How would you answer this question: “Is your church healthy?”
Odds are if someone asked you that question you would quickly, and enthusiastically say that your church is a wonderful, loving place where everyone gets along and Jesus is King. And that may be true. But the question is whether or not your church is healthy. That means taking a closer, honest, look at the inner workings of the church and seeking to assess whether things are working properly or not.
I’ve been in dozens of churches in my life. As a pastor’s kid I have more memories of church and church-related things than I do anything else. (That’s another topic for another post.) What I can honestly say is that I have rarely been part of a church I would say is healthy. More often than not churches are not healthy and in need of some help. The difficulty seems to be diagnosing the problem so that proper steps can be taken to rectify the situation.
Thankfully some help is out there. In a recent article for The Gospel Coalition, Pastor Kevin DeYoung shared “9 Marks of an Unhealthy Church” along with some thoughts on how to diagnose each problem. This doesn’t mean every possible struggle a church could face is listed – there are only 9 after all. But this is a good place to start.
You can click on the link above if you want to read the full list and see DeYoung’s comments on each (and I highly recommend that you do). But I want to briefly highlight a few that I find pertinent and share my own comments.
The very first “mark” on DeYoung’s list involves preaching. This should not be a surprise because if the preaching/teaching ministry of the church isn’t healthy there is little hope that anything else about the church will be healthy. It’s a simple conclusion considering the preaching is what serves to feed the people. If they aren’t being fed a proper diet there is little reason to believe they will be healthy.
So DeYoung says the first mark of an unhealthy church is “The more peripheral the sermon topic, the more excited the people become.” DeYoung comments: “I’m concerned when a congregation gets tired of hearing about the Trinity, the atonement, the new birth, or the resurrection and wants to hear another long series on handling stress or the 70 weeks in Daniel.”
I grew up in a denomination that is famous for topical sermons. Each week was something new. I had no idea what expository preaching was until I got to seminary and even then I wasn’t sure what it was. The most intimidating thing about being a pastor, to me, was trying to think of a sermon topic every single week. The idea that I could start at John 1:1 or Ecclesiastes 1:1 and preach systematically through the entire book was both foreign and exciting to me.
What I have concluded – after a decade of awful topical sermons – is that expository preaching is more critical to a church’s health than most things. Without it I see little hope of a church being healthy. A lack of expository preaching, and the subsequent topical chaos that ensues, results is a church that gets excited about “sermons” on body image and debt management but has no idea how sanctification, justification, and propitiation work. Churches where people can’t wait for the 4-week sermon series on “How to be a better you” but have little interest in a sermon series on sin and repentance are in trouble. They are, whether they know it or not, simply babysitting people for an hour on Sunday each week instead of creating disciples.
I think we can safely say this is taking place today. Self-professing Christians are supporting abortion, same-sex “marriage,” cohabitation, alternate paths to heaven outside Jesus Christ, and a host of other false doctrines and heresies. They are simultaneously attacking the inerrancy of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, and the method of salvation being by grace through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. How did they arrive at these unbiblical and anti-biblical positions? Well, if they are sitting in church each week hearing about stress relief and personal achievement but never hear sound doctrinal teaching it’s not exactly a mystery.
The bottom line is that if your sermon centers more around some peripheral issue rather than the doctrinal teaching actually found in the Bible, there’s a good chance you have an unhealthy church.
Another mark of an unhealthy church in DeYoung’s article is “No one is ever raised up from the church for pastoral ministry or sent from the church into missionary service.”
Why is this a problem? If a church is not producing pastors and missionaries it is an indication that there is a lack of discipleship and a lack of sound doctrinal teaching. When the Gospel is clearly preached and an emphasis on discipleship is a priority it will produce doctrinally sound disciples that desire to preach. The church will have no choice but to utilize those disciples as small group leaders, preachers, and short-term missionaries. Ultimately this will produce faithful pastors (whether vocational or bi-vocational) and full-time missionaries.
But, I have never seen a topical-sermon driven church where discipleship is just another name for “Sunday School” produce such faithful disciples. It’s a fruit thing.
The last mark of an unhealthy church on DeYoung’s list I want to comment on is one that I’ve had some experience with. DeYoung says you can spot an unhealthy church when “There are issues everyone knows about but no one talks about openly.”
In recent years it has struck me odd at the number of things we do in our church services that are not commanded (or even suggested) in Scripture, while we simultaneously ignore the things that are clearly commanded. There’s no mention of child-care or “special music” in the Bible; but we defend them as fiercely as the doctrine of grace. At the same time we ignore teaching such as “confess your sins to one another that you might be healed” (James 5:6). This is just one example but I’m sure we could all think of more.
If there is unrepentant sin in our church it must be called out. The pastor must boldly call people to repentance often and be willing to engage in church discipline. If not you can be sure that sin will take hold and become more than a distraction. As well, the pastor must never be afraid to call sin sin. The pastor must be more afraid of God than he is of men. If his primary job description is “peace-keeper” he is no longer a pastor – he is nothing less than a babysitter.
It’s not loving to ignore sin. No one is brought to Jesus by supporting their sin and telling them they don’t have to change. Every encounter with Jesus produced change and sin was never condoned or ignored. We can do no less.
Take a few moments to read DeYoung’s article and then ask yourself again “Is my church healthy?” Be honest. Remember that God hates pride but will exalt the humble (James 4:10, 1 Pet. 5:6).