The Book of Acts is the most frequently used Scripture for church growth. It records the explosive beginnings of the church in Jerusalem at Pentecost (see Acts 1-2), its continuing growth through the witness of Peter and John (see Acts 3-5), the enduring impact of Stephen's martyrdom (see Acts 6-7), the scattering of the church of Jerusalem under Paul's persecution and Philip's consequent impact in Samaria (see Acts 8), and the subsequent spread of the church through Paul and Barnabas (see Acts 9-28).
Luke was the author of both Acts and the Gospel of Luke. The two books actually are one account, stretching from the birth of John the Baptist in Luke 1 to the death of Paul in Acts 28. The Gospel of Luke is less frequently used as a reference for church growth. In Luke, however, the foundational ideas are laid that support the growth found in Acts.
The Gospel of Luke is prescriptive, whereas the Book of Acts is descriptive. The Gospel of Luke focuses on why things happened in the church while the Book of Acts focuses on what things happened in the church while the Book of Acts focuses on what things happened in the church. The Gospel of Luke turns our attention to principles, while Acts turns our attention to practices.
Much literature has been developed on the phenomenon of church growth. Its focus has been to develop positive prescriptions by describing the practices or actions necessary for managing church growth. Its thrust has been on what the church must do to be successful. By contrast, our focus is on the phenomenon of church health—on determining what the church must be to be successful.
Church Growth vs. Church Health
Church growth and church health are related concerns but deal with different agendas. Church growth requires a sensitivity to the organizational dynamics of planning, communicating, motivating, controlling. Church health requires a sensitivity to the spiritual dynamics of service, holiness, outreach, and worship.
The Gospel of Luke provides a number of insights into the spiritual principles of church health. Beginning in Luke 11, Jesus turned his attention to the church of his day—the synagogue—and leveled a variety of charges against that church. So strong was his condemnation that one of the synagogue leaders remarked to Jesus, "Teacher, when you say this, you insult us too," (11:45, NASB).
Jesus' charges all pointed to a sick, unhealthy church. The church was accused of being internally corrupt (see 11:39), being oblivious to its own faults (see 11:40), wasting energy on trivia (see 11:42), getting caught up in ego massaging (see 11:43), being spiritually dead (see 11:44), being rule-bound with excessive bureaucratic baggage (see 11:45), being hypocritical (see 11:47-51), and stifling personal growth (see 11:52).
10 Key Principles of Church Health
Let's direct our attention to ten key principles of church health developed by Jesus in Luke 11-12.
1. The healthy church is characterized more by the quality of its spirit than the quantity of its success (see Luke 11:24-26, 12:4-5).
Here Jesus focused attention on the spiritual battle of the church. Jesus warned of the threat the church faces from the malevolent spirits of Satan. Earlier, in Luke 4:1-13, Jesus was tested by Satan in the wilderness. Satan made three appeals: turning stones to bread, ruling over the world, and protecting him in leaping off the Temple. These appeals speak to the spirit versus the success dilemma facing the church:
- One tendency in seeking success is to reduce everything to "bread"—to the measurable, the immediate, and the short-term. The temptation is to get caught up in the temporal realities of budgets, attendance, and buildings and to forget the more fundamental, spiritual battles that threaten the church.
- Another tendency in seeking success is to focus on means rather than ends. The temptation is to get caught up in methods and programs of church growth and to forget the more fundamental spiritual issues of why we want to grow, what we are growing toward, and from whom the growth comes.
- A third tendency in seeking success is to attempt the dramatic and showy. The temptation is to get caught up in marketing and publicizing the church and to forget the more fundamental call of God to ordinary service and quiet holiness.
2. The healthy church is characterized more by what it waits for than by what it works for (see Luke 10:38-42, 11:5-10, 12:35-38).
We live in an era that prizes activity and motion. The assumption is that a healthy church is busy. Yet Jesus' call is to a quiet anticipation, a reaction to God's will rather than an anticipation of it. In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus commented on the busyness of Martha versus the waiting and listening of Mary: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things:, but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part," (NASB).
In Luke 11:5-10, we read of Jesus' command to ask (and keep on asking), to seek (and keep on seeking), and to knock (and keep on knocking). It is instructive to note that Jesus began with the word "ask" (the Greek word used is aiteo, suggesting the attitude of a humble supplicant) and closed with the phrase "the door shall be opened," (NASB). The implication is that we are first the requestors and recipients of God's action and only secondarily initiators of our own action.
In Matt. 25:1-13, Jesus told the parable of the ten virgins who took their lamps and went to await the coming of the bridegroom. The five foolish virgins had not brought sufficient oil; and while they had gone for more oil, the bridegroom came. The door was shut as the wedding feast began. When they returned, the foolish virgins were not admitted to the feast. Jesus admonished: "Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour," (v.13). In a reference to a wedding feast (Luke 12:35-40), Jesus implored, "You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect,"( v.40).
In Luke 12:42-47, Jesus told about the trusted servant who was unprepared for his master's return: "And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes," (v. 47). The waiting implied in these verses is from the Greek word prosdechomai, which means "to look for with a view to favorable reception." It is the waiting of one who knows the master will act and waits for clear and specific direction from the master. The healthy church waits for God to reveal his will and exercise his power in his time and in his way.
3. The healthy church is characterized more by what it proclaims than by what it programs (see Luke 11:23; 12:8-9, NASB).
We have a tendency to evaluate a church in terms of how much it is doing—in the numbers and variety of its programs. In Luke 12:8-9, Jesus focused the church's attention on its call to proclaim: "And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man shall confess him also before the angels of God," (v. 8).
The primary role of the church is to proclaim the gospel. That purpose must permeate everything the church does. Each program and activity must clearly and directly contribute to that purpose. The church is not first of all a social or charitable organization; it is the proclaiming body of Christ. While the church does engage in social and charitable programs, it does so as a vehicle through which to reach others with the message of grace and forgiveness through Jesus.
4. The healthy church is characterized more by its compassions than by its passions (see Luke 10:27-37: 11:45; 12:6-7, NASB).
There is a tendency to judge a church by the intensity and favor of its people and programs. Particularly in charismatic circles there is an equating of church effectiveness with the degree of emotion with which worship is carried out.
In the three passages cited above from Luke, we catch a glimpse of the quiet compassion that Jesus taught should characterize the church. In Luke 10:27-37 (NASB), we read the parable of the "good Samaritan" who met the needs of his "neighbor" quietly and compassionately. In Luke 11:45, NASB, Jesus condemned the religious leaders for their lack of compassion: "For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers." And in Luke 12:6-7, Jesus gave some idea of the depth of God's compassion by noting that God cares even for the sparrows sold as temple sacrifices and cares so much more for us that he knows the very hairs on our heads!
The healthy church has at its heart two responses, to love God and to love other human beings (see Luke 10:27, NASB). Neither of these responses need be characterized by loud, emotional displays. God's call is to a caring, sharing ministry—an intimate compassion for others. The depth and breadth of that compassion are the measure of the healthy church.
5. The healthy church is characterized more by what it is confident of than what it is competent in (see Luke 11:11-13; 12:32).
As churches grow in size, they tend to put greater emphasis on training and developing skills. A greater premium is placed on placing "competent" people in the right slots so that the church's performance will be guided by topflight, proven "experts."
Jesus chose as his core leaders men who were not "competent" in the usual sense. Peter, whose sermon on Pentecost so stirred the city of Jerusalem, was chosen as a relatively inarticulate Galilean fisherman. Perhaps as revealing was Jesus' choice of Judas, his eventual betrayer. What led Jesus to select these "incompetents" as his allies? We find in John 2:23-25 this observation: "Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in his name, beholding his signs which he was doing. But Jesus, on his part, was not entrusting himself to them, for he knew all men, … for he himself knew what was in man," (NASB).
Matthew Henry commented on this passage: "He [Jesus] knew all men, not only their names and faces, as is possible for us to know many, but their nature, dispositions, affections, designs, as we do not know any man, scarcely ourselves….We know what is done by men; Christ knows what is in them."
Jesus focused on what he was confident that God could do through his people. In Luke 11:11-13, Jesus spoke of God's readiness to give "good gifts" to his children if they would ask, seek, and knock. And in Luke 12:32, Jesus again affirmed God's desire to give to his children: "Your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom."
The healthy church is fully confident of God's provision. God can and does use talented people. But God's ability to work through a church is dependent not only on available skill or competence but also on faith. We should never forget that God's chief desire is to reveal himself—not to display the talents of his spiritual children.
6. The healthy church is characterized more by prayer than by its performance (see Luke 11:1-4).
A church in prayer is in its most distinctive state. Prayer is both the distinctive act and the distinctive attitude of the church. In Luke 11:1-4, Jesus' disciples made this request, "Lord, teach us to pray," (Luke 11:1, NASB). Jesus' response was short but offers a model of the healthy church at prayer:
"Father."—The healthy church is born of and dependent on the grace and power of God.
"Hallowed be Thy name."—The healthy church exists to glorify God's being and God's activity.
"Thy Kingdom come."—The healthy church is an instrument of God in the world. Its loyalty is to God; its charter is from God.
"Give us each day our daily bread."—The healthy church is in no way self-sufficient. It is totally dependent on God's purposes, on God's provisions.
"And forgive us our sins, For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us."—The healthy church is an instrument of God's power to heal relationships—between God and persons and, therefore, between persons. Forgiveness is the church as peacemaker.
"And lead us not into temptation."—The healthy church is every mindful of its own tendency to err apart from God's grace. It acknowledges its fundamental weakness yet knows that in that weakness God can and will reveal his strength.
We live in an era that prizes performance and achievement. The healthy church understands that its role is to be a channel for God to perform through and for God to achieve his purposes through. Prayer positions the healthy church to be God's instrument.
7. The healthy church is characterized more by its discernment than its decisions (Luke 12:54-57).
Often we find ourselves evaluating a church by how wise or timely its decisions are. The budget committee is praised if its budget projections come close to actual gifts and expenditures. The personnel committee is praised for its insightful handling of a new staff insurance program. We are sensitive to the results of the decisions made in a church.
Less visible is the church's capacity to discern—to spot spiritual challenges, to establish spiritual priorities. In Luke 12:56-67, Jesus clearly articulated the church's primary need to discern: "You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time? And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?" (NASB).
The word "analyze" in this passage comes from the Greek word dokimazo, which often meant to assay metal, to test or scrutinize so as to ascertain a basis for approval. In particular Jesus seems to be calling for the church to discern those things which are of God's intent and action, and which are not.
8. The healthy church is characterized more by its commitment to openness than by its concern for operational efficiency (see Luke 11:33-36; 12:2-3).
Secular organizations have a driving need for efficiency; communication is used to ensure uniformity and compliance. In the church, communication serves not to force uniformity but to enhance interaction. The church is not a religious mechanism; it is the organic body of Christ. For the church, openness in all it does is to be an essential characteristic. Such openness may well result in what appears to be much useless discussion and much wasted time. But the church exists to do God's will not to be simply a goal-oriented, efficiency-driven organization. God is much more concerned with transparency in our dealings with one another and with the world.
In Luke 11:33-36, Jesus called for the church to "be full of light," (v. 36, NASB). In Luke 12:2-3, He noted that there will be a time when "whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light," (v. 3, NASB). Christ himself was called by John "the light of men," (John 1:4, NASB), perhaps hearkening back to Isaiah's prophecy, "I will also make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth," (Isa. 49:6, NASB). In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, he called for his disciples to be "the light of the world," (Matt. 5:14, NASB).
The healthy church maintains an openness that maximizes visibility and sharing. It is not willing to sacrifice participation merely for the sake of smooth operations. Its primary concern is not operational efficiency; rather, it is openness. The church is a community not a company, an organism not an organization.
9. The healthy church is characterized more by its godly priorities than by its human popularity (see Luke 11:43; 12:49-53).
A church's success is sometimes gauged by the crowd drawn to its programs. Since the growing church is customarily viewed as an effective church, it is easy to get caught up in the process of developing more and more activities to appeal to the varied congregational segments. The assumption in many churches is that more is better—more space, more people, more budget, more programs.
In Luke 12:49-53, however, Jesus addressed the inherent conflict between God's priorities and human popularity: "I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division," (NASB).
The church today is called upon to place a priority on God's holiness. In a real sense the church stands opposed to the worldly system. Too often the church announces a one-sided message of love and forgiveness while avoiding its calling to confront the world's sinful and hostile rebellion against God. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul spoke of the battle line drawn between the church and the world: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness," (NASB).
Today more than ever the healthy church must be characterized by what it stands against. It must champion causes of holiness, sacrifice, and justice in a world increasingly hostile to such a message. Seeking to be popular and acceptable must inevitably compromise the church and damage its capacity to be used of God.
10. The healthy church is characterized more by the quality of its motives than the quantity of its money.
Many churches show a noticeable concern for money—getting it and spending it. Church programs for the year are often tagged to expected revenues. Wise stewardship, we are told, demands that churches be fiscally conservative. Luke 12 contains a rather long discourse concerning Jesus' view of money. "Be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions," (v. 15, NASB). "But seek for his kingdom, and these things shall be added to you," (v. 31, NASB). "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," (v. 34, NASB).
The church must be aware of any tendency to spend too much time and energy on issues of financing. While the church needs to handle money responsibly, there is a tendency to elevate, for instance, the finance/budget committee, to the place of the most important committee. In too many churches the finance committee acts de facto as the program committee, making decisions as to what the church's program agenda will be.
The healthy church is sensitive to the spiritual implications of financial matters. Too often budget decisions are made without real spiritual discernment. Budgets should reflect spiritual priorities. Furthermore, when a church is experiencing financial difficulties, it ought to trigger the prayerful search for spiritual as well as fiscal causes.
The healthy church knows that its handling of money sends a message to the world. A church that piles up debt beyond its ability to pay "advertises" that the Christian community is irresponsible and out of control. A church that spends 90 percent of its budget to finance internal operations "advertises" that the Christian community has little vision and limited faith.
Churches are healthy to the extent that they serve God spiritually. Even though numerous organizational measures of church health can be cataloged, it is the spiritual attributes that really matter to God.
Jesus was speaking to churches as well as individual Christians when he entreated us to seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God. In so doing, the local church will thrive spiritually in the body of Christ and will indeed have all things added to it.