A healthy church, like beauty, may at first seem to be in the eyes of the beholder. God’s Word leaves the church with clear instructions about the habits that lead to healthy churches. Letters like 1 Thessalonians and Philippians are often considered by scholars to be focused on encouraging the local church. Such encouragement, coupled with Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus in the Pastoral Epistles, give clear examples of healthy habits that build up the church of Jesus Christ. Still, even though these letters have a more corrective tone, they can be instructive for helping churches discern the most faithful practices for promoting church health. By briefly surveying some of the letters of the New Testament, 7 habits of healthy churches emerge.
Healthy Churches hold fast to the Hope of the Gospel.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae, he declared the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of the letter. The reconciliation that the Colossian Christians possessed in Christ depended on their “steadfast faith in the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23-24). If the church is fundamentally a reconciled community, then the gospel is not a secondary matter. Healthy churches hold fast to the hope of the gospel because they recognize the gospel to be of “primary importance” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This means that healthy churches cannot tolerate false teaching. Furthermore, no church that minimizes or marginalizes the primacy of the gospel could ever dare to be considered healthy.
Healthy Churches consistently share the Gospel with all types of people.
Churches that rightly hold fast to the hope of the gospel know that they cannot hoard the gospel to themselves. Healthy churches consistently share the gospel of God with all types of people. Paul commended the church in Thessalonica for sharing the gospel with others after receiving it themselves. Yet, it is not enough to simply share the gospel with people. The gospel message is a message that all people need to heed and hear in this life. It is good news for all who would receive it with faith and repentance. Healthy churches do not discriminate in their evangelism, nor are they intimidated by godlessness in their culture. They understand that godlessness is no threat to the Gospel of Jesus (1 Thess. 2:8-12).
Healthy Churches prepare and deploy members for the work of ministry.
Healthy churches are not built by a charismatic personality or a unique vision of ministry. Healthy churches are built by a body of believers who recognize their gifts and use them accordingly for the edification of the church. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 4:11-16 when he describes the role of the pastors in the life of the church. Christ gave pastors and teachers to the church to equip them for the work of ministry. He never intended for everyday Christians to be excluded from cultivating and demonstrating their gifts. Healthy churches value this reality and provide space for Christians to discover and use their gifts for the sake of building up Christ’s church. By doing so, healthy churches prepare and deploy members for the work of ministry.
Healthy Churches serve their community with excellence.
Many people often fail to note how integrated the apostles became in the fabric of the communities where they were planting churches. When the apostle Paul was planting the church in Thessalonica with Silas and Timothy, he did not do it by standing on a street corner with a bullhorn. Instead, Paul worked among the people of Thessalonica as a tentmaker in their marketplace. In other words, Paul worked a fairly normal job among other everyday people. Now, this does not mean that there were not times when Paul devoted the vast majority of his time to preaching the gospel. It simply serves to note that Paul served his community with enough excellence that his presence among the people did not bring any reproach upon the church. Paul was a hard worker who maintained a good reputation in the community. Any persecution that he suffered was the result of faithfulness to Jesus, not laziness in the workforce. The implication for today’s churches is that whether the church strategically serves their community as a congregation or prepares its membership to be faithful, hardworking employees in their everyday jobs, the service should pursue excellence and human flourishing (1 Thess. 4:9-12). Paul refused to serve others in his community in a way that would bring reproach on the gospel. Healthy churches get this, and thus, they serve their community with excellence.
Healthy Churches manifest devotion to prayer.
Prayer should never be an afterthought. Prayer should be the first thought, and it often is in healthy churches. Whether this prayer takes places in small groups, mid-week meeting, or the corporate gathering on Sundays, healthy churches pray. The first time we see the early church in the New Testament, we find them praying together (Acts 1:14). Almost every one of Paul’s letters begins with a statement about his prayer on behalf of the churches. Additionally, Paul consistently instructs the church to pray for him as he attempts to follow Christ. Healthy churches follow this biblical example in prayer because they understand that they are powerless without God’s provision and assistance. Prayer is not time wasted. It is time well-spent. It is time that reflects a healthy dependence upon God’s power in the church. It is time that demonstrates the church’s submission to God’s will in all decisions. Time in prayer shows that a church is desperate for the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the community. Healthy churches manifest devotion to prayer (Col. 4:1).
Healthy Churches center on and celebrate the Word of God.
Whether the questions facing the church deal with how parents should raise their children (Eph. 6:1-4), how marriages should be marked by mutual love and service (Eph. 5:22-33), how employees should work in the workplace (Col. 3:22-25), who should lead and serve the church (1 Tim. 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9), or even how the church should sing to one another when it gathers for weekly service (Col. 3:16-17), healthy churches know that the Word of God is sufficient to address all these crucial questions. God’s Word guides and directs healthy churches in their everyday mission and vision.
Healthy Churches demonstrate the reconciliation of heaven on earth.
In Ephesians 2, Paul explains the impact of God’s grace in the life of the church. Those who have been saved by grace have not only been reconciled to God, but they have also been reconciled to each other. In Ephesus, the question of reconciliation was related to the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Whatever different preferences existed in the early church, the fundamental identity of the people of God was centered on Jesus Christ (Col. 3:1-14). When churches remember this reality, they are less susceptible to division and demonstrate the reconciling power of the gospel to the world. For today’s churches, the question may relate to the reconciliation of people of different ethnicity or generation. Regardless of the cause of the division in a church, the reconciling power of Christ is able to overcome the division. Healthy churches demonstrate this reconciliation by promoting and working toward the unity of all Christians in Christ. When churches work for reconciliation, they demonstrate the reconciliation of heaven on earth and people glorify God as a result (Eph. 3:10, 20-21).