“Did you get married in the church or in the community hall?” This question reflects the common use of the word ‘church’ as a building with a cross on top and benches inside. But this is not the way the Bible uses the word. ‘Church’ comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which means “called out” and was used to describe an assembly of citizens of a Greek city (Acts 19:32, 39). Thus the church is an assembly of believers in Christ who have been called out from the world into fellowship with the God and one another. At times they are called the body of Christ. Because a church is people, the enemies of Christianity can burn their sanctuaries but can never touch the real church.
The church is the fellowship of God’s people.
The word ‘church’ is used two ways in the New Testament. After Peter’s confession, Jesus says: “I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18). This obviously does not refer to a physical structure, but to all the people in the world who are followers of Jesus (Ephesians 1:22). However, when Jesus described how to correct a sinful brother, he said, “If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church” (Matthew 18:17). This obviously does not refer to the worldwide body of Christ but to the local assembly of believers (Corinthians 1:2).
The church is the fellowship of God’s people regardless of the number or place of meeting.
Your Church is a Living Organism
The New Testament uses several figures of speech to describe the church. These include branches (John 15:5), sheep (John 10:1-16; Acts 20:28) and Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 1:24). Each of these is a living thing and needs good health to function properly. Though the church is not a biological organism, it is living and growing. It needs good health.
As a living and growing organism, the church needs good health.
What makes a healthy church? Immediately after Pentecost, the church was new and needed to mature, but Acts 2:42 describes the first marks of a healthy church: “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.” In addition to these activities, later verses also describe a church characterised by a deep sense of awe, miracles, unity, compassion, worship, praise, respect by non-believers, and successful evangelism (Acts 2:43-47). The following are marks of a healthy church.
A Clear Sense of God’s Mission
A healthy church starts with knowing and believing God’ mission to the world (Isaiah 11:10; Malachi 1:11; Matthew 16:18-19; 24:14; 28:19). Healthy churches have a clear sense of God’s mission (Matthew 28:18-20) and a compelling vision of the future that is communicated regularly (2 Timothy 4:2). Their first desire is to make disciples, and empower and mobilise them to do the comprehensive work Christ has given to the church (Ephesians 4:11-16).
A healthy church’s first desire is to make disciples, and empower and mobilise them.
One of the more unpleasant responsibilities of discipleship is discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-15). One of the special joys of being part of a church is “fellowship” – those relaxed times of informal interaction God created us to enjoy (Acts 2:42). These characteristics are found in a healthy church because the church has deliberate and regular teaching (Acts 15:35; Ephesians 4:20-21; 1 Timothy 4:11).
A healthy church requires leadership that is characterised by honesty, character, gentleness, selflessness, maturity, and the ability to teach and organise (1 Timothy 3:2-7). A pastor leads by example (1 Corinthians 11:1). Healthy churches are the outcome of careful planning (Luke 14:28-29; Romans 15:23-24), constant prayer and teaching (Acts 2:42), and dedicated leadership.
Healthy churches are characterised by shared ministry. The pastor’s calling is to equip, empower, and release the people of God to minister to the whole church (Ephesians 4:11-12; Titus 2:1-10). The pastor is a teacher and mentor rather than simply a doer (1 Peter 4:10-11).
The pastor is a teacher and mentor rather than simply a doer
Healthy churches operate on the principles of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9). Leaders assist believers to identify and develop their own spiritual gifts to serve as functional servants of Christ. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary work through the use of gifts Christ has given them.
Minister To the Whole Person
Healthy churches minister to the whole person. They understand they have a duty to help meet the basic needs of the believers and the community (Matthew 25:31-46). When the disciples suggested that the crowds be sent away to buy food for themselves, Jesus said: “That isn’t necessary—you feed them” (Matthew 14:16). The infant church in Jerusalem held everything in common (Acts 2:44-46) including a “daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). Later, James describes faith without good deeds as dead (James 2:14-17).
Healthy churches maintain a good balance between the spiritual and the social.
It is easy to get out of balance on this issue. It is easy to overemphasise one side to the neglect of the other. Healthy churches, through careful planning and sharing of duties with members, maintain a good balance between the spiritual and the social (Acts 6:1-7). In Africa, where people believe every individual is a “person in community,” healthy churches build on the sense of community and solidarity that are so much a part of being African.
Intentional about Evangelism
Healthy churches are intentional about evangelism, which is publicly acknowledged through baptism (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41; 16:15, 33). Motivated by Christ’s love, members of healthy churches begin sharing their faith immediately after becoming Christians (Acts 2:47; 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10). Through appropriate Bible study and training, they are empowered to share the Good News naturally (Acts 4:20). Healthy churches provide evidence of good works in their communities that encourage evangelism (1 Peter 2:12). They intentionally connect with their neighbours (Acts 28:3, 8-9).
Successful evangelism always leads to ongoing discipleship.
Wherever they are situated, healthy churches are a city built on hilltops and lamps on stands (Matthew 5:14-15). Successful evangelism always leads to ongoing discipleship – assisting new believers in becoming mature in their faith. After Paul successfully evangelised, he later returned to those new believers “where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22). Just as a pediatrician takes over from the obstetrician, the person who disciples takes over from the evangelist.
Inspiring and God-Exalting Worship Services
Healthy churches have inspiring and God-exalting worship services that engage the hearts, minds, and emotions of the people, and are often appealing even to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). Healthy Christian worship includes the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-30). Meaningful worship nearly always includes appropriate music (Colossians 3:16).
Healthy churches tailor their worship so that God is the main focus.
The criteria stated in the New Testament is that worship be directed to God alone, be in spirit and truth, and not be limited to a particular time, place, or form (John 4:23-24). Healthy churches tailor their worship so that God is the main focus and people begin to see him more clearly as they sing, pray, and react to the truth they are exposed to in worship services.
Points to Remember
- The church is not a building but a “called out” community of God’s people that Christ is currently building up.
- The church grows healthy by providing opportunities for worship, outreach, discipleship, and the exercise of individual spiritual gifts.
- The church maintains good health through good teaching, loving discipline, and insisting that all members be involved in ministry.