Finding a Healthy Church

By Brian Congdon

Healthy ChurchOver a span of about 25 years I have seen only a handful of churches in person I would consider “healthy.” Although rare, these churches were so skilled and effective at their mission that it would be hard to imagine anything better. For example, one of the best spirit-filled churches I know of was a small church of only about 200 people. Based in Walla Walla, WA, this church possessed the most outstanding men’s ministry I have seen anywhere, to this day. The Spirit of God was poured out on this place and people like few others. During my time there I met and fellowshipped several times a week with great men. Several took me under their wing and never stopped offering generous counsel and words of wisdom. Many solid relationships emerged from spending time in this church. These mentors served as loyal friends, encouragers, and fathers to many; they were extraordinary men. They spoke healing and fortitude into many lives, constantly giving and serving those in need unselfishly. They never had a need or desire for public recognition.

I have secretly dreamt of finding another church like the small one encountered years ago in Walla Walla, but have never seen another quite like it. I am reminded that with great moves of God, there are seasons, and the plentitude may last quite a long time, but is still limited to a season. Unceasing growth is not always healthy. For reasons we know very little about, these seasons evolve and then suddenly change course or disappear altogether. One day we abruptly discover the “water spout” closed. Contextually, it then becomes error to attempt to open what God has supernaturally closed, and unwise to build lifelong dwellings next to a dried up oasis. Like Moses, an obedient believer must leave the comfort of familiarity to be driven out into a barren (desert) wasteland by the Spirit. Jesus did it. How about Joseph? Yes. Paul? Check.

It is not necessary to recount the shortcomings of the prosperity Gospel in the West. Due to increasing media coverage and the embarrassing public foibles of several prominent evangelical ministries over past decades, the culture views “prosperous” or “mega” ministries with a very skeptical eye. And they are justified (not critical) in doing so. Said ministries’ underlying value systems are inward-focused, anthropocentric, and occasionally even anti-kingdom, no matter how cleverly presented or dressed down in supposed humility. To say so is not a blanket statement, since some of the most effective ministries in existence, in terms of conversions and developmental, long-term change, are very large in size (e.g. Hillsong Sydney).

It is not usually a matter of quantity that engenders malaise, rather, mindset. God is very aware of the motives and hearts that drive such a machine, and does not stand in condemnation, rather, sends warnings and confrontation to effectuate redemption. One could term the really bad ones “life-sucking” instead of “life-giving.” Sometimes I wonder why it is even necessary to have video cameras rolling in every single service. Some churches capture all 3 services in one day, then put one or more of the best recordings online. Maybe watching all 3 versions in simultaneity will make you grow faster? I think this is a waste of time and effort, even if it is run by a well-oiled volunteer machine. Why not focus more energy on developing relationships and training congregants through discipleship?

On the other hand, there are some churches that truly shine with their media and television ministries. Though critics always surface from out of the woodwork, and the bible-thumping blogosphere has little tolerance for “Christianity Lite,” I have found Joel and Victoria Osteen’s ministry to be highly beneficial and yes, hope-inspiring. For those who endure seasons with no church family, “the smilin’ preacher” speaks an anointed word, imparting palpable courage to go forward in strength and conviction. He is one of the best encouragers out there. He and his wife minister to the nations every week, all from inside a single, massive building (or city?) with a television broadcast. “Friends, if you prayed this prayer we believe you are now born again. Get in a good Bible based church. Keep God first in your life. He’ll take you places that you’ve never even dreamed of.” He may be a bit theologically shallow at times, but perhaps it is deliberate – the invitation is supposed to start with a simple, free grace gift afterall. He can be psychotherapeutic too, but it is amazing what will happen when someone eagerly seeks to obey God. Life flows. Needs are met. The Spirit of God can show up in ways that defy all logic and church management techniques.

A genuinely healthy church is the product, first and foremost, of people with a right heart. To arrive there, we must undergo a thorough reality-check. Bypassing this step is bypassing God. To be challenged into a position of accurate alignment with God’s heart, is synonymous with godly love. Transformational agape is not a psychological feeling. A core aspect of the prophetic, and the Fatherly heart of God for that matter, is for His people to turn in their hearts toward Him. John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of our Savior and a paradigmatically new Kingdom. He did so by offering the baptism of repentance.

From a worldly, man-centered, and misguided life (everyone’s testimony for a season or three) we are confronted in love with a superior way. This way is the only way, and direction, worth going in. That it is the only way does not mean experiential monotany for every individual. In the style of the GEICO man in suit and tie, one eyebrow raised, “Does a Baskin & Robbins ice cream shop come with only 1 flavor?” Following this way, there is hope and purpose, and rescue from the clamoring imitations, and shiny yet hollow promises of the Babylonian experiment we are in but not of. Cradled in the arms of the One who singularly saves, and deeply planted in the company of a vibrant church body, we can finally say “I’m home!”

To get there, a re-alignment of mind, heart, and will is strongly recommended. Without the clarion call to repentance, all the church programs, ministries, and activity, are meaningless exercises. The contemporary Church is sleeping. A shift must begin with a wakeup call. The faithful need Kingdom truth stripped of dogma, passĂ© teaching, and christianeeze talking points. Old patterns of “doing church” can and should be replaced with a death-resurrection model which points to the Cross, exalts the character of Christ, and beckons believers to follow in the pattern of Christ. People from all walks must taste and see living, life-giving examples of the love and exemplary death of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, there is little point to Sunday morning. Change may be hard, but the wide road alternatives, lest we be fooled, are actually much harder when viewed through a ‘lifetime’ lens. Instead, let us willingly and boldly choose to be part of the new generation of leaders God is raising up for His eternal purposes!