Healthy Churches May Look Different Than You Think - Radical

Healthy Churches May Look Different Than You Think

When I entered Seminary in 1999, one of the first books I read was R. Kent Hughes’s Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. In it, Hughes argued that we need a new definition of success–one that could not be measured by counting nickels and noses, but rather by our faithfulness to God and His truth. If churches in the 1990’s needed this message so badly that a major publishing house released a book like this, what do we need to hear almost twenty years later?

We tend to define “success” in churches in relation to the numbers and excitement of the people present. We count the number of people who went through the waters of the baptistery and how many people said they prayed a prayer of salvation. Then, sadly, some churches use these numbers to justify all manner of unfaithfulness to the Scriptures.

Healthy Churches in Scripture

Some counter that the apostles counted people. After all, we see that 3,000 people came to know Jesus on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). That’s true, but the apostles’ counting is intended to make us marvel at God’s work; we, on the other hand, tend to count as a barometer of success or failure. Furthermore, we never see Paul or the other apostles refer to the number of people involved in a church in any of the New Testament letters. They refer to fruit and they exhort the churches to be faithful, but we see little emphasis on numbers.

One author who has written on the changes in American evangelical revivals quotes the following from a pastoral letter:

The strength of a church does not consist in its numbers, but in its graces . . . We fear that the desire of counting numbers is too much indulged . . . even by good people. [1]

We need to hear these centuries-old words of wisdom again and develop a metric for evaluating the health of churches that is not rooted in anything that could be put on a denominational report or trumpeted in a social media post.

Healthy Churches are Marked by Faithfulness

Paul’s letters stress perseverance and faithfulness over the long haul. He speaks about this so often because perseverance is difficult. We know this from our own lives, don’t we? Anyone can eat healthy for a week, but doing so for a year proves to be more difficult. In the same way, we can always gather up a momentary burst of energy to live for Jesus, but it’s what churches do day-in and day-out that makes a real difference. There are several areas where Paul encourages churches to remain faithful.

Sound Doctrine

In an age that values experience over doctrine, an emphasis on sound teaching sounds quaint at best and divisive at worst. However, if you went to the doctor because you were sick, you would want her to know the difference between your heart and your lungs. You would want her to understand your body’s anatomy so she could treat you properly. In the same way, don’t we want churches who can accurately teach us who God is, what our basic problem is, what Christ came to do, how we can be reconciled to God, and how we live for God’s glory in this world? Error in these areas is not a mere difference of opinion; it has eternal consequences. A church needs more than sound doctrine, but it does not need less.

Perseverance in Doing Good Deeds

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10). Paul wrote things like this because we tend to grow weary in doing good works in Jesus’s name in our community. Focusing on a big Sunday show that will energize everyone for Monday seems so much easier. Yet, Paul calls churches to labor faithfully, showing every kindness and serving their neighbors and fellow believers for the glory of God. It’s fitting that Paul uses agricultural language, for just as the hard-working farmer plants in spring for the autumn harvest, so the Christian rarely sees immediate evidence of the fruitfulness of his labors.

Developing Godly Leadership

The church is the people and not just the leadership, but Paul emphasized the importance of godly leadership in the churches. In his letter to Titus, he told him to appoint elders in every town “as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Titus was on this island not only to share the gospel, but also to shape men who could lead Christ’s church. Paul laid out qualifications for those who would fill this office (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-7).

They must be men whose lives are marked by such godliness that they have a good reputation in their communities, men who love their wives and shepherd their children. They must possess a sound understanding of the Scriptures and walk with personal integrity. Such qualities aren’t acquired overnight, but rather they must be formed over time. Churches labor now to build the leaders they will need three to five years down the road.

Healthy Churches are Marked by Fruitfulness

While we want to think differently about how we measure fruitfulness, we cannot ignore the calls to fruitfulness in the New Testament. For example, Paul prayed that the believers in Colossae would “bear fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:9). So what does this “fruit” look like? Two areas stand out in particular.

Sharing the gospel

Healthy churches share the gospel with their neighbors and communities. This takes place in the church’s weekly gathering, but it does not stop there. Unbelievers are less likely to step foot in a corporate worship service than they have been in past decades. Therefore, we must take the gospel to them. This means ordinary Christians loving and serving their neighbors and friends. We do this while praying that our interactions with them will lead to good conversations about the most important things in life.

Building disciples

Many “successful” churches in our culture talk about their churches in a way that goes something like this: “We are a church for the unchurched. If you are a Christian, we aren’t here for you. Don’t ask us for more Bible studies. Everything we do is to reach the unchurched.” This sounds good on the surface, but it’s not biblical and, in some cases, can serve as a cover for superficial preaching. Sound churches don’t choose between sharing the gospel and training Christians to faithfully follow Jesus. They know how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

How to Measure Healthy Churches

Church health cannot be measured by numbers, excitement, or flash. God defines “success” as walking faithfully before him, committed to the things that matter for years and decades. In due time we will see fruit, but ultimately the extent of our fruitfulness will only be made known on the last day.


[1] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism.

Scott Slayton serves as Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, AL and writes at his personal blog One Degree to Another. He and his wife Beth have been married since 2003 and have four children.


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