells us.

My prayer is that we can set our doctrine, traditions & church styles, politics and interpretations of church history on the side and focus on the basics.  Perhaps if we had the basic elements of the church nailed down, we could better reconcile the nonessentials to them.  So with the ground rules set, let me remind you of my initial analogy from my first post on this subject.

 “Water is used in innumerable mixtures, from soft drinks to commercial cleaners.  -But when it is purified to its simplest form and broken down to it’s most basic molecular components, we find a simple molecule containing the following: two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  What should we find when the Church is deduced down to Her basic elements, -when She is in Her purest most organic state?”

From my understanding of scripture, God and His Kingdom, when the Church is stripped of the non-essentials and simplified to Her purest state, we should fine three basic elements: relationships, discipleship and outreach -in that order.  And I believe the order of those elements are very important.

Next week I will begin to write on the first element, “Relationships.” I believe this to be one of the most “overlooked” and “under-discovered” elements in the American church.  -BUT THEY ARE THE FOUNDATION FOR EVERYTHING.