Take note of these identifying characteristics of church health:
An Authoritative View of Scripture. Simon Peter’s sermon was filled with Old Testament quotes. Once the church was established, the Scripture declares, “So those who accepted his message were baptized . . . and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:41–42). The New Testament obviously had not been written yet, but soon copies would be circulated, beginning with the Gospels, Paul’s letters to the churches of Galatia and Thessalonica, and James’s epistle. The apostles’ words were ones of authority. In order for a church to develop and maintain good health, it must be committed to God’s Word as its authority for both what the church believes and how it practices its polity and faith. Every method, program, and change must be evaluated on its biblical content, not just on its effectiveness.
A Focus on Discipleship and Small Groups. While they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” they also “broke bread from house to house” (Acts 2:42, 46), indicating a commitment to discipleship but also to small groups. The evidence of a belief in God’s Word is that it affects our lives, our daily decisions, and our entire beings.
A Strong Emphasis on Biblical Preaching. Simon Peter’s first act once the Holy Spirit had moved was to preach. As they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” and “to meeting together in the temple complex” (Acts 2:42, 46), these activities certainly involved preaching and evangelism. One of the problems that the church is facing today is a loss of the prophetic voice. Preaching has become secondary, even nonessential, in some church circles and methods. Yet the public proclamation of God’s Word remains a sign of church health. Healthy believers love biblical preaching. They always have and always will.
A Connection to the Community. We might use the term relevant at this point. I am not sure that the early church tried to be relevant, but a look at the text shows that their message spoke to the hearts of the people. Luke says that they had “favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47). While this almost universal favor would be short-lived (read Acts 4 for an explanation), the fact persists that the message of the gospel continued to meet people’s needs. We must not forget that important detail. Being relevant is far more than being cool. Biblical relevance demands a gospel connection.
A Vigorous Commitment to Prayer. Acts 2:42 tells us that the early church was devoted to, among other things, prayer. In our churches today, if there is a ministry that is so greatly neglected and taken for granted, it has to be prayer. We call Wednesday nights “Prayer meeting,” yet we rarely pray. It has been my sad discovery that Christians find it uncomfortable to pray with one another. I conclude that the reason probably stems from the fact that we have not accomplished the other characteristics of church health. Therefore, we do not pray. If a pastor asked me advice on what to do first in accepting a very unhealthy church in need of revitalization but not ready for change, my response would be, “Preach the Word, Pastor the People, Practice Personal Evangelism, and Prioritize Congregational Prayer” (see chapter 4 for more detail).
A Dedication to Genuine Ministry. Acts 2:43–44 explains this process. Historians record how following Christ became a costly decision for the first Christians. Paul would later ask for an offering to be taken for the church in Jerusalem by the other churches under his care (1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:15; Rom. 15:14–32) because of the loss these believers suffered. Early on, the church was committed to meeting the needs of its members. I emphasize the words genuine ministry because this practice is not about “taking care of us.” The dying church oftentimes becomes incredibly introverted and protected so that all of its money and time is spent on itself. Genuine ministry does not intend to isolate; it means to provide.
A Submission to the Work of the Holy Spirit. The question that every church must ask is, “Are we growing because God is moving or because our methods are working?” God very well may be using the methods that a church employs, but we have learned how to draw crowds through our music, methods, and marketing. We must be honest at this point. We will be careful to baptize our work with the words, “God gets all the credit,” when in fact He may not have been involved in the work at all. Healthy churches are ones that experience growth through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s presence and movement are evident, not only in the preaching, but in the lives of the people.
A Practice of Personal Evangelism. Evangelism seems to be a natural response to all the other things they were doing in the church. Obviously, they were brand-new Christians and were excited about their newfound faith. Churches and Christians that have been around awhile often lose or forget about that excitement. It is interesting that the exact methods of evangelism are not promoted as much as the result, as Luke says, “And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Luke emphasizes the work of God far more than the work of humans. Genuine salvation always reflects that fact. What I have discovered in all the years that I have been teaching evangelism and practicing evangelism is that methods change but the results do not. God is still in the business of saving sinners. A healthy church is not defined by how it does evangelism. It is marked by the fact that it does evangelism and sees the results of that work.
William Henard, Can These Bones Live: A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization (Nashville: B&H, 2015).
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