If you’ve spent much time looking for good churches in Kalamazoo, or any city for that matter, you know there is no shortage of congregations to choose from. But with such a myriad of options, how do you pick the one that is right for you? Is it based on size? The quality of the music? Options for youth ministries?
While those are factors that can help make life in our local churches comfortable, I would argue they aren’t the most important considerations in determining the overall quality of a church. So, what makes a “good” or healthy church? To answer that we first have to figure out what the church is and what the church does.
What the Church Is
The church is the local gathering-together of God’s people for the sake of carrying out the mission God has given to his people. It consists of the people we’ve covenanted together with in membership, the elders we’ve chosen to submit ourselves to, the place where we come to be nourished and equipped, and an institution whose vision we’ve aligned ourselves with. As Christians, we are commanded to commit ourselves to a local church, and the local church is commanded to commit itself to us.
The Church is the total number of those who have been called by Christ and belong to him. This number spans time and space. It is those from every tribe, tongue, and nation who will be gathered around the throne worshipping our Lord. The two illustrations Paul uses in Ephesians is that of the bride of Christ (5:25) – called, cleansed, and celebrated at the final marriage supper- and of a body (1:23) – the fullness of Christ who is its head.
The implication for us is to remember that, no matter which church we belong to, we are not in competition with other congregations in our area to attract the most people to our “brand.” We are in cooperation with other parts of the body to seek and save the lost. Understandably, there are limitations on how much individual churches can consistently do together; a weekly joint potluck would probably be unrealistic. But there are very tangible ways we can express the reality of the universal nature of the Church:
- Pray: Pray for other churches in your area by name, both corporately and privately.
- Encourage: Encourage friends and family who attend other congregations to be active in building up those bodies, rather than telling them all the great things they’re missing by not being at your church.
- Equip: For churches that offer a specialized training or class, you can open it up to members of other congregations.
- Collaborate: Local pastors can and should meet together regularly to pray for the city and one another.
What the Church Does
To put it succinctly, the mission of the Church is to carry out the great commission Christ gave to the apostles: making disciples of Christ by going, baptizing, and teaching. If the Church is doing its job well, we will see more people look more like Christ. And there should be both. If we get more people, but over time they aren’t thinking, speaking, and acting more like Christ, then something is amiss in our teaching and discipleship. If we have the most Christlike congregation, but more people aren’t hearing the gospel, then maybe we’ve missed the vision our savior has for saving.
Now, there are 101 different programs and initiatives a church can and should implement over the course of its existence. Yes, we can have a music team. Yes, we can build a mercy ministry. Yes, we can gather together in small groups. But, whatever your “thing” is that you think is important for a church to have, it is imperative for you to remember that “thing” only exists to serve the overall mission of making disciples. And, as churches and cultures change, sometimes the programs we love may become impractical or unhelpful in accomplishing the mission. So don’t judge a church to be good or bad on the programs it offers, those are temporal and ever changing to meet the needs of the body. Rather, judge a church on its faithfulness in using the tools God has established for making more people look more like Christ.
Here then, are some things a church should be doing if we are to consider it a “good” church:
- High Value of the Word – Does God’s Word hold the primary place in the service? Is it read? Does it inform the singing and prayers? Does the preacher expound upon it week by week? Does the rest of the congregation take the Word seriously in their personal lives? You can tell a lot about a congregation by how worn out the bindings on their Bibles are.
- High Value of Prayer – Again, how prominent is prayer in the life of the congregation? Do the prayers contain substance? Do they span the breadth of the examples of prayers given to us in the Scriptures: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication? Is the congregation readily praying for one another in their private devotions?
- Theological Richness – It is popular today to see doctrine as a dirty word, but the reality is that any claim we make about God or the gospel is a theological claim. Churches shouldn’t put their congregants on a theological diet, but rather teach them to feast at the banquet of God’s revelation. For the more we know him, the more we will love him.
- Evangelistic Zeal – If the mission of the church is fulfilling the great commission, then a healthy church is one that is focused on that mission. Is there an expectation that there are non-Christians present on Sunday? Are there initiatives for equipping the saints in this work? Are the people bringing the gospel to their neighborhoods and workplaces? The church isn’t an ark where we flee to escape the world; it is a battleship where we fight to save many out of it.
- Commitment to Faithful Membership – While this is a blog post unto itself, a healthy church is one where the people are committed to one another and the elders are committed to them. This commitment isn’t just signing a piece of paper and having some cake in the lobby when new members join; it is a giving of yourself for the sake of each other because we cannot fight this fight alone. So ask yourself: are people committed to each other here? Is there active discipleship happening? Does the congregation regularly open their homes to one another? Are the elders and pastors active in the lives of the congregation?
- Gracious Exercise of Discipline – Church discipline is more than excommunication; it is the fruit of active discipleship of the congregation. It is exhorting, admonishing, and encouraging those who are in need of it. But, for the sake of the purity of the church and the soul of the wayward, sometimes suspension and excommunication are necessary. Your elders shouldn’t do this with gladness because they get to be relieved of someone causing them distress. Rather, they ought to do this with tears because one of their sheep is lost.
Surely, no church is perfect in all of these marks, and there are others that would be good to add to this list. But as you contemplate which church you want to call home, or simply want to evaluate where your church can grow, let these be benchmarks to gauge the health of your congregation. Where your church is lacking, you can begin by praying for renewal and asking how the Lord might use you to lead an effort towards growth.
Ryan Potter is Assistant Pastor at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Kalamazoo, MI. Ryan is an alumnus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he received his M. Div. and is currently serving in the campus ministry for Good Shepherd at Western Michigan University.