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

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Three

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. Third on his list of questions is:
"Is the church driven by a Great Commission focus? Five times in the New Testament, Jesus expressed some form of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:45-47, John 20:21, Acts 1:8). Apparently, preaching the gospel and making disciples mattered to Jesus-and so these tasks must concern churches today. Many churches have become so inwardly focused that church is more about protecting the status quo than about reaching out beyond themselves."
Mainline folks need to take to heart Lawless' third test of a healthy church, but in doing so we also do well to adjust his language a bit.  These are not just quibbles about words, because the words convey attitudes and orientations that are foundational.  Being "driven" by a "Great Commission focus" sounds not quite correct.  What drives a church, I should think, is a focus on faith and on the Spirit.  Such a driving focus has important implications, one of which is a concern for faith-sharing.  Mainline churches have been less than inept about sharing faith with others, be it within or without the church.  They have long spent vast amounts of time talking about plans, programs, and projects but much less time talking about and sharing faith with each other and learning how to talk about and share it with others.  Lawless' observation that many churches focus mostly on themselves is entirely correct and is one of the great failings of mainline Protestantism in the United States.

At the same time, a healthy church is one that balances a number of concerns and ministries, a point I made in the introductory posting of this series (here).  The idea of being "driven by a Great Commission focus" threatens to overthrow that balance by making evangelism the core ministry around which all others revolve.  Churches that have such a dominant view of evangelism may well grow numerically, if the demographics of their locale allow such growth, but they will often find that once they bring converts into the church there is little real faith-development.  When driven by an evangelistic agenda, worship, Christian education, and all of the other ministries and components lose their own integrity.  They become tools for something else and, as these things work out, thereby lose their vital connection to the Spirit.  Bible study, for example, does not explore the depths of scripture, which can be a scary journey, but rather uses scripture to win converts by suppressing the hard questions the study of scripture poses.  The hard questions are avoided because they might "upset someone" and cause them to "lose their faith."

That being said, faith sharing is important.  How much of it a church does is a measure of that church's health.