FIRST-PERSON: Forget church growth, aim for church health
LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)--A decade ago, when I wrote "The Purpose Driven Church," I predicted church health, not church growth, would be the primary concern of the 21st-century church. I believe that prediction is proving itself true.
The New Testament says a lot about the health of the church. Consider just a few verses:
"As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing...." Ephesians 4:16b (NLT).
"The focus of my letter wasn't on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church." 2 Corinthians 2:9 (Message).
"You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other..." James 3:18 (Message).
Church health is the key to church growth. All living things grow if they're healthy. You don't have to make them grow -- it's just natural for living organisms. As a parent, I didn't have to force my three children to grow. They naturally grew up. As long as I removed the hindrances, such as poor nutrition or an unsafe environment, their growth was automatic.
If my children had not grown up, something would have been terribly wrong. I would have done whatever it took to discover the disease and correct it. I wouldn't have remained passive, spouting cliches about faithfulness, or wanting "quality not quantity" in my children.
The same principle is true for the church. Since the church is a living organism, it's natural for it to grow if it's healthy. The church is a body, not a business -- an organism, not an organization. It's alive. If a church is not growing, it is dying.
What, then, is the secret of church health?
In a word, it's balance!
Your body has nine different systems (circulatory, respiratory, digestive, skeletal, etc.). When these systems are all in balance, it produces health. But when your body gets out of balance, we call that "disease."
Likewise when the body of Christ becomes unbalanced, disease occurs. Health and growth can only occur when everything is brought into balance.
Our entire world is based on this principle of balance. Our planet was perfectly balanced by God, at just the right angle on its axis to support life. It rotates at a speed that minimizes vibration. If this planet were just a little closer to the sun, we'd burn up and, if it were just a few miles farther from the sun, we'd freeze to death.
Nature is a collection of ecosystems that live in balance with each other. We now know that even the tiniest variation in the ecosystem creates a chain reaction. God has set up a food chain with plants and animals in balance.
In architecture, structures must be balanced. If the stress isn't balanced, a building will collapse or a bridge will fall through. There must be equilibrium. If your life is not balanced, you might collapse, and if your congregation is not balanced, it might collapse. As pastors and counselors, we must realize that healing is the recovery of balance to the body, soul and congregation.
Healthy, lasting church growth is multidimensional. I've written extensively on the fact that church health has five facets: every church needs to grow warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, stronger through worship, broader through ministry and larger through evangelism.
These five purposes of the church are commanded by Jesus in the Great Commandment and Great Commission, explained by Paul in Ephesians 4, described in Jesus' prayer for the church in John 17, and modeled by the first church in Jerusalem.
In Acts 2:42-47 these five facets of health are mentioned: They fellowshipped, edified each other, worshiped, ministered and evangelized. As a result, verse 47 says, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
Church growth is the natural result of church health. But church health can only occur when our message is biblical and our mission is balanced. Each of the five New Testament purposes of the church must be in equilibrium with the others for health to occur.
Now this is important: Because we are imperfect beings, balance in a church does not occur naturally. In fact, we must continually correct imbalance! It's human nature to overemphasize the aspect or purpose of the church we feel most passionate about.
Most evangelical churches already do the five purposes of the church -- sort of.
But they don't do them all equally well. One church may be strong in fellowship, yet weak in evangelism. Another may be strong in worship, yet weak in discipleship. Still another may be strong in evangelism, yet weak in ministry.
Why is this? It's the natural tendency of leaders to emphasize what they feel strongly about and neglect whatever they feel less passionate about. Around the world you can find churches that have become the extension of their pastor's giftedness. They focus only on what he cares about most.
Unless you set up a system and structure to intentionally balance the five purposes, your church will tend to overemphasize the purpose that best expresses the gifts and passion of its pastor.
Healthy churches are built on purpose! By focusing equally on all five of the New Testament purposes of the church, your church will develop the healthy balance that makes lasting growth possible.