Summarizing our last discussion regarding what constitutes a church, we can say genuine churches are those visible, physical groups of disciples of Christ who agree to submit to the authority of Scripture and meet consistently in a particular location. These disciples exercise the gifts God has given them to spur one another to increasing conformity to the image of Christ, which will be evident in personal holiness, good works, and making more disciples.
Accordingly, what a church does must focus on the care and sanctification of her members which will be accomplished through proclamation and teaching of the Scriptures, biblical administration of the sacraments, worship of the one true God, good works, and regularly coming together to accomplish these activities. The church must also be wholly engaged in proclaiming the Good News both locally and globally, that those who have been chosen by God might come to repentance and faith and join the new covenant community.
Some of the above activities are corporate activities, some are individual, and many may be both. Proclamation of the Scriptures through public reading and teaching is essentially a corporate practice, though it does not necessarily require the whole body to be participating – especially if the church is larger than a few members. Small Bible study groups, new member classes, catechism classes, etc. are all examples of ways in which members of the Body encounter and are confronted by the Word of God through the ministry of the Spirit of God working through the Word and teachers of the Word. But the Word should also play a significant and regular part in the life of the individual members of the church – particularly for those who can read it themselves outside of the regular meetings of the church. The Word of Christ ought to dwell in us richly resulting in celebration and worship of the God who has revealed himself in and through that Word.
What does a healthy church look like? How do you know if your church is healthy or not? You can read the 9 Marks of a Healthy Church to get an idea of the basic, correct theology of a church, or ecclesiology, but how do you determine if your church is healthy in ways other than theological?
A healthy church must have as its focus increasing the glory of God in the world both by her good works and love within the covenant community. “They will know you are My disciples by your love.” (John 13:35) But God’s glory will also be increased by proclamation of the good news to those who are still outside that community, locally and globally.
Proclaiming the nature of God and what he requires is essential to becoming more like him. We cannot live out our faith, and love as he first loved us, if we are not in a community where such love is requisite for unity, edification, and meeting one another’s needs. This inward focus must be balanced with an active concern and actual outreach to those who are still outside that community. None of the above is possible without the sovereign power of God working in and through us and so we pray for one another without ceasing.
As one reads through the epistles, it is striking how untheological they often sound. That is, switching back and forth between a systematic theology text (my bread and butter) and Philippians or Titus, can be a little disconcerting. And when one reads the sermons and parables of Jesus, who knew more about theology proper than anyone before or after him, it is amazing how simple his illustrations were and how little, specific detail (the stuff we find in theology texts) he offered. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” That is not to belittle my discipline (I like my job as a theologian), but it is important not to forget the simplicity of the descriptions of the early church and what God required. Love God, love your neighbor, forgive, pray, serve, be humble, bear burdens, confess your sins, show hospitality, etc. Even the requirements for leaders of the church had far more to say about character qualities than about formal degrees, sermon styles, or worship music.
This lack of detail should encourage those who are planting brand new churches – you are free to develop practices that are unique and wonderfully suited to your context. Your new converts may give you the best insight as to how to fulfill the biblical generalities. But such freedom may also be a bit daunting. What does love, humility, and hospitality look like in your target culture? Beware that you do not assume it must look like it did in your home culture. The New Testament offers few specifics and when it does, it often gives us headaches. (How do you greet with a holy kiss in Thailand? Or what does an appropriate head-covering look like for women in Cambodia? Or should you wash feet in Laos?) But we should rest in God’s grace, which has given us some pretty straightforward guidelines and character qualities without setting them in a culturally or historically bound context.
At the Southeast Asia Reformed conference I look forward to looking at many of the character qualities and one-anothers we find in Scripture, which are to serve us as indicators of our churches’ health. If we think an absence of sin is the best indicator of church health, then we are likely to be very depressed. In fact, it is often the presence of sin in the lives of our members which gives us the opportunity to practice the one-anothers and extend grace and forgiveness to those who need it most.