Seeing Clearly: What is a Healthy Church?

A few months ago I went to the optometrist to have my eyes checked. I put off going for a long time because I knew the doctor would tell me I needed glasses. It was difficult for me to read street signs, the TV was blurry, and I’d get a headache every time I tried to read a book. While I knew my vision was growing worse, I had no idea just how blurry I’d been seeing until the optometrist began putting different lenses in front of my eyes to determine which ones would help me see better. I was amazed as the letters on the chart in front of me came into focus. I could see! No more fuzzy shapes and blurry letters; my eyes were finally seeing objects and reading words as they were supposed to. All those years I knew something had been “off” with my vision, but I didn’t realize just how bad it actually was until I could see clearly. What an eye opener — literally!

Interestingly enough, this experience at the eye doctor made me think of what I experienced in my discovery of a healthy church. “What on earth do an eye doctor and a church have to do with each other?” you might ask. Well, just like with my vision, for a long time I knew something wasn’t right with the way church, as I knew it, was conducted. I would consistently ask myself why the teaching and preaching always seemed to be surface-level. Why didn’t we dig deeper into the Scriptures? Why were sermons more focused on me than they were on God? Not only that, but why did the church have hundreds or even thousands of members on the roll who didn’t attend church regularly? Where were all these professing believers and why were they forsaking the assembly of the church every Sunday? Why was sin running rampant within the church but was being ignored or even endorsed by both the church membership and the church leadership? And why was the church run like a business, having giveaways, flattering its “customers,” and engaging in silly antics in order to get people in the door on Sundays? I knew something was amiss. There had to be more to the church than this.

what is a healthy church book coverThrough a series of events (which is a story for a different day), the Lord began to reveal to me that there was, indeed, more to the church than what I had known up to that point. Early on in our relationship, my husband encouraged me to pick up the book What is a Healthy Church? by Mark Dever. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he used solid, biblical arguments and scriptural evidence to explain nine marks, or nine different criteria, that you’ll find in a healthy church. Reading this book was just like my experience at the optometrist: suddenly my blurry, fuzzy view of the church came into focus. Upon researching local churches that possessed Dever’s nine marks, and then visiting, and eventually joining one of those churches, it became clear to me that I didn’t realize how much my Christian life had been lacking until I saw the beautiful picture of what it could be. Here’s a summary of several of the characteristics of a healthy church that have had the greatest impact on my life:

  1. Healthy churches are God-centered, not man-centered. They do not operate based on what brings success from a worldly standard; they don’t compromise true, biblical worship in order to be relevant or hip. Instead, they are conducted according to the examples and instructions found in God’s Word. Every aspect of every worship service is aimed at bringing glory to God. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25); therefore, a healthy church’s worship is directed solely towards Him. From the music, Scripture reading, prayer, and preaching, God Almighty is truly adored and lifted high according to the Scriptures. People’s desire for entertainment and comfort are not at the center — God is.
  2. They have expositional preaching. “Expositional preaching is the kind of preaching that, quite simply, exposes God’s Word. It takes a particular passage of Scripture, explains that passage, and then applies the meaning of the passage to the life of the congregation.” [1] The preacher does not find Scripture that backs up what he wants to say, but instead uses Scripture to formulate what he wants to say. After all, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). As John Piper points out, “The preacher’s job is to minimize his own opinions and deliver the truth of God.”
  3. Sound doctrine and biblical theology are taught. “Pastors should teach sound doctrine — doctrine that is reliable, accurate, and faithful to the Bible. And churches are responsible for keeping their pastors accountable to sound doctrine.” [1] In healthy churches, the foundational issues are taught, not assumed, and certain subjects aren’t avoided because they are hard to swallow. If God put it in His Word, it’s important to study and know. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  4. They are led by a plurality of elders rather than one senior pastor. “When the office of elder/pastor is referenced in the New Testament, a plurality is addressed, unless the author is intentionally talking about an individual elder” [2] (see Acts 14:23, 16:4, 20:17, 21:8, 1 Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1). Healthy churches have a group of elders (or pastors) that share in the responsibility of shepherding the flock together. They are all equal in authority, and they are accountable to one another and to the congregation. J.A. Medders writes: “Sacrifices are made. Men are discipled and trained. Humility is pursued. Authority is shared. Grips are loosened. A three-fold cord is not quickly broken, and a plurality of elders is not quickly burned out. Plurality protects the church, and the pastors, for the long haul.”
  5. Membership matters and church discipline is practiced. A healthy church has expectations of its members, and its members have expectations of the church. When a person joins with a congregation, he or she is committing to gather with, give to, pray for, and serve that local church. Members are held accountable and commit themselves to holding other members accountable, as well. The church is called to reflect the character of God, so when a member does go astray, other members seek to lovingly call that brother or sister back to the church using the principles found in Matthew 18: a) Privately address the person who is in sin, and if the person does not repent, b) Take another believer with you and address the person again; If the person still doesn’t repent, c) “Tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as an [outsider]” (Matthew 18:17). Although this process may seem harsh to some, biblical church discipline is done in love and humility. James 5:19-20 says, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
  6. Discipleship is authentic, which produces members who practice evangelism. Healthy churches are always striving for spiritual growth and holiness. “Some today think that a person can be a ‘baby Christian’ for a whole lifetime. Growth is treated as an optional extra for zealous disciples. But growth is a sign of life.” [1] And when Christians are growing in their faith, the gospel will pour forth from their daily lives. They will bubble over, sharing the glorious truth of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection from the dead in order to save wretched, undeserving sinners. What an awesome truth that is!

In summary, Mark Dever explains, “If churches are places where only the pastor’s thoughts are taught, where God is questioned more than he is worshiped, where the gospel is diluted and evangelism perverted, where church membership is made meaningless, and a worldly cult of personality is allowed to grow up around the pastor, then one can hardly expect to find a community that is either cohesive or edifying. Such a church will not glorify God.”

While no church is a perfect church (because churches are filled with sinners), healthy churches strive to honor God above all else by looking to His Word for wisdom and instruction. For me, finding a church that has the characteristics listed above was a breath of fresh air, and I’m so grateful that my blurry vision of the church was made clear.

Love,
Kristen

Questions? Comments?
I’d love to hear your thoughts or talk with you further about these issues.


[1] Dever, Mark. What is a Healthy Church? Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007.

[2] Medders, J.A. “Encouraging a Plurality of Elders.” For the Church, Midwestern Seminary, April 13, 2017.

One thought on “Seeing Clearly: What is a Healthy Church?

  1. Glynne

    Not to toot your horn or anything. But this is a great article. I had a similar experience when I discovered the doctrines of grace. I knew there was something messing at the church I was at, but could not put my finger on it. When it was made clear to me what a true church is and what salvation is and who actually makes it possible (not me!) it all became clear and I had to find a faithful church.
    Thanks for the article.

    Like

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