Developing a healthy church involves building Christian relationships shaped by scripture, empowered by the Holy Spirit based on God's grace in Jesus Christ.
Rev. John Marshall Crowe, D.Min.
Based on my book, Church Health For The Twenty-First Century A Biblical Approach.
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I. The Church Question of the 21 Century.
How to bring healing and wholeness into the community of faith is probably the most important church question of the twenty-first century. The excessive individualism of American culture is part of the problem of poor church health. It leads churches to focus only on the individual's relationship with Christ, and forget that the church, as the body of Christ is a system of relationships
II. Biblical teaching and church health.
Any serious attempt to approach developing church health as a living system in Christ by the Holy Spirit begins with the study of the biblical nature and mission of church. Any study of the Church must first look into the nature and mission of Jesus Christ and the meaning of salvation. As God's Word, the Bible is the primary guide for such a study although man made insights from the Family Systems Theory are helpful.
The writers of the New Testament epistles wrote practical biblical teaching about congregational life in addressing these issues. The early church fathers reminded churches of biblical teaching in addressing these issues in their day. Their writings illustrate and expand upon biblical principles of church health. First, churches can become unhealthy after regaining their health if they stray from living by the biblical principles that support and define the body of Christ. Second, church health involves an ongoing battle to mature. Third, the unity of the Spirit is broken when unloving attitudes and actions destroy the bond of peace. Fourth, previously healthy churches that have become unhealthy can regain health by means of God's Spirit working through the Word of God.
A. A living spiritual system in Christ.
The NT views the members of a congregation in light of their relationships to each other and the the whole church--a spiritual family system as children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
The application of Family Systems Theory to the church has helped us understand the relationship patterns between the subsystems of a congregation and a congregation as a whole. Since the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we cannot thoroughly comprehend a congregational system nor develop its health by reducing it into separate parts. Doing so would understand and treat a church body in the same way an engineer would approach a machine.
However, the insights of the Family Systems Theory remain virtually silent about applied biblical teaching about the Church to a systemic, organic approach to church health. I understand a healthy church is one shaped by biblical teaching concerning the nature and mission of the Church in every subsystem of its relationships.
The addition of theology to a systems approach to church health probably pushes the envelope for those who desire more “freedom in the Spirit.” Attempting the development of a healthy congregation apart from biblical teaching will either produce a superficial and short-term renewal or explode into unhealthy and unholy directions. A sad example of this comes from a radical group during the holiness revival of the 19th century. The Oneida Community was an example of a mystical view of holiness where they practiced ‘sanctified sexual promiscuity’ (Synan 16).
While many churches need better attendance, stronger finances, more involvement, and increased membership, something deeper is required to tie everything else together. The biblical focus of being church by God’s free grace in Jesus Christ provides that missing something. It involves the biblical formation of people in and between each subsystem of a church body as a living system in Christ in light of biblical teaching about Christ’s Church. Without such formation, the outer functions of doing church evaporate when divorced from the inner substance of being church. This assertion forms the core of my model for developing healthy churches.
Although the apostle Paul did not know systems theory, the biblical image of the church as “the body of Christ” forms the foundational for a systemic, approach to church health. As a spiritual system made up of Christ’s disciples, the church consists of several interrelated subsystems (See I Cor. 12-14 and Ephesians). For our purposes, they are analogous to the major subsystems of human anatomy.
Developing a healthy church involves the grace of God in Jesus Christ shaping relationships within and between every subsystem of a congregational body. Biblical proclamation concerning the nature, life and mission of Christ’s church is the means by which such shaping takes place. Without sound biblical teaching concerning the nature and mission of Christ’s Church, the congregation will lack soundness. This article identifies several subsystems within the church.
B. The major spiritual subsystems of a local church's spiritual anatomy.
a. The Head: Jesus Christ
The head provides the body three important functions. 1. Identity. 2. Life. 3. Direction.
Sometimes, we forget our vertical relationship with God in our pragmatic haste for an active body that is doing good works in the world.
b. The Musculoskeletal System of Muscles and Bones
The musculoskeletal system (muscles, bones, and joints) involves relationships of holy Christian love between members of the body of Christ which the New Testament provides much guidance for.
c. The Nervous System
The nervous system connects the skin, muscles, bones, and internal organs of the human body in terms of action, direction, and coordination. Likewise, within a church system there is a very small but important part of the congregation’s inner life.
A Healthy Church Nervous System involves Christ like relationships between clergy and congregational leaders with people being equipped for ministry according to their spiritual gifts and graces.
d. The Circulatory System.
The circulatory system energizes and defends the various subsystems of the human body. The red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients. The white blood cells to fight disease or infection.
Apart from the circulatory system, the human body cannot live. The skin, bones, muscles, internal organs and the nervous system all depend upon the blood cells of the circulatory system.
In the same way, the soundness of individual Christians is crucial to the sound health of the whole church body. Church health not only involves the corporate life of the church but also the individual members of the body of Christ. As it concerns overall church health, biblical teaching concerning the church touches the spiritual, moral, relational, behavioral, emotional, and physical fitness of each Christian.
A Healthy Church Circulation System involves the maturity of both clergy and laity in holy wholeness in our Savior, Lord, Sanctifier, and Healer Jesus Christ.
e. The Skin
The last spiritual subsystem of a church is the skin. The skin is the largest and the most visible subsystem of the human body. It covers the connection of our hands, arms, feet, legs to our torso, and to our head The importance of healthy skin for the body of Christ reminds us that through the church, Jesus Christ continues his ministry in the world today.
Doctrinally speaking, this focus on the skin points to the Church as a continuation of Jesus' incarnation in the world or continuing ministry in the world through the Church as God’s Healing Community mending broken lives.
While the health of the church body is a goal, it is not an end in and for itself. There is the danger in an internal focus on a church's health which is an ongoing journey that is never completely reached. The internal health of a church is crucial to outward healthy ministry.
The spiritual empowering of a church's health leads to healthy ministries or healthy skin for a hurting world as we are sent forth to witness and serve.
III. The Early Church Fathers and Church Health.
We read examples the doctrinal approach to healthy churches and clergy in the writings of those who came after the apostles. Repeatedly, several noteworthy and influential Church fathers quote Scripture—specifically the Pauline epistles. They illustrate and expand upon biblical principles of church health.
For example, forty years after Paul's epistles, division raised its ugly head in again at the church in Corinth as some younger church leaders replaced the older ones. Upon hearing infamous reports about the Corinthians around A.D. 95, one church father, Clement, describes this wonderful church as being torn asunder by various matters of dispute. . . which a few headstrong and self-willed persons have kindled to such a pitch of madness that your name, once revered and renowned and lovely in the sight of all men, hath been greatly reviled. (Lightfoot 13)
Their division brought much sorrow to the church at Rome and turned off the unchurched there from the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Lightfoot 33). To heal their sickness, Clement quotes Paul's epistle to help them regain their health.
Some years after John sent Revelation to Ephesus, Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians between 105-116 AD. Ignatius complimented them for closing their ears to false doctrine. Also, he commended them for being a loving church again. Ignatius wrote of them saying, "Being the followers of the love of God towards man, and stirring up yourselves by the blood of Christ, you have perfectly accomplished the work which was beseeming to you"; (Ignatius 99).
Furthermore, almost three or four hundred years after Paul's Epistles to Corinth, Chrysotom admonishes the Corinthians for developing into an unhealthy church again. In one of his homilies to them, he wrote that each clause of I Cor. 13:4-7 described exactly what they were not and this was the root of their problem (Chrysostom 206-207).
The letters of Clement, Ignatius and Chrysotrom demonstrate various truths. First, churches can become unhealthy after regaining their health if they stray from living by sound doctrinal principles. Second, church health involves an ongoing battle to mature inwardly. Third, the unity of the Spirit is broken when truth and love are separated. Fourth, previously healthy churches, which have become unhealthy, can become healthy again by means of God's Spirit working through the Word of God. Most importantly, they remind us that improving church and clergy health is not a destination. It is in fact, quite a journey.
IV. The Nicene Creed and Church Health.
Drawing from the NT teaching as a whole, the Ecumenical Creeds (The Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed) guard us from separating our Christian faith concerning the Church from our beliefs about Christ and salvation. Whenever people have strayed from biblical teaching concerning Jesus Christ and salvation, some very unhealthy teachings and churches have arisen.
A. Jesus Christ.
Church health is shaped by our beliefs about the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the cornerstone and the head of the Church. Whatever we believe about Him as a person will shape our beliefs and approach to the Church.
An extreme over-emphasis on Jesus’ divinity would say that a church could become healthier only if its pastors and laity teach the appropriate biblical, patristic, theological, and church health principles.
An extreme over emphasis on Jesus’ humanity would see the principles of pastoral leadership and systems theory without any biblical or theological shaping as the key for church health. In other words, the first would lead to any other worldly mystical approach to church health that does not involve our participation very much at all. The second would focus totally on what we need to do to develop a healthy church but would leave God out.
The biblical approach as reflected in the Nicene Creed recognizes the unity Jesus’ divinity and humanity. This would lead people to hold together both the divine side and the human side of congregational health based upon God’s grace, motivated by Christian love, the empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our response is involved as a free gift of the amazing grace of God.
Biblical principles of church health are reflected in our beliefs concerning salvation, which emerge from our beliefs concerning Jesus’ mission. Whatever we believe about Christ’s mission will shape our beliefs and approach to the Church.
Simply and profoundly, the Nicene Creed summarizes the Bible’s teaching concerning salvation. It says that our salvation is in and through Jesus Christ who died and rose for us. As Ephesians 2:8-9 says, we are saved by grace through faith which itself is a gift of God’s grace--and not by works lest we boast that somehow we earned salvation.
Therefore, how pastor, church leaders, and members view the doctrine of salvation will influence their approach to church health. A biblical, grace based understanding of salvation and our response empowered by God’s free grace leads the church’s pastor and laity to both seek God and trust God in following biblical principles of church health. In this view, the pastor, staff, and elected officers lead as spiritual guides and do not view the pastor as CEO of a business.
A view of salvation that does not involve our response at all would lead to a passive waiting for God to make the Church healthy by a sovereign act of grace alone. In this view, the pastor and others in the church wait for God to make them healthy without them having to do anything.
A view of salvation emphasizing human free will more than God’s free grace would lead a church then to work as if it all depended on them and to pray as if church health all depended on God. In this view, the pastor and others lead by trying to do too much. A view of salvation focusing on human free will alone would lead a church to choose and execute some prepackaged church health program without any prayer or biblical/theological discernment. In this view, the pastor and others lead the church as a business. The congregation comes to view the pastor as the CEO who tries to keep the stockholders happy and increase the church’s marketing ability. Thus, the spiritual dynamic of the congregation’s health is lost as people build a church in their own strength.
C. One, Holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.
An early ecumenical creed, the Nicene Creed, summarizes the doctrine of the Church for us by speaking of “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Each of these traits of Christ’s Church informs us about some aspect of congregational health.
Christ’s Church is both apostolic and confessional. When Peter confessed Jesus Christ as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus replied, “on this rock, I will build my church” (Mtt. 16:18). Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to endow them with power in order for them to be his witnesses and make disciples of all nations. God builds the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit upon the witness of the apostles to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with people’s confession of Christ as the risen Lord and Savior. Another reason the Church is called apostolic is due to its being under the apostolic authority dwelling in the New Testament. Thus, the proclamation of Christian doctrine reminds congregations that the people of God stand under the authority of Scripture.
Although the Church is composed of a wide range of people, it is one in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. The constitutions of many denominations state its openness to people of all ages, nations, and races. Such statements reflect both the diverse unity and catholic nature of the Church worldwide as well as locally. The Communion service reminds a congregation of its foundation—the love of God displayed in Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. The service also reminds congregations of their mission—to be the body of Christ for the world. Some Communion service asks for the Holy Spirit to make the congregation one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. Very often, as a church participates in a communion service, a deeper love for God and each other develops. Sometimes, a congregation finds itself refocused on being in mission as the body of Christ in the world by having participated in the Lord’s Supper.
As the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ—the Church was founded upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is her ascended and returning head. Given the spiritual and organic relationship of the Church with Jesus Christ, many membership rituals ask for a commitment from a new member to faithfully participate in the church’s ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. Keeping these commitments is seen as a means of spiritual growth in faithful Christian discipleship and participation in the priesthood of believers. Many churches understand Christian baptism as symbolizing one’s ordination into the ministry or priesthood of all believers.
Within the unity of the Spirit and the diversity of the Church, each Christian congregation is blessed with various spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s ministry in the world. To accomplish such a ministry through various ministries, God not only gives individual spiritual gifts to the church, but he also calls persons into various offices of full time ministry to equip others for their ministry. As a body of Christ --the priesthood of believers, we do not minister in our own strength, but by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. As Gordon Fee points out,
If the church is going to be effective in our postmodern world, we need to stop paying mere lip service to the Spirit and to recapture Paul’s perspective: the Spirit as the experienced, empowering return of God’s own personal presence in and among us, who enables us to live as a radically eschatological people in the present world while we await the consummation. All the rest, including the fruit and gifts . . . serve to that end. (xv)
Whenever a congregation forgets it is a temple of the Holy Spirit, the church militant becomes vulnerable to various spiritual illnesses that wage war against its health. Thus, it loses the anointing of Jesus’ resurrection power to overcome the attacks of evil. One of these illnesses is the business model that seeks to build a church on human resources alone.
H. Orton Wiley states in volume 3 of his Christian Theology that “another aspect of catholicity is that which regards the church as militant and triumphant. The church militant is the one body waging war with principalities and powers” (115). Although the Church on earth is militant, Richard Taylor states in his Beacon Dictionary of Theology,
The church is also both impregnable and vulnerable. While the “gates of Hades” cannot prevail against the Church, it can be contaminated and compromised from within—by sin, by false doctrine, by worldly alliances. (114)
The vulnerability of the Church constantly calls for Christians to watch over one another in love as members struggle with imperfect moral behavior and imperfect personal character.
Closely related to the diverse unity of the Church is its holy nature and calling. While set apart by God’s grace as disciples of Jesus Christ, the New Testament also calls for the Church to be a holy people. Thus, the not only is the body of Christ justification-based but also sanctification-directed. Jesus’ Great Commission instructs us first to seek to bring all people to faith in Christ and then to life of obeying all Christ taught. Holiness or sanctification to church health for those whom God calls and the church ordains to an Office of Ministry. My next article will focus on the holy calling of the church in developing healthy pastors and pastoral families.
V. Treat the whole system as a whole.
One major process governing the elements of the systems theory involves each part functioning according to its position in the whole system. There is systemic linked between each subsystem. Thus, any change, positive or negative, in one will influence the overall health of the church system. This is true of the NT view of the church as well (See I Cor. 12). For example, if a pastor fails to declare sound teaching about Jesus Christ, salvation, and Christ’s Church or if an individual church member refuses it, the congregation will lack soundness to that degree. This lack of soundness will show itself in either unloving relationships, lack of harmonious teamwork, underdeveloped ministries, or deficient individual wholeness. Such hindrances to the wholeness of the body of Christ and the healthy fulfillment of its mission require a healing process that seeks to treat the system as a whole from a biblical perspective.
A. Remind the church of basic Christian teaching.
To treat unhealthy views of Jesus Christ, salvation and Christ's Church, people need reminding of the biblical call to repentance from their sins, believing in Jesus Christ as their Savior, putting their whole trust in his forgiving grace, and promising to serve Christ as their Lord together with other Christians in the Church. Therefore, the Church belongs to Jesus Christ. It does not exist for itself or by its own resources. Since Jesus Christ died on the cross for everyone, the invitation of the Church to salvation and Christian discipleship is open to all people.
Since the foundation witness to our faith in Jesus Christ is the Bible. Thus, Christians need reminding that many of us were also asked to receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments when we joined the church. Such times of remembering the spiritual nature of the Church may come through services of Holy Communion. All such services by whatever names we may call them serve to remind us that our faith in Jesus Christ for salvation connects us with the Body of Christ at large and a local congregation in particular. As a member of Christ’s Church by God’s grace, we also share in the Christ’s ministry and mission, which he continues on earth through his, body the church.
B. Cast a vision of a healthy church from the Bible.
See Preaching and Church Health.
C. Disciple people through small groups and one-on-one.
While various types of worship services and proclaiming the Word of God concerning Christ’s church do contribute to congregational health, the real in depth work is done in small groups and one on one.
Fee, Gordon. Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.
The Holy Bible: The New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
Synan, Vinson. The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
Taylor, Richard S., ed. Beacon Dictionary of Theology. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1983.
Wiley, H. Orton. Christian Theology. Vol. 3. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1940.