A student as well as staffer at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Don Pike serves the Ames Boulevard Baptist Church in Marrero as a part of the Unlimited Partnership program. He leads the congregation in education, discipleship, and evangelism. Recently, when our U.P. students reported on their ministries at their monthly gathering, Don announced, “I have the privilege of serving on the staff of a healthy church.”
Today, I dropped in on the morning worship service at the Ames Boulevard Baptist Church. Tommy Plaisance, another seminary student and–easily betrayed by his accent–a native of Cajunland, serves as the pastor. Don did the welcome in the service, then played the guitar while his wife Donna led the worship from the keyboard. It was a warm-hearted service with upbeat praise choruses and strong biblical preaching.
Tommy preached the famous passage from Philippians 3 where Paul lists his credentials, then tosses them in the trash. “I count all things but loss for Christ.” Tommy’s sermon dealt with decisions we make “with the end in view.” Paul’s purpose was to know Christ better, experience His fellowship in sufferings, and know the power of His resurrection. In light of that end, he made some tough decisions.
I sat there in the service reflecting on Don’s statement that it was a healthy congregation. Rick Warren says in one of his books that the next issue facing the church is not church growth but church health. Working with nearly a hundred of our Baptist churches throughout metro New Orleans, all in various stages of health, some strong and vigorous and some on life support, I completely agree.
What exactly is a healthy church?
Someone has observed that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but happy families all seem to have certain things in common. That surely must hold true for church health. Sick churches are a dime a dozen and each has its own kind of malady, but healthy churches seem to be alike in a lot of ways.
Here is my brief take on this.
BALANCE. A healthy church is a balanced church. It walks the line between emotionalism and intellectualism. It blends the young and the old. It welcomes the rich and the poor. A healthy church laughs and cries, gets serious and gets loose. An unhealthy church may be dead serious or downright silly, too much of one thing and not enough of the other.
A healthy church maintains a balance between ministry outside the church and its efforts to care for its own members. An unhealthy church will do one or the other, usually the latter.
CONFLICT. A healthy church has conflicts. Conflict is a sign of life.
Dead churches no longer have conflicts. They have long ago pushed out the voices wanting the church to be anything other than what it has been for ages.
Now, sick churches do have conflicts. The difference in the conflicts of a healthy church and a sick one is the way they deal with them. A healthy church welcomes dissent, listens to contrary voices, then takes appropriate action. A sick church either stifles contrary voices, ignores them altogether, or deals with them angrily with too much force. In a sick church, no one speaks against the leadership twice; once was quite enough. A healthy church values dissent and listens to its members.
My friend George Bullard leads seminars for congregations on the subject, “Every Church Needs a Little Conflict.” I can’t wait to read the book he has coming out soon by that title. I plan to review it here, so stay tuned.
RESPECT. In a healthy church, members respect one another, leaders respect the congregation, and the members respect their leaders. It takes all of them to do the work of the Lord.
My son Neil works at Northrop-Grumman’s New Orleans shipyards. Today as I crossed the river heading to Ames Boulevard Church, I noticed a billboard from that company depicting an aircraft carrier. The sign read: “Work Here. Make This.” It made me want to apply for a job.
Now, a giant company like that has all kinds of positions, everything from high management to welders to common laborers. It takes thousands of workers with a multitude of skills. How foolish it would be for a company to decide “We don’t need the metal-workers; we can get by with foremen.” In the same way a productive company values each level of employee, a church respects everyone from the janitor to the nursery worker to the one who tends the flowers or changes the signs, just as much as those who teach the Word and counsel the troubled.
REPRODUCTION. A healthy church is reaching people for Christ. It’s an infallible sign of health.
Now, we’ve all seen unhealthy churches pulling people in for evangelistic meetings and announcing impressive numbers of conversions. But unless the church gets healthy quick and learns to love them and teach them, that will not last.
On the farm, a healthy hen is one laying lots of eggs. A healthy cow gives milk and from time to time, produces a calf. It’s the normal order of life.
God has so ordered the Christian faith that those who know Him are ordered to share the message with their friends. Jesus counseled a man, “Go home to your friends. Tell them what the Lord has done for you and how He has had compassion on you.” (Mark 5:19)
LOVE. The members love each other and are quick to offer that same love to newcomers whom they have just met.
“I miss our church,” someone wrote to me. “We’ve moved to Dallas and we just can’t find a church of loving people like the Kenner church. You all have something so special.” I read that to the congregation and noticed smiles popping up. Then I dropped the other shoe.
“Here’s another letter I received this week,” I said. “It was unsigned and came from someone who visited in our services two Sundays ago.” The letter told how the person had worshiped with us and had found us to be unfriendly. “Not one soul spoke to me. I won’t be back.”
I said to the congregation, “Now, which letter are we going to believe–the one from the longtime church member or the one from the recent visitor?” I paused to let them think that through, then added, “I’ll tell you who I believe: both. We are doing a great job of loving each other, and a lousy job of loving the stranger within our gates.”
It’s easy for a congregation to think they are loving the way God intended when all they’re doing is turning inward and focusing on themselves. The test for our love is how we treat the newcomer and the outsider. Whether we are a fellowship (koinonia) or a clique is seen in how we treat strangers.
Occasionally, I’ll notice in the obituaries a listing of someone who died far too young. I scan the article and see that the family is requesting memorials to the local cancer society, a clue as to how the person died. Having had cancer 3 years ago, I sit there thinking about this. How did it happen that my cancer was found quickly and removed and this person died of their cancer.
There are numerous aspects to the answer, of course, since cancer comes in all strains and intensities. But one of the most important aspects, we’re told, is catching the cancer early enough. And that’s where I was blessed.
The young woman who worked in my dentist’s office as a hygienist noticed the whiteness under my tongue and called it to his attention. Even when they pointed it out, I could not see anything. Had I not being visiting my dentist at six month intervals, the cancer would not have been found until it had become so obvious that it would have been untreatable. That’s how people die of cancer. Well, it’s one way. I don’t want to be harsh or rigid in saying this; there are so many facets to this scourge of mankind.
Now, I wonder if a “professional” could go into a typical healthy thriving congregation and spot a problem which had the potential to destroy the host organism. Surely, churches do not turn sickly overnight. There must be tell-tale signs which a veteran spiritual leader could spot.
In most cases, it would take an outsider since those on the inside of the church are either too close to the problem to see it or are part of the problem itself.
Readers are invited to contribute your own thoughts to this question. What are some of the issues which you have seen a church encounter that if left untreated can grow into a major cancer on the congregation’s body and destroy its life and/or effectiveness?
I’ll volunteer a couple of my own answers, then will look forward to reading yours. Remember, the best responses are examples that you have actually seen in churches of your acquaintance.
Here’s a church that condones worldliness in its leadership. A minister was found to be addicted to pornography or a Sunday School teacher was accused of fondling a child. The matter is hushed up because of the stink it could cause in the community and the shame it would bring upon the individual’s family.
Here’s a pastor who gets out of fellowship with the Lord in his personal life. Since he’s now in rebellion against God, he becomes critical of the leaders of the church and negative about the church’s ministries.
Leaders must act when they spot threats to the unity and health of the congregation. Failure to act quickly and boldly has ended up destroying many a good church. This means that a leader must value the pleasure of his Lord more than the approval of those who may be the problem. Sometimes the most faithful leader has to make waves in the church. Someone will accuse him or her of stirring up trouble, but they’re trying to deal with the real trouble.
It’s a matter of courage. No one should ever be called a church leader who does not have an ample supply. Sooner or leader–pastor, deacon, committee chair, teacher–you’re going to be needing it.