For quite a long time now we have been told that healthy churches are growing churches. I don’t know how often I have had someone suggest to me that if a church is really healthy, it will grow numerically. It is suggested that there is some natural progression involved that there can’t be one without the other. You can’t be healthy and not grow.
Frankly I’m tired of hearing that because it simply isn’t true. There are lots of small, healthy churches in the world that for one reason or another aren’t growing and yet they remain healthy. In fact there may even be churches that are declining and still remain healthy.
The danger of this thinking is that when it is accepted, people look at large churches and conclude that they must be healthy. After all they are experiencing numerical growth. Then they look at small churches and conclude the opposite. They aren’t growing numerically. Therefore they aren’t healthy.
The true is that there are churches that are growing numerically that aren’t necessarily healthy and there are small churches that are very healthy but not growing.
For this reason I am no longer going to talk about healthy and unhealthy churches. I am going to put the term “healthy churches” on my own personal scrap heap along with other terms that were once popular but have lost their usefulness.
If not “healthy” then what?
If “church health” is no longer a useful term to use, what should take its place.
In this blog and in all of my future communication rather than “church health” I am going to talk about “church impact.” The term “church health” has been so much a part of my vocabulary that it will probably slip in a few times. So if you see it in something that I write or hear me use the term when I am speaking, chalk it up to habit. It is, however, a habit that I’m going to try to break.
Churches are called on to make an impact on the people who are part of their own church family and on those in the community around them.
Churches are called to make disciples (Matthew 28:19, 20). Whatever else it might be, the process of making disciples involves having a very profound impact on all the people involved.
A call to discipleship is not a call to a comfortable, middle-class, Canadian existence with a little bit of spirituality on the side. It is a call to a radical transformation that affects every part of a person’s life. The call to Christianity is a call to come and die to everything that keeps us from a deeper walk with Jesus Christ.
The signs of impact in a church
One of the problems that went with the term “church health” was that there was no adequate measuring stick that enabled churches to know exactly when they had reached the stage when they were healthy.
In some ways this is also true for the term “church impact” but I want to suggest a few guideposts that may help along the way. This is my no means a complete list but it is a start.
- Evangelism: An impactful church is seeing people become Christians through putting their faith in Christ. There is a danger when a church puts an emphasis on discipleship that they will see it as an alternative to evangelism. If no one is coming to faith in Christ, it is an indication that the church is failing in its task of making disciples because disciples share their faith. Disciple making and evangelism must never be seen as an “either/or” decision for a church to make. Rather evangelism is an essential part of what it means to be a disciple.
- Producing future leaders: This one is especially important for small churches to understand. One way in which a church can have a major impact is through producing young people who become the future leaders of the church in Canada. Next week I am going to write about youth in small churches but for this week I would encourage small churches to see as part of their mandate the potential to produce young men and women who will step into places of leadership in churches, seminaries, and mission organizations.
- Contributing to changed lives: Ultimately people are changed through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. At best we are instruments that the Spirit uses to produce that change. Having said that, the Spirit does use human instruments to impact people and a church should be an important of that transforming process that the Spirit is producing. Part of the impact that churches should contribute towards is a progression of changed lives as the Spirit does His work. A church knows that it is having an impact when it can point to specific changes that have occurred in specific people’s lives.
The danger of stressing “impact.”
Most churches are afraid to go after impact. There is a very real danger involved and churches need to face up to this.
For too long we have preached a “painless” gospel. People have been told that if they will just put their faith in Jesus, he will provide them with a beautiful life. Too many church attenders have equated the Christian life with a comfortable existence in which God is there to meet all of their needs and to provide them with everything that they need to make them happy.
We would probably never word it that way but that is where most Christians in Canada find themselves. In their thinking God exists to meet their needs and to provide them with a full life. There is little thought that they exist to serve God and he has the right to demand sacrifice and service from them.
When a pastor starts to put demands on his people, some times there is a push back. This was not what they signed up for when they became Christians. This is not the comfortable existence that is supposed to come with a relationship with Christ.
There will be some people who when we start talking about discipleship will respond with enthusiasm because they are looking for something that will challenge them in their walk with God.
There will also be people who when they are challenged to become disciples instead of just comfortable church-goers will become upset. They may even go hunting for another church. As one pastor told me recently those people who might leave aren’t just people who fill the pews. They are friends, people whom she loves and who will leave a huge hole when they are gone.
There is a risk but it is a risk that we must take if we are going to become churches that are making an impact.
The bottom line is that that is what we are called to be, churches that are making an impact on all of the people whom God entrusts to us.