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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Beyond Bodies, Bucks, and Buildings

If you have ever served on a church board or bothered to read the minutes of a church board meeting, you’ve noticed the attention given to attendance, budget, and facilities. And for good reason. Not only are they are important to the functioning of the church, they lend themselves quite nicely to spreadsheet analyses and trend plots.

Yet for all their convenience and importance, these measures have a major drawback: They are lagging, rather than leading, indicators of church health—similar to the symptoms of many life-threatening illnesses.

Take colon cancer, for instance. By the time a person experiences bleeding, weight loss and fatigue, the disease is well-advanced and the prognosis grim. That’s why effective prevention involves looking for hidden conditions via colonoscopies and diagnostic tests, rather than waiting for the appearance of superficial symptoms.

In the same way, because “bodies, bucks, and buildings” are late material effects of an underlying spiritual condition, a church that waits for an adverse trend to show up there may be well on its way to hospice, if not already on life support.

As the Western church has stagnated over the last several decades, some Christians have been scrambling for more qualitative indicators of church health. One such person is Christian author Philip Yancey.

In a recent issue of Christianity Today, Philip Yancey writes about the markers he looks for in a healthy church. As Yancey tells it, he settled on these markers after a whirlwind tour of two dozen congregations of various denominational affiliations, liturgical traditions, and music styles in his community.

During his tour, Yancey was surprised how quickly he picked up on “aliveness” in a congregation. “Were people conversing in the foyer? Did I hear the sound of laughter? What activities and issues did the bulletin board highlight?”

Yancey added that it “had little to do with theology,” evidenced by the fact that in two conservative congregations, “members slumped in their seats and glumly went through the motions,” while a liberal church (that had crafted a politically correct version of the Lord’s Prayer) “showed the most energy in community and global outreach programs.”

Obviously, “aliveness” was key for Yancey. For, without further explanation, he concludes that a healthy church (presumably one with a high “aliveness” factor) is one that exhibits diversity, unity, and mission.

Yancey goes on, “When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble me, the more uncomfortable I feel.” Interpretation: a discernable ethnic and racial mix is evidence of spiritual vibrancy; and the absence of such indicates spiritual anemia.

Without question, racial inclusion and reconciliation are important Christian imperatives. But contrary to Yancey’s suggestion, congregational diversity is not a reliable indicator of church health. People tend to join churches in close proximity to where they live. A monochromatic congregation could mean that the church does not take “inclusion” seriously, or it could simply mean that the church reflects its surrounding community.

On the other hand, among churches that claim a Christian association, some of the most diverse congregations are found in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon.

As for unity and mission, Yancey has little to say other than to suggest that an outward missionary impulse and a shared vision are indicative of a healthy church. And that leads me to the underlying problem with Yancey’s diagnostics: There is nothing distinctively Christian about them. In fact, they are evident in many good civic organizations, which indicates that, like the aliveness factor, they have “little to do with theology,” at least the way Yancey has posed them.

Indeed, with only diversity, unity, and mission as our guides, the former People’s Temple of Jim Jones would have appeared quite healthy, having exhibited high levels of all three; which underscores the weakness of subjective impressions and undefined measures of church fitness.

Instead, effective measures must be indexed to the Church’s distinctive mission of discipleship—transforming people who will transform the world for Christ. In that way, church diagnostics have an objective standard: a Person and His teachings.

As I have written elsewhere, discipleship involves six elements.

  1. Salvation: receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
  2. Maturity: growth in Christ through worship, study, prayer, meditation, and private devotions.
  3. Fellowship: communion with other Christians for encouragement, accountability and mentoring.
  4. Inreach: using one’s gifts for service and ministry within the church.
  5. Outreach: using one’s gifts to minister to people outside of the church.
  6. Evangelism: bringing others to Christ.

Those elements link church health to church mission. They are the “vital signs” of an effective disciple-building church.

For example, in the area of maturity, we want to see members who are actively pursuing spiritual development. In cutting edge churches, members complete a spiritual needs assessment which they use to develop, with the help of a spiritual mentor, a personal growth plan for the upcoming year. A plan may include the need for things like increased bible knowledge or doctrinal understanding, a more consistent prayer life, or the victory over certain behaviors or thought patterns. A vigorous church is one that provides these tools and has a high percentage of member participation.

Character is tested in isolation, but forged in community. That is why healthy churches work to connect people in vital relationships for their mutual encouragement, support and growth. This is the area of fellowship, measured by member involvement in small groups engaged in study, prayer, and accountability.

A church that is not making important and noticeable contributions in its community and the wider culture is a church that, at best, is taking up real estate. Inreach and outreach are aimed at helping members unleash their spiritual gifts with their God-given wiring in a ministry to serve others inside and outside the church. Good health is indicated when a high proportion of members know their giftedness and are using it for the kingdom.

Evangelism is concerned with growing the kingdom of God. Evangelistically bold churches emphasize the importance of building intentional relationships with unbelievers and sharing one’s faith. Both are potential measures for assessment. Other measures might include 1) the visitor-to-member mix at church services and 2) member involvement in organized evangelistic missions and events.

Moving away from the metrics of bodies, bucks and buildings to those of discipleship, begins with the willingness to "look under the hood" and ask some hard questions:

Are we putting on programs to grow attendance, or are we developing processes to develop people? Are we more concerned about behavior modification or spiritual transformation? Is ministry primarily performed by staff or by laity who are trained and equipped by the staff?

After a crisis in his congregation, pastor and author Bill Hull looked under the hood of his church. What he found was a non-discipleship model. After years of preaching, staff meetings and strategizing, believing that God’s blessing would be evidenced in numerical and financial growth, Bill realized that his church had a problem—not of breadth, but of depth. While it gladly bore the cross of salvation, it had shunned the cross of discipleship.

Bill also realized that, as pastor, he was leading out of competence rather than out of character. That meant that the first order of business was for Bill to focus on his own spiritual formation so that he could model what needed to be replicated. It also meant that his foremost duty as pastor was to train leaders who could train others.

Taking his cue from Jesus, who spent the majority of His time and energy equipping the 12, rather than ministering to the masses, Bill decided “to invest my best effort in developing faithful leaders who will be able to reproduce. This also means that a good deal of my time could be spent meeting with a few in order to have a larger impact.”

Finally, Bill recognized the need to monitor discipleship outcomes, requiring that the material measures of attendance, budget, and facilities give way to spiritual indicators of positive transformational change, for which there is an enduring Standard.

...What do you think about church health, and how it should be measured? Post your thoughts here.