In the last 18 months I have come to a few conclusions about how to quickly gauge the health of the churches we visit--either to preach or simply to participate in a worship service. The Lord has allowed us to travel from coast to coast and to visit country cities, city churches and suburban churches--some large, some small, and many in-between. I don't know if doing this sort of itinerant ministry makes you more qualified to evaluate churches, but the very fact of being in a different church almost every Sunday inevitably forces you to think about where you've been, what you've seen, and what you've experienced. On one hand, it's obviously true that coming in to preach and then leaving doesn't allow you to do an in-depth analysis. But when your schedule takes you from Tupelo, MS to Muscle Shoals, AL to Baton Rouge, LA to New Brunswick, Canada to Arlington Heights, IL (my current schedule), it does allow you to worship in a variety of settings and it gives you a birds-eye view of how things are going in various churches.
I have come to the conclusion that there are two very obvious indicators of church health that the one-time visitor can gauge very quickly.
1) Hearty congregational singing.
2) Obvious affection between the pastor and the congregation.
I have written quite a bit about hearty congregational singing. That's one factor that I never fully appreciated until I started traveling and preaching in different churches. Healthy churches love to sing. This is not a statement about worship style, hymns vs. choruses, Power Point vs. hymnals, and it has nothing to do with denominational preference, church size, location, or the beauty or lack thereof of the sanctuary. I am not suggesting that healthy churches have great "music programs," a phrase I don't much like because it tends to emphasize the performance side of things. I'm not talking about excellent "special music" or beautiful choir anthems or praise bands or organ music, as good as those things may be. Lots of churches with big "music programs" hardly sing at all, although they may have big choirs and put on excellent Easter musicals. I am speaking of a church that truly loves to sing, where the music is based on good theology and the whole congregation lifts its voice in song, where a visitor can't help but join the rising chorus of praise to God. That's easy to check because it's obvious. If the people aren't singing, you can tell it. If the singing is anemic, preaching is generally more of a challenge. I think there is a lot of theology here and some insight into the human heart and something about the work of the Holy Spirit that I don't fully understand, but I have experienced it over and over again. Healthy churches love to sing. I've yet to visit an unhealthy church or a troubled church with strong congregational singing.
I have't written much about the second point, but it is equally obvious to me. When there is visible affection between the pastor and his people, when he loves them and they love him, and when you can see that expression of affection before and after the service as he greets people, and when you sense his love for his people as he speaks to them from the pulpit, there you have a healthy church. This is not a function of personality because some pastors are naturally more reserved and others are more outgoing. Pastors and congregations come in all sizes, shapes and various permutations. But you can't fake genuine love. I have come to understand that a true bond between a pastor and his people is a precious gift from God. It doesn't happen overnight but is built up over time as the pastor preaches strong messages from the Word and the people listen with eager hearts. And it is buttressed by times spent together laughing, crying, praying, talking, singing, eating, arguing, confronting, thinking, dreaming, meditating, evaluating, rejoicing, worshiping, sharing, proclaiming, rebuking, exulting, and all the other things that go into the life of the local church.
I do not tire of quoting Jess Moody who said that people choose a church with their noses. They can smell the joy.
That's as good a summary as I've ever heard. People can smell the joy on Sunday morning. And they can smell the other stuff too. Sometimes it's easy to smell the manure of church conflict. Most of us have had the experience of visiting a new church and without knowing anything about it, we sense that something is wrong inside the church. People look distraught, upset, flat, disinterested, and sometimes you can feel the tension in the air.
I don’t think you can fake joy. Even unbelievers can sense it. And nowhere is it more obvious than in hearty congregational singing and obvious affection between the pastor and the congregation. Where those things are present, you have found a healthy church.
(I’d love to know what you think about this. Do you agree with these two marks of a healthy church? What else would you add that would help a visitor quickly gauge the health of a church? Click here to offer your comments.)