Five Examples of a Healthy Church
The search for artificial intelligence continues. Will we be able to create machines that might actually think and learn, rather than simply compute? Can computers “feel” and “reason”?
An early experiment that probed the wisdom of computers called for a then-revolutionary new room-sized mainframe to determine which wristwatch provided better service—one that lost a second every hour or one that was broken and did not track time’s movement at all. You and I would quickly opt for the first, but surprisingly this massive electronic “brain” chose the latter.
The computer’s handlers were dismayed. How could this big genius be so dumb?
They reprogrammed the process to learn why the computer made its choice. The computer logically asserted that the broken watch would correctly identify the time twice a day, whereas the slightly slowed watch would only be synced to reality once every few thousand years!
How we ask questions has a big impact on the outcomes that are computed. Just as certain is the manner in which we assess health among congregations.
For instance, we are culturally pre-programmed to correlate church well-being with worship services. If the crowds gather, if the music is stimulating, if the speaker is engaging, if the mood is uplifting, if momentary thoughts are profound, and if the emotions are energizing, we think this is a good church.
Yet visible as they are, worship gatherings are only a small dimension of congregational ministry. There are at least four other aspects of church health: Body-life care (1 Corinthians 12-14), transformational witness (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Thessalonians 1), well-rounded discipleship (Romans 12; 1 Peter 1:3-11), and meaningful service (Matthew 5-7; Colossians 3). Assessing ministry vitality involves looking at all five of these faces of the church.
When we go for our annual physicals, our doctors run through a list of quick tests that determine relative health or obvious medical problems. Church leaders wisely run diagnostics on their ministries regularly, and build ministry initiatives at least in part related to these “vital signs”:
Who gets pastoral visits? More importantly, who does not and why? Whose gifts are celebrated? Whose talents are ignored? Who has the ear of the pastor or elders? Who has no voice? Why not? Which “needs” are safe and publically noted? Which “needs” are marginalized? How are groups formed? Who is not included in them, and why? What kinds of needs are publically acknowledged in bulletins and prayer lines and congregational announcements? Who is not seen, either when present or absent?
What are the contacts points between congregation and community? What is the language of our ministry—fear and self-protection or engaging and testimonial? If Sunday worship is our primary front door and welcome point, what are our side doors and thrusts into the neighborhood? How will a teenager in a non-Christian home two blocks from our church building become a follower of Jesus and a ministry leader in our congregation? What are the key social concerns of our neighborhood, and how are we making Jesus’ care visible in response? How many people have made first-time testimonies of faith in Jesus through our ministries during the past year?
what are our younger members learning about Christian testimony and living from our older members? How are our long-term members continuing to grow in Christ? How are our recent converts gaining depth of insight and strengthened connections of Body-life? How do we encourage and challenge all members to grow in faith’s understandings and expressions? What percentage of our membership is actively involved in discipleship classes, mentoring relationships, and small groups for service and ministry?
How are the spiritual gifts of our members identified, nurtured and deployed in service? What are the needs of our neighbors and region? How are we actively addressing the social concerns of our community?
Is our public worship primarily an emotional experience or is it primarily a well-rounded expression? Do we plan for Sunday worship services as an end in themselves, rating each as successful when finished, or do we see these as the empowerment of our members for continuing active engagement of God and others throughout the week? Is there coherence in our liturgical expressions? Do we move with the themes of God’s redemptive activity or the calendars of our culture? Is the language of worship (in all forms) accessible to and meaningful for the general population of our neighborhood?
It doesn’t take a computer, with or without artificial intelligence, to help us know which congregations are healthy and which are only now and again pointing to Jesus. Every church leader can check vital signs of ministry. And when diagnosis begins, prescriptions for better health are sure to follow.