Small churches can be healthy churches.
But how can we know if they’re healthy without the numerical growth to prove it?
If you want to find answers, we need to ask the right questions.
A couple weeks ago I spoke to about 60 church leaders in six sessions at a 48 hour conference. To start one session, I asked them the question in the title of this post: What does a healthy small church look like?
They took some time at their tables to discuss this, then each table reported their results. Here are their responses – in no particular order. Several of the points were mentioned by multiple tables.
The Characteristics of a Healthy Small Church
- Ministers to people inside and outside the church
- Stays true to the purposes of the gospel
- Makes disciples
- Works through conflict in healthy ways
- Welcomes new people
- Listens to people
- Values everyone
- Gives the glory to Jesus
- Ministers those who are absent
- Combines old traditions with new ideas to make new traditions
- Follows the Great Commission and Great Commandment
- Visible in the community
- Practices good stewardship
- Stays on mission
- Expresses evident love
- Prays together
- Has respect between the pastor and congregation
- Is reaching the next generation
- Is spiritually and biblically healthy
- Is knowing and growing in God’s Word
- Has high engagement of its membership
- Values mission over survival
- Adaptable and teachable
- Theologically sound
- Clear about their identity
- Practices the spiritual disciplines
- Open to new possibilities
- And more
That’s a good list! And, even though it’s a long one, it’s not a complete one. We just ran out of time.
After writing it down, we talked about it. There were several things about it that we all noticed right away. I hope they encourage you as much as they encouraged us.
Six Lessons About Health
1. It’s not about numbers
While all the churches represented would love to grow and reach more people, the numerical growth of a local congregation is not an essential element of church health.
As long as we’re contributing to the growth of the church, that’s what matters.
2. None of them were about events or programs
Filling up the calendar was not even a consideration.
3. It’s not pastor-dependent
No one said anything like “the pastor needs to preach well, have a good grasp of theology, visit the sick” and so on.
A healthy church makes, activates and behaves like disciples instead of expecting all the ministry to be done by the pastor.
4. A church can be healthy with limited resources
None of the items are dependent on having more money, people or facilities. Any church of any size can do this.
5. Health looks the same in churches of any size
Whether your church is big or small, growing, shrinking or static, this list needs to be considered. We have a lot more in common than we think.
6. The list is big, but doable
Normally, a list of that size would feel overwhelming. There’s so much to do!
But, with the specter of increased numbers, programs, pastoral skill and resources removed, this is not an intimidating list. It’s an encouraging one.
Instead of telling us to work harder, get smarter and figure out what’s relevant, this list of healthy church characteristics reminds us that our entire calling is to lean more on Jesus and draw people to him.
Health Outside the Numbers
It’s possible to get a good sense of whether-or-not a church is healthy without relying on spreadsheets or having certain programs in place.
Like the Fruit of the Spirit, this list is not dependent on our hard work, but on staying close to Jesus, walking in the Spirit, teaching the Word and loving people in Jesus’ name.
For some people, the fact that there are no numbers attached to this list is frustrating. I get that. An objective baseline of measurement can be reassuring, and in many situations it and can help us see past our own biases.
Numbers can help us understand some things about the health of a church. But they’re not the only thing.
Too much reliance on numbers can be like counting the brushstrokes on a Monet. Sometimes you need to step back and see the bigger picture. Enjoy the beauty. Gasp at the wonder. And remember that the most important things in life can’t be measured numerically.
Including a healthy church.
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