This article was written as a summary of a message preached by David Platt. In it, he explored the relationship between missionaries and local churches on the field.
Not every church is in good health. Some are gravely ill. Some are downright toxic. All are certainly in process, but towards what, exactly, is that process meant to move them? How can a sick church heal without first knowing in what direction health lies? What, after all, is a healthy church?
Churches are built through the fervent, faithful proclamation of Christ and him crucified.
Though not exhaustive, the following is a list of twelve characteristics that are shared by healthy churches.
1. Biblical Evangelism
The word “church” comes from a Greek word that means “an assembly of called-out ones.” It denotes that before a church can ever actually gather, the people must first hear the call to do so. As Paul questioned in Romans 10:14–15, “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Churches are built through the fervent, faithful proclamation of Christ and him crucified. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the local church to be a mouthpiece of Christ, calling all who would come to repentance and new life. But the new believer’s walk doesn’t end when they answer the call. Indeed, it has only just begun.
2. Biblical Discipleship
According to Matthew 28:16–20, the command to “make disciples of all nations” is qualified by two activities: “baptizing them” and “teaching them to obey.” Once a believer has declared allegiance to Christ through baptism, it’s the responsibility of the local church to be the place where they can learn obedience to Christ’s commands. A healthy church is a group of people intentionally living out the timeless, universal truths of the gospel within the context of a finite, local community.
3. Biblical Membership
Almost every time the word “ecclesia” (church as defined above) appears in the New Testament, it refers to a particular gathering of Christians in a particular place. It’s used to describe people who know one another and share their very lives. They realize and celebrate that they are a part of something larger: the universal church that is united across all space and time. But membership in that body is undergirded by an identifiable, local membership, with clear qualifications and expectations for how they should love and serve one another and engage in God’s mission together. Each member is both called and equipped to serve the others (1 Cor. 12), with a diverse array of gifts and abilities coming together to form a cooperative whole.
4. Biblical Leadership
One of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit is that of leadership. No church can experience health without the leadership of the pastors that Paul described in passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Such leaders are never meant to be tyrants but rather shepherds, laboring “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). Church members who are gifted and called to serve as leaders have the responsibility of equipping their fellow members with what they need in order to be who Christ called them to be. The calling of a pastor or elder is a challenging one, but that doesn’t mean the list of competencies is unattainable.
Faithful, biblical teaching is the means by which Jesus leads his church.
5. Biblical Teaching and Preaching
Faithful, biblical teaching is the means by which Jesus leads his church. Individual Bible study is essential, but it isn’t sufficient. Healthy churches regularly set aside time to listen to their pastors and teachers carefully interpret and apply the Word of God to every area of life. Sound, biblical interpretation requires much time, effort, study, and training, so church leaders need to be equipped accordingly. When healthy churches gather together, they come expecting to hear God speak in both the sermon and the service.
6. Biblical Ordinances
Healthy churches regularly observe believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a part of their worship services. Both are designed to declare and affirm our commitment to Christ and his body. Some churches share the Lord’s Supper each week, and others share it each month. Some churches have baptistries, others have bathtubs. There is freedom of expression as long as they are practiced in accordance with Scripture and within the context of biblical worship.
7. Biblical Worship
The local churches come together to exalt God, sing, share testimonies of God’s grace, spur one another on toward Christ and his Word, and send one another out into service. As long as its members are following the Bible’s instructions for worship (1 Cor. 11, 1 Cor. 14, etc.), a healthy church is free to enjoy a wide range of variety, diversity, and creativity in their worship together.
8. Biblical Prayer
Every major advance of the gospel in the book of Acts comes about as a response to the people of God praying together. If we desire the same, then like the early church, we must devote ourselves to prayer (Acts 2:42), regularly joining with one another with both dedication to and desperation for communion with God. And just like Bible study, private prayer is essential but insufficient. A healthy church not only prays but prays with one another.
9. Biblical Fellowship
Fellowship described in the Bible encapsulates all its “one anothers:” love, serve, care, teach, serve, admonish, exalt, build up, and bear with one another. Biblical fellowship is about sharing our lives with fellow church members, allowing the simplest and the deepest aspects of our days to become entwined. No one is intended to live the Christian life in isolation, and the lone Christian is just as likely to wither in loneliness as they are to stumble into disobedience.
10. Biblical Accountability and Discipline
Just as we need fellowship to spur us on to obedience, we need accountability to call us back from sin. Healthy churches must be places where the young in faith can be lovingly enlightened and where the disobedient can be gently rebuked in a manner consistent with the attitude and the process described by Christ in Matthew 18:15–20.
11. Biblical Giving
Healthy churches are financially self-sustaining or at least moving in that direction. More importantly, though, healthy churches make generous giving to the cause of the gospel a regular corporate practice, as described in 1 Corinthians 16:1–4. And that generosity shouldn’t be confined to our finances. The desire to see the gospel change others’ lives should characterize every facet of our own.
A healthy church, by its very definition, will create other healthy churches.
12. Biblical Mission
Congregations must be actively engaged in making disciples locally and globally. Every member is a disciple maker in the world, and healthy churches are both organized and administered in such a way that members are motivated, trained, and equipped to make disciples in whatever context God places them. A healthy church, by its very definition, will create other healthy churches.
David Platt is the president of the International Mission Board. You can find him on Twitter @plattdavid.