In church circles today, many writers and bloggers on the church have moved away from the church growth terminology in favor of church health. I am drawn back to classic books on church growth by Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, Thom Rainer, The Book of Church Growth, Gene Mims, Kingdom Principles for Church Growth, and even C. B. Hogue’s, I Want My Church to Grow. Now books that deal with growth address these issues through more contemporary models, recognizing that church growth must be healthy. Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Stephen Macchia’s Becoming a Healthy Church, and even to some degree Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine, all demonstrate this paradigm shift from church growth to church health.
An honest appraisal of modern church growth methods affirms the need for this perspective. In our world today, we have learned how to grow churches through a variety of means. We have become so concise and advanced in our methodology, technology, and programming that a church leader can grow a church and quite possibly never have to mention the name of Jesus. Through research, we have learned what the unchurched world wants, and we have built churches that have gotten out of balance in their approach in catering to what people do not like about church. As a result, many pastors are fearful of church revitalization because of the onslaught of blogs, ads, and publications that promote “a new church for people who do not like church” as though there is something anathema about the established church.
Please do not misunderstand this point. The established church needs to embrace change, but we should not be fearful of the so-called traditional church. In my conversations with church planters over the years, I have asked them about tradition. Without exception, these individuals have all affirmed that, within seven years of founding their churches, deep-seeded traditions became the norm and had to be addressed. Therefore, if we are drawn to church planting rather than church revitalization because we reject tradition, we will be leaving our churches about every four to seven years. Better reasons must exist for why we plant churches and why we revitalize churches.
Look at the Scriptures for a moment. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he addresses a variety of issues this young pastor faces and will face. Nero’s persecution was moving to a fevered pitch, resulting in Paul’s arrest and his second imprisonment. As he writes this letter from his dungeon cell, waiting for his martyrdom, he admonishes Timothy to be faithful to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2 ESV). One of the reasons that a faithfulness to God’s Word was so essential was because “the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new” (2 Tim. 4:3). I often wonder if we are not living in those times. The fact remains, not all church growth is healthy church growth. Not all churches that are growing experience biblical church growth. Drawing a crowd is not the same as growing a church.
Other criteria must be present to evaluate the church besides just numbers. Numbers continue to be extremely important. For the same reasons that we stepped away from the church growth nomenclature because it appeared that all it emphasized was numbers, we must be faithful to apply that same standard to contemporary church methods. Thus, church revitalization becomes a viable means of church growth because it necessitates church health. Many churches fall into decline because they have become unhealthy, so a prospective pastor will never accomplish church turnaround if church health is not achieved. The two go inseparably together.
I googled “Characteristics of a Healthy Church” and got over one million hits. Time would not permit me to read all one million results, but the lists varied from three to twelve distinctives. Dever obviously addresses nine marks. Macchia identifies ten characteristics for a healthy church. I believe that most, if not all, of these traits are discovered in Luke’s account of the early church. Look at Acts 2:41–47 and an immediate recognition of healthy church practices emerges
William Henard, Can These Bones Live: A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization (Nashville: B&H, 2015).
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