Finding a healthy Church is a hard thing to do these days. Sometimes a job change or move puts us in a place to have to go searching. In my pastoral experience, I have found that many Christians lack a theological grid of criteria for discerning a Church with a Gospel culture from those who do not. What I would like to do here is outline ten major characteristics of a healthy Gospel formed Church.
1. The Gospel Formed Church Preaches Grace
The proclamation of the Good-news is the proverbial tip of the spear for ministry. Acts 8:4 says that as the disciples scattered out of Jerusalem, pouring into the reaches of the empire, they “went about preaching the word.”
The prophets looked forward to the Christ with the words “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”” (ESV Is. 52:7) The Gospel is a message of good news, a message of salvation for the fallen, broken and imperfect sinner. It is not enough to simply preach; the content wholly matters. The Church must preach God’s grace! Grace is the mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance God extends to sinners when they repent.
For many, shame is what prevents them from coming to Christ. Shame is powerful. If not dealt with shame can destroy a person. The suffering Christ on the Cross is a symbol of sin’s shame and its only remedy. In Christ, God stretches forth his arms saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)
Preaching is fundamentally an invitation to respond to God’s cruciform work. The preacher is just a delivery boy. He must himself be seeped and steeped in grace; He needs it as bad as those he delivers it to. The Gospel formed church makes the preaching of God’s grace revealed in Christ the summit ministry endeavor.
Preaching grace is finally critical for one more reason. There is no such thing as perfect Christians, perfect ministers, or perfect churches. The preacher will always, at some point, fail you. The proclamation of the word of God will not. The faithful exposition of the biblical text is a bulwark against persistent human weakness and fickleness within the church. Good preaching keeps us trusting in Christ, not his people.
There is no balancing act between grace and law. Gospel preaching is grace replete. We can never live up to Christ’s standard. That is why he came in our stead. In the lack of ability to meet the Christ’s standard, we have one course of action: To preach and proclaim Gospel grace to one another insufferably! This is what Healthy Churches do.
2. The Gospel Formed Church Trains Obedience
Christians are called to live as Christ. When looking for a Church you should always consider what is taught regarding the regular conduct of a Christian. Many churches today are far more concerned with “engaging worship services,” the new and hip sermon series, and the latest program to fill seats. These may draw people—but they don’t save and sanctify. If you are looking for a place to be planted deep into rich Gospel soil where you and your family can grow, you need to give some thought to this.
In my experience, very few Churches actually have a plan of discipleship formation. The preaching of grace plays a big part in that. But we all know that many people have sat under fairly good preaching for years and have remained unchanged; We should not underestimate the hardness of the human heart to resist grace. Many have not been challenged to face their brokenness, fear, unbelief, and emotional wounds. There is nothing more sad to come to church week-in and week-out for months and years and not mature. If you are looking for a Church, do they have a plan of spiritual formation? How do they lead people into biblical and spiritual maturity? Ask these questions.
3. The Gospel Formed Church Stands on Biblical Truth
The Gospel formed Church has its theology and practice rooted in the Bible. The Bible is the holy, inspired, and inerrant word of God. According to its own internal testimony it is “God-breathed” or inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21).While flesh and blood humans like us picked up the ink quill and penned it, the third person of the Godhead spoke through them. The result was the character of God expressed through the character and idiom of the penman. The Gospel formed church is founded on the Bible, because the Bible is the Gospel; It tells the story of God revealed in Christ from creation to the new Jerusalem.
Now be careful here: It is not enough to merely confess the authority of the Bible. There are many Churches and traditions that are very loud about being “biblical” and holding to the “inerrancy of the Bible” but they themselves are not so much. Some onfess the Bible but reflect a harsh and ungracious God by their behavior. Is this the God revealed in Christ who has mercy on sinners? Loud public declaration of our confession is not what the Bible actually calls us to, but a quiet and peaceable life that reflects the character of the Savior.
It is not enough to be biblical in word only. God calls his people to not only be hearers of the word, but also “doers.” (James 1:22) Our speech must be accompanied by action. We are called to a life of humble obedience, not loud public profession and spectacle
In Acts 2:42 the Church is described as practicing the apostle’s teaching, the common life together in love and service, the breaking of bread (the Lord’s Table), and prayer. This is what a Gospel formed Church does and looks like. The Bible contains the Apostles’ doctrine. So practicing Acts 2:42 with the guidance of the Bible is the fast-track to being a Gospel formed Church.
4. The Gospel Formed Church Practices Covenant Membership
The earliest Church practiced covenant membership. However many today say, “I don’t see anything about membership in the Bible.” Well this is kind of like saying “I do not see any mention of people playing sports in the Bible so sports must not have existed back then—pretty doubtful. Just because something is not explicitly mentioned does not mean it is not there.
In fact, while not spoken of in terms of “membership,” there is a great deal of evidence for it—so much so we can hardly scratch the surface. The Jewish people had long practiced baptism before Christ arrived. To early Jewish Christians, baptism became a covenant sign like circumcision and the Sabbath before it (Gen 17 & Exod 31:12–17). It was a rite used to bring someone into fellowship with the community of faith. It was both symbolic and consecrating.
Membership as we conceive of it today actually pales in comparison to the gravity of how the New Testament Christians viewed covenant membership. Paul says that we participate in Christ, that we are his body, and that we are “members of one another” (Rom. 12:5) We participate in the life God gives to all of us together.
The problem is not that the Bible does not talk about membership. Rather it is that we do not understand covenant. A covenant relationship is far more solemn and binding than joining a club. Marriage is our closest analogue: two people give themselves entirely to each other. The Christian is called to give his or her self over completely to the Christ in the Gospel. This was so serious to the earliest Christians, that many of them ended up giving their lives for the Gospel too.
Covenant membership naturally leads us to our next topic, church discipline, which is itself another proof of the gravity in covenant membership.
5. Gospel Formed Churches Have Leaders of Integrity
While Christ could have related to us directly, for some reason he did not. He intended for the church to persist. In so doing he ordered for the Church to raise up Godly leadership, men raised-up on the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Paul tells Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5) Paul then goes on to describe them:
6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer,* God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not tbe arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:6–9)
Paul puts the emphasis on character. What kind of men are they? Are they emotionally self-controlled and disciplined? Or are they arrogant and quick tempered—weak mean who sacrifice the Church for their ego and getting their way? Or are they calm prayerful men who are themselves deeply aware of their own sin? The former creates integrity for the Church like bone and sinew. The latter create fractures and fissures that can lead to the wounding and even dissolution of the body.
Since the Reformation Protestantism has experimented with various polities in an effort to serve the Church. Certainly some forms are better than others. But any form of government is only as good as the quality of man you have in office. Ask what these men are like.
6. The Gospel Formed Church Practices Church Discipline
The word “discipline” obviously sounds negative. In some ways it can be. Many of us did not like being disciplined by our parents. But most of us, as we grow into adulthood, see the inherently positive nature in parental correction. Most are happy that we are not the kind of people we would have become had our our parents not corrected us.
Church discipline certainly does have a corrective side to it, but holistically it is about nurture. Notice the words “disciple,” “discipleship,” and “discipline” all have the same Latin roots discipulus and disciplina.
One of Websters definitions under the word “discipline” is “training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency.” This hits pretty close to home for the vision of discipleship. Paul says in Gal. 5:22–23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (ESV)
In fact every point we have spoken of here is actually Church discipline in the most positive sense. Discipleship is discipline. Discipline is disciplining mind and heart to live according Christ’s new Kingdom rule as it approaches.
7. The Gospel Formed Church Practices Community
Acts 2:42 also lists “fellowship” as one of the key practices of the early disciples. Behind this is the Greek word koinonia. The robust meaning of this word is hard to fully express. A more apt (but awkward) translation might be, “the common participation in life together.” The earliest Christians created a Gospel culture of mutual interdependence.
They were not independent mavericks out on their own. They also were not dependent (or codependent) either. They lived in a covenant-facing posture toward one another. What is covenant facing? When you enter the covenant relationship, covenant facing is the posture that assumes the other is an integral part of one’s life. In Pauline theology, they are a member of the body, and thus the body is incomplete without them.
Christian community is based upon a mutual agreement to live in a posture of justice—living in a mutually respectful, honoring and morally upright way toward one another. It also means meeting one another’s needs when necessary, but out of worshipful obedience to the Father.
There is a lot of confusion these days regarding “fellowship” or “community.” Some are under the impression that this is about “going deep” and revealing your darkest junk. While there is a great advantage to having a relationship that is so trustworthy that we can do that, that is not what “the common life together is.” Those who talk that way often are looking to emotionally “take up residence” with other people in a way that is not only inappropriate, but will also eventually let them down. The natural outcome of this is usually bitterness and division. This life together is about living justly toward one another—meeting ostensible needs regardless of how well one knows the other. Out of that will grow a strong and appropriate intimacy that is other-serving, not self-serving
Finally Gospel community creates the formative context for evangelism. The Church is a witnessing body. The apologetic and witness to the Gospel is the Church. Small gatherings of Christians serving each other who include their non-Christian friends are the most fertile environment for conversion.
8. The Gospel Formed Church Observes Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Regularly
The Reformers referred to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a “visible word.” They symbolized in visible, and tactile ways the truth of Christ. Baptism points to our own death and resurrection to new life in Christ. The Lord’s Supper points to Christ’s body broken and blood poured out for our redemption.
This is not iconography. God shows up and meets with his people in the Lord’s Supper. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” In the Lord’s supper there is a spiritual transaction taking place—a covenantal transaction. Christ’s Spirit resides within the Church especially when gathered as a body (Acts 2:1–4 & 5:1–11). Through the Spirit we share a real but invisible participation with Christ. He meets his Church mysteriously in the eating and drinking.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the believer is the gift of the covenant. Paul called it the guarantee or “earnest gift” of the purchased possession (Eph. 1:14). The “Comforter” is a taste of the Kingdom and a help along the way. The Gospel formed Church relishes in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Also while I would not make this a deal breaker if all the other elements are there, the regular observance (at least every Sunday) is the historic practice of the Church. The Lord’s Supper is a picture of feasting on the goodness of Christ. Like the physical food elements that represent it, we must constantly consume food and water to flourish as humans. Feasting on the Lord’s table “often” is meant to symbolize our dependence upon Christ and how we do not live by bread alone, but every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4 & Deut. 8:3).
9. The Gospel Formed Church Serves
Jesus is portrayed to us at various places in Scripture as a servant. He is the suffering servant in the songs of Isaiah. In the upper room, he dons a towel and serves his disciples; he obeys his heavenly father in obediently going to the cross; he serves the Church now at the right hand of the Father interceding for us (Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3 & 8:1; 10:2; 1 Pet. 3:22).
The Church is to be shaped into the image of Christ; the Church is equally called to the avocation of obedient and suffering servant. The Church is pushed out into the world as tangibly as the Son of God was thrust into our world to serve and save us. While preaching is the primary weapon the Church brings into the fray, a loving and humble service of the local Church within the community is the long march toward battle; it is how we constantly prime ourselves to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).
Service within the local community (and I do not mean programs per se) is perhaps the most tangible step toward being present.
10. The Gospel Formed Church Evangelizes
The great commission is to go make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20). This is not just conversion, but also formation (i.e. “teaching them all that I commanded…). The fruit of a Gospel formed Church is that new people should be coming to faith. The Church’s Gospel mission is twofold: (1) INWARDLY — to save the Church through preaching the Gospel to itself, and (2) OUTWARDLY — to save the world through preaching the Gospel to the unbelieving.
On evangelism in particular, I would encourage you to look “under the hood.” By this I mean do not look for evangelistic programs. Evangelistic programs can often be ineffective acts of desperation that are more show than real. The question is whether evangelism (disciple-making) is built into the DNA of the church? Or is evangelism a program or bucket among many that have been “checked off.”
The simple way to get to the bottom of service and evangelism when evaluating the health of a Church is to ask what they are doing to engage the community and who are the new Christians as a result? If there aren’t any, that may be a flag.