Something about those children intrigued me, but I couldn't figure out what it was.

For the past week or two, I have noticed these three small children playing in their yard near the Mississippi River levee. Normally, in my daily walk I don't travel as far east as their house, but recently I began lengthening the walk by another mile, trying to lose more weight. That's when I began noticing them.

The oldest child seemed to be seven or eight. There was a younger brother and a little sister. In the yard was all kinds of play equipment. No matter how cold it was, they were out there laughing and running, jumping and hiding, having a big time. You could hear them a block away.

Something about that made me smile. "Whatever the parents are doing," I thought, "it's working."

Yesterday, the children were out once more, enjoying life. As I reached my turning-around point and headed back, I noticed they were doing something different. They and another boy had several large-wheel vehicles at the top of the levee which they were riding down to their yard across the grassy expanse. Two women sat in chairs near the house, keeping an eye on them. One was the mother, I assumed.

As I neared them, all the children rode off the levee except the oldest boy. As I approached, he looked in my direction and said, "Hi. I'm Harley." I was so taken aback, I had to ask, "That's your name?" He said it was. I said, "Hi, Harley. My name is Mister Joe." He smiled a big grin and said,"Hi, Mister Joe!" Then, off the levee he went.

I walked away thinking my first impression of that family was right on. The parents are doing many things right. Here is a little kid with a great friendly attitude, confident enough to introduce himself to strangers, and enjoying life to its fullest.

One day soon I plan to introduce myself to the parents. I'm going to predict that I will find the family does not have a television set and the children do not own computer games. There's more to that family than this, of course, and I want to find out what it is.

From the first, I had felt there was something so attractive about that family.

And that's what started me thinking about churches. Is it possible to do a drive-by of a church and within a few seconds determine that it's a healthy church?

I've run that question by a number of friends.

My friends and I have decided it's easier to tell an UNHEALTHY church in a few seconds than a healthy one.

As one pastor put it, "If the building is in a state of disrepair and if the people are unfriendly, those are dead giveaways. If there are no greeters for the church and no helps for first-time visitors, you decide very quickly this must be an unhealthy church."

Other signs are so obvious they require very little comment: a sparse crowd, lackluster singing, uninspired sermons, and unfriendly congregations.

But the question is: How would you tell that a church is healthy in a few seconds?

Corey gave several possibilities. "You might notice that the people are excited to be there. That works for me. A healthy congregation."

He continued, "If the people are generous, that's a great sign. Not necessarily rich. The people of Macedonia were generous but dirt-poor (II Corinthians 8)."

"If there is strong pastoral leadership, if everyone is in the right place in serving. Those are great signs. It's what I call a 'good Ephesians 4' model."

"If the people love their ministerial staff and follow them, they are going to be a healthy church in most cases."

Mike said, "I need a little more than 30 seconds to determine if a church is healthy. I want to hear their preaching and learn what the preacher is telling the people theologically."

I posted the question of Facebook today, as to how we could tell in 30 seconds that a church is healthy. Here are some of the answers, and then I'll give you mine.

  • people are friendly and speak to me.
  • I see signs of mission involvement and evangelism.
  • there's an air of expectancy.
  • the church has children.
  • people are carrying their Bibles.
  • warmth.
  • a variety of age groups.
  • in the parking lot and at the front door, servants are showing me Jesus in their very actions.

If I could choose one moment, one sliver of time, that would tell the story on a church and allow me to decide on the health-status of the congregation, it would be: How they handle a conflict.

For years, I thought Acts 6:1-6 was all about the origin of the first deacons in the church. Finally, it hit me that that is a very minor part of that story. The major theme of that story is how the church dealt with a challenge to its fellowship and peace.

You and I cannot sit off to the side and watch the Jerusalem congregation deal with the dissension that arose when one group of widows began complaining that they were being neglected in the daily distribution of food in favor of the majority group. We can't, but plenty of others in the city were watching.

They watched and they were most impressed by what they saw.

And what exactly did they see? They saw the leaders, the Apostles, move quickly as soon as the dissent arose. They saw them defer to the congregation, instead of handling the matter themselves. They saw the congregation do the most amazing thing: select seven good men from among the dissenting group and put in charge of the food distribution. They saw how it pleased everyone and how the congregation settled back down in harmony. And they made a decision.

They wanted what these Christians had.

Acts 6:7 reads, "So the preaching about God flourished, the number of disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith."

Question: When was the last time your church impressed the outside world by the way it dealt with conflict?

When was the last time newcomers walked into your fellowship and were so impressed by what they saw, within one minute they were ready to sign on the dotted line? What could they have possibly seen that would have brought about that kind of reaction?

I do not have all the answers on this. However, this would be a great subject for a discussion with your church leadership.

I know this: many of the first-time visitors to your church will be making a decision on whether to return within the first minute or two after they get out of the car. What they see will either draw them in or turn them off.

Scary stuff.

Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt. Used with permission

Publication date: January 14, 2011