by Sarah Condie
Dan and Bec recently relocated to a large city where they knew no one. They were keen to find a church and since I worked with Bec, they asked me for help. I asked what they were hoping for in their new church, and together, we came up with a “list”.
As I thought about their “wish” list, it occurred to me that finding a new church could easily be guided by the cult of personality or a consumer mentality of “what’s in it for me”. But is there a better way of making such an important decision? In an increasingly transient culture, what should we look for in a church that can ground us in our faith?
After asking God to lead them, Dan and Bec identified some local churches they wanted to visit and explored their websites, knowing, of course, nothing replaces face-to-face experiences.
After visiting a few churches, I asked them several questions that I hoped would provide clues about a church’s priorities: How did they welcome you? Was God’s word central? Did you see a range of difference in the people, age, stage of life, other demographics? How did the congregation express its joy in Jesus? Was there a time of prayer, or perhaps a corporate confession of sin as well as a reminder of Christ’s forgiveness? How did they connect with their community? Could you see yourself contributing there?
Obviously not all those questions could be fully answered up front, but for Dan and Bec first visits revealed a church’s commitments. This one emphasized preaching, that one children’s ministry, another liturgical worship. Which was God guiding Dan and Bec to join? And how could I help my friends not only make a wise choice around their needs, but also recognize the marks of a “healthy” church that they could join and support?
What makes a church “healthy” at all? We all know that when we visit a doctor to determine if we’re healthy, the doctor measures our heart rate and blood pressure, asks about exercise, history, diet and sleep to begin determining the answer.
I believe healthy churches have similar vital signs we can use as we try to discern where God’s calling us:
1. The heartbeat of God’s word. Healthy churches exist for Christ and his honour, and therefore place God’s word at the centre, seeking to live under it. They have faithful preaching that explains what the Bible says. Small groups gather to study God’s word, one of the marks of the early church (Acts 2:42). The New Testament is clear that the word of Christ grows people in maturity (1 Peter 1:22-2:3).
2. They recognize who they are—and aren’t—before God. Healthy churches are filled with people who know they aren’t perfect, but who know God has chosen them for his purposes. When a newspaper asked the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton responded with a letter that simply said, “Dear Sirs, I am.” This humble acknowledgement that our sin is real and God takes it seriously doesn’t lead to despair, but to thankfulness for the wonder of God’s grace. Christ forgives us, washes us clean and changes us.
3. Christian character matters. Healthy churches seek to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). What matters most are not innovative programs or spectacular spiritual gifts, but Christ-like character that loves God and neighbor and displays the fruit of the Spirit through song, gratitude, prayer and deed.
4. They are family. Healthy churches operate like a healthy family, sharing a common purpose and devotion. The New Testament has more than 135 references to our being “siblings” and 59 to our caring for “one another”! As God’s beloved family, a healthy church listens to one another, loves and prays for each other. They offer practical care when needed and every member is valued.
5. They look outward. Healthy churches don’t just share the good news with the community; they are good news! That means they might offer practical ministries for the vulnerable or marginalized as well as instruction about Christianity, marriage or parenting skills. You get the idea. Stories of people welcomed, coming to faith, and encouraged to use their gifts to serve (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) are common as a result.
6. They know they belong. Healthy churches are filled with men, women, and children confident they belong to God and his family. They regularly gather (Hebrews 10:24-25), knowing that despite their failings, God keeps calling them together. As Charles Spurgeon, a 19th century Baptist pastor, said:
“If I had never joined a church till I found one that was perfect, I should not have joined one at all. And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”
I’m still praying that Dan and Bec find a healthy church where they can grow in their love of Jesus and contribute their gifts in building God’s kingdom. It’s not easy and takes time. But what a gift it is to belong to an imperfect but forgiven church as part of Christ’s body!
Sarah Condie is a Co-Director with her husband Keith of the Mental Health & Pastoral Care Institute at Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Sydney Australia. She is also a women’s Pastor and Director of Well-being & Care at Church by the Bridge in Sydney, Australia. She loves to read, walk, quilt, drink cups of tea with friends at the kitchen table, and write on her blog when she can.