We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Four

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Fourth on his list of questions is:
"Is the church reaching non-believers? Here, the possibility of overemphasizing numbers is apparent, but the question must be asked: are non-believers coming to know the Lord through the church's ministry? If the church is growing, is the growth conversion growth (nonbelievers meeting Christ) or transfer growth ("swapping sheep")? Transfer growth is sometimes necessary, but it seldom results in Great Commission growth."
As a mainline progressive, I would usually insist on a "terminology adjustment," but in this case worrying over Lawless' terms (esp. "non-believer" and "conversion growth") could well be a way to avoid an important issue rather than address it.  He believes that bringing people who do not have a faith in Christ to such a faith is one mark of a healthy church, and he is correct in that belief.  While, there are cases and situations where particular churches can be healthy without reaching out with faith to others, by-and-large healthy churches share their faith with people of other faiths and no faith.  They make the gospel available to people who don't know about it.  There is, to be sure, less anxiety to turn someone who is not a Christian into one and less anxiety to get people baptized and into the church.  But, yes, a healthy church shares its good news with others in a way that makes its fellowship available to those in need of a community of faith.

It makes its fellowship available in two ways: by sharing faith and by otherwise being a healthy church that is in and of itself attractive to people in need of a faith community.  Members reach out to visitors, for example, who are "looking for something," and the church embodies the "something" they are looking for.  A healthy church's activities may include people who will not darken the door of a church on a Sunday morning but still find fellowship and a place to think meaningful thoughts in the church.  And, members of a healthy church will be sensitive to times and places when it is appropriate to share their faith with those in genuine need of hearing a kindly, faith-filled word.

A healthy mainline church is much more likely to be concerned about "Great Commandment growth" (Matthew 22:36-40) than "Great Commission growth" (Matthew 28:16-20), not that the two are in conflict.  So, yes, a healthy church is one that effectively shares it faith with others and is able (as a channel of the work of the Spirit) to bring some to faith who previously were not living a life of faith.  In sum, a healthy church is a loving community (always imperfectly so, of course), which extends that love to others in ways that feel loving.  People "naturally" are attracted to such a church and become part of it.  Amen.