Monday, November 05, 2007

Restoring health to an unhealthy church: What is the goal?

The goal of reformation in a local church should not be to make all the members Calvinists. Obviously (or at least it ought to be obvious to anyone who knows me!), I would not think that a bad thing if it happened, but I would never recommend that as the goal of restoring health to a church. It is simply not big enough. In fact, if that is all that were to happen in a church then there still would be cause for concern and need to press energetically for even deeper reformation.

Anyone interested in seeing a church become spiritually healthy must aim at seeing that body increasingly become everything that God's Word calls a church to be. Mark Dever has helpfully defined a healthy church as one that "increasingly reflects God's character as his character has been revealed in his Word." The most important thing a local church can do is to fulfill its calling to be the church.

As the bride of Christ, the body of Christ and the house of God the church is to live in such a way that puts the goodness and greatness of the living God on display. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 3 when he describes the purpose of Gospel preaching as enabling the "manifold wisdom of God" to be put on display "by the church" (10). The way that Christ's people live together in covenanted devotion to their Lord and each other makes a statement to the watching world about the character of our God and Savior.

When a church is filled with unconverted or spiritually apathetic members, it lies about Jesus Christ. When it is marked by dissension and open immorality it misrepresents the the God who is three in one and holy, holy, holy. When it is self-consumed and unconcerned about the unconverted it projects a perverted picture of the God who sent His Son into the world to seek and to save that which was lost. When it is happily ignorant of Bible doctrine it sends false messages about the God of truth.

The pursuit of spiritual health will not allow such misrepresentations of the Lord to go unaddressed. The goal is to see Christ honored among His people as they become increasingly motivated and empowered by His gospel to live out His will on earth.

What does all this mean practically? Several things, chief among them being:
  1. To see the Word of God become preiminent and foundational to the life of the church. We should desire that our collective attitude in the church should be, "wherever the Scripture leads, we will go; whatever it teaches, we will believe...whatever the costs or the consequences."
  2. To see the membership reflect reality. It is tragically commonplace today for churches to have far more paper members than real ones. Our statistics lie. Here is a simple formula to use to help gauge the spiritual health of your church: If your membership exceeds your attendance then you have a problem. The more that it exceeds it, the greater the problem is. In Baptist life we have historically stated it like this: We believe in a regenerate church membership. A local church ought to reflect that belief.
  3. To see the worship gatherings of the church marked by God-centered, Gospel-saturated, passionate intensity where Jesus Christ is recognized as supremely glorious.
  4. To see the lives of the members marked by evangelistic compassion that results in intentional efforts to make disciples for Jesus Christ.
  5. To see a humble, servant-hearted commitment to minister after the pattern of Christ characterize the culture of the church.
The list is not exhaustive, but it does contain elements that are essential to a healthy church. A. W. Tozer once said that every pastor ought to have two churches in his mind at all times. The first when he reads the New Testament instructions on what a church ought to be. The other is the church he sees on Sunday mornings when they are gathered for worship. The goal is to so live and work and minister and pray that the church that is becomes increasingly like the church that ought to be.


GUNNY said...

So ... should we be expecting to see "5 Marks of a Healthy Church" book and/or ministry?


"[Making a church Calvinistic] is simply not not big enough."

Well said. Semper Reformanda, brother!

Tom said...


Yeah, it's "Marks of a Healthy Church Lite."



M. Jay Bennett said...

Hi Tom,

You wrote:

"The goal of reformation in a local church should not be to make all the members Calvinists. . . . Anyone interested in seeing a church become spiritually healthy must aim at seeing that body increasingly become everything that God's Word calls a church to be."

Did you mean to suggest that Calvin's teaching on what the church should be is anemic? Or did you mean that one could hold to a Calvinist soteriology, and yet maintain a deficient ecclesiology?


Tom said...


While I would take exception to Calvin's view of the church, that is not what I had in mind with the words you quote. I also agree with your second point, that "one [can] hold to a Calvinist soteriology, and yet maintain a deficient ecclesiology." But what I meant is this: a church can become intellectually committed to the 5 points of Calvinism and fail to be Christ-centered and Gospel-driven.. That is not inherent in Calvinism, but neither are Calvinists immune to these dangers. That's why I think aiming at making a church Calvinistic is aiming too low.

Tony Kummer said...

I saw the 5 point outline, but it turned out to be something different.

GUNNY said...

Jay the Bennett wrote:
"Or did you mean that one could hold to a Calvinist soteriology, and yet maintain a deficient ecclesiology?"

Since Jay is a Calvinist who has crossed over to the darkside (i.e., the PCA), I'm gonna have to say he already knows the answer to that question!

Hey, Jay, who loves ya, baby?!


Incidentally, aren't you getting paid by a New Testament church? What are you doing wasting all your time reading blogs?!

Eric said...


Thank you for the 3 unhealthy-to-healthy church posts. They are challenging and encouraging for me at this point in ministry.


Tom Bryant said...

Thanks for the Tozer reference and statement. That's exactly how it ought to be

Boanerges said...


What do you do with old ladies who don't come to church anymore? I have 4 in my church. They are all physically not well and some are not well spiritually either. I question their salvation. Some are contentious.
What do you think about "Inactive Membership Lists?" - Can they be put on an inactive list, removing voting privileges or should they just be removed? Many in our church are saying, just leave the old ladies alone.

Tom said...


We should be very patient and gentle with elderly and infirm members. Some do become homebound and are not able to participate in the life of the church as they once did or may want to. They should be cared for, ministered to, treasured and honored as mothers and fathers in the church. If they are cantankerous (and there is no reason to believe that this is due to health issues), that may be impossible, though they still deserve respect by virtue of their age.

I would be very, very hesitant to recommend procedures leading to removal of a contentious, elderly woman, unless she became very disruptive to the body. Most likely, she did not have the advantage of maturing in a church that sought to be Gospel-driven and probably has never seen loving discipline exercised in a congregation. Such sheep ought to be pitied and cared for the best we can.

I am not in favor of inactive membership lists, though I am in favor of disciplinary steps that restrict certain membership privileges for a season.