A few weeks ago I wrote an article called How to Spot a Healthy Church–Quickly. To my surprise, it has drawn the most comments of anything I’ve ever written on the weblog. At the moment there are 89 comments attached to that entry. They are all enlightening because they allow us a glimpse into how people evaluate local churches–their own and those they visit.
In that article I noted that after nearly 27 years as a pastor, I now preach in a new church almost every Sunday. I find it fascinating and instructive to examine the churches I visit because I’m coming in exactly the way most visitors come in. I generally know a little bit about the church, I know a few people (but not very many), and I have some sense of what they believe. Every Sunday thousands of people visit local churches for the first time. Because many of those visitors are looking for a church home, they make snap judgments on what they hear and see, and perhaps more important, on what they sense going on around them. A few of the comments to my original article offered long lists of things visitors should investigate in order to determine if a church is healthy or not. While those lists are very useful, especially for researchers and seminary students, most people will only look for two or three key things when they visit a church.
In the earlier article I suggested these two factors as ways to spot a healthy church quickly:
1) Hearty congregational singing.
2) Obvious affection between the pastor and the congregation.
After giving the matter more thought, I would like add a third factor to that list:
3) Eagerness to hear the Word of God.
In putting the matter this way, I am not talking about whether or not the sermon is biblical. In my understanding of the church, that’s a given. The true preaching of the Word is one mark of a genuine church of Jesus Christ. I didn’t emphasize this point in the original article because that’s a foundational starting point for me. Preaching today comes in many different varieties, and I’m quite willing to attend a church where the pastor doesn’t do it exactly the way I’m used to as long as he is truly biblical. Some churches do only verse-by-verse exposition. Other churches emphasize practical Bible application. Some churches preach a lot of Bible doctrine. Some pastors preach long series. Others limit their series to 6-8 weeks. Some pastors follow the church year. Many pastors use Power Point or video clips. Some use drama to introduce their messages. Some use lots of props. More and more pastors preach without a suit or tie. Some preach in a robe. It’s all fine with me as long the Bible stands at the heart of the message so that the people can hear what God has said. Delivery methods change. The message does not.
My third factor relates to how the congregation hears the sermon. Some time ago I preached in a church where I felt it was very difficult to connect with the people. They seemed to listen politely but it was hard to know if anything I said was getting through. Then a few weeks later I preached in an entirely different ministry setting. When I stood up to deliver the message, I could sense the eagerness of the congregation. As I spoke, there was a holy hush as the people listened intently to every word I was saying. I could even see some people leaning forward in their seats.
While it’s always hard for a preacher to evaluate the effectiveness of his own ministry, especially on a given Sunday, the contrast was so striking that as I thought about it later, I realized that it hadn’t happened by accident. In the second ministry setting, the congregation came with eager hearts to hear the message. I had the unusual sense that they were not coming to hear from me but from the Lord.
I should add that the first two factors were also present. The people sang with great joy unto the Lord. It wasn’t artificial or hyped up, just honest and heartfelt congregational singing. And I could sense and see the visible love the people had for each other and for their leaders. It’s not hard to preach in an atmosphere like that. I tend to think that “great preaching” (however you define that term) happens when an eager congregation sings with joy, loves each other, and eagerly expects to hear from the Lord. They will not be disappointed.
So here’s a third way to spot a health church quickly. Are they eager to hear from the Lord or do they approach the sermon with a sense of “let’s get this over with”? You can’t fake eagerness and you shouldn’t mistake it for emotional enthusiasm. When visiting a church, pay attention to how the people listen to the sermon. That’s a key barometer of church health.
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