Church Health

In our Leverage interview with Rev. Karl Vaters, we had a first article discussion about church dynamics and leadership based on size. I have served in a large church of more than 1,000, a medium-sized church, and I have started two churches. I can tell you there is a difference. In my current setting, I have a foot in both canoes. Pastor Karl’s books and blogs have been helpful in discerning how to do ministry in our setting. I hope you were encouraged by the interview.

I am grateful for the feedback I received that leads to this question I have for us: “What is a healthy church and how would you define it?” Pastor Karl suggested that health can be measured by how well a church is following the great commandment and the great commission. Some have suggested health is being faithful. I would love to gather your thoughts on what you think is a healthy church. I invite you to post your comments or email them to me (j.scheler@southernlcms.org). I will compile and share them.

As soon as you determine what health is, you have to be able to quantify it. This usually means numbers. I do not think numbers reflect health, but they point to a greater story of the church’s health. Most churches like to measure ABCs (attendance, building, and cash) as a sign of health. Again, you can look at ABCs as indicators, but they don’t really tell the story or reflect the health of a church. You can also have churches that are growing or shrinking be healthy or unhealthy. Numbers do not do it alone. Our Synod tracks measurements of attendance, membership, baptism, confirmation, staff, and giving in the statistical report, but does that really measure health?

I hope you will share your thoughts and join the conversation. What do you think is a healthy church, and what are the measurements we should use to gauge health?

by: Rev. Jason Scheler, Mission Executive of the LCMS Southern District

2 Replies to “Church Health”

  1. Short answer: Having a heart for Jesus and showing to the the world.

    Blessings, see you shortly! Ralph

  2. The Parable of the King and His Castles

    Once upon a time, in a foreign kingdom, lived a peculiar people who did not have sense enough to shelter themselves. When the rain poured, they got soaking wet. When the snow fell, they got bitterly cold. When the sun shined, they got blazing hot.
    To save his people, the king decided to fill his kingdom with castles. So the king revealed a three article set of castle building plans by which he decreed all castles would be built.
    Now there were only two contractors in the entire kingdom – Jake and Marty. As each relied on the plans the king issued, castles soon filled the kingdom. And so, to the untrained eye, all the castles appeared faithful to the king’s plans.
    But before long something startling became apparent. While the castles Marty oversaw sheltered the king’s people as designed, the castles Jake built did not. When the rain poured, the people who lived in Jake’s castles still got soaking wet. When the snow fell, those in Jake’s castles still got bitterly cold. When the sun shined, they still got blazing hot.
    So the king summoned the two contractors to give an account as to how the castles he commissioned came to be.
    Jake reported to the king exactly what he did. He said he recruited and hired the most skilled tradesmen in the kingdom – those with the gifts of carpentry, glazing, heavy equipment operation, pile driving, iron-working, masonry, welding, and laboring. He said they followed the building plans to the letter of the law. And to ensure construction did not deviate from the king’s plans to the slightest degree, Jake said he personally inspected each and every castle at each and every stage of construction. “With all due respect,” your majesty, “the plans you gave me, they must be flawed and I just followed them.”
    Then Marty reported to the king exactly what he did. He said he spoke the king’s plans out loud and the castles appeared.
    Jake furled his brow. Then he shifted his eyes from Marty to the king, then back to Marty, waiting for the punch line. He soon knew Marty was not joking. So Jake laughed. “You can’t be serious!” he scoffed. “You spoke the king’s plans out loud and the castles appeared?!”
    The king then drew Jake’s eyes to his own. “Truly, truly, I say to you, Marty spoke my plans out loud and the castles appeared. Where you followed the first article of my plans, you also disregarded the second and third. In those two articles I clearly state I have cast a spell upon the plans. My spell is the power that builds the castles among those who speak the plans out loud.

    “What is a healthy church and how would you define it?”
    To Jacobus Arminius, the Church was the gathering of people who have each made willful decisions to identify with Jesus Christ as the Savior they have chosen as their example in demonstrating to God and people the authenticity of their decision by their good works of loving God and neighbor and evangelizing the world, summed up today as the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. To Arminius, Scripture was divinely inspired information. Baptism and Holy Communion, divine ordinances. The Holy Spirit, a dynamic power working at the behest of the believer. Worship, performance for the divine. The pastor, hired leader of people.
    Jake, therefore, would define a healthy church as a congregation that is known among themselves and others for such Great Commandment and Great Commission good works. Jake builds castles that everyone can plainly see are castles. His castles are built by obedience.
    Karl Vaters defines a healthy church the same way Jake would. Which makes sense because he is a pastor in the Assemblies of God, which is a manifestation of Pentecostalism, which was born in the Jacobus Arminius theological family.
    In the recent interview with Jason Scheler ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_UQckVz59E), Vaters is consistent in representing the Arminian view of how people are saved: A believer keeping the Great Commandment is an exhibit of good works conceived to earn the trust of an unbeliever. Once the unbeliever trusts the believer, the unbeliever is more open to listening to a presentation of the Gospel, that is, the plan of salvation. The plan of salvation is a winsome appeal to the unbeliever to make a decision to believe in like manner as that of the believer presenting to them. This ‘Gospel’ appeal is bolstered by the Great Commandment good works used to earn their trust in the first place. In this way, evangelism is the work of ‘convincing’ unbelievers and conversion is the outcome of unbelievers ‘being convinced’.
    This view of salvation is man-centered. As such, it begs for man-centered production. And so the language of the church communicates management of people and leadership of organizations, that is, systems, principles, tenets, strategies, programs, processes, vision, mission statements, core values, leadership skills, personal gifting, etc.
    Like anything procedural, this basis for church begs for validation: How do you know? And like most anything man-generated, you know by measuring. Therefore, much of the Arminian world finds solace in the Church Growth emphasis on metrics. Validation comes by big and/or increasing objective numbers.
    As a convenient alternative, Vaters offers solace to pastors and churches in search of validation for small and/or decreasing objective numbers. He relies on the same Great Commandment and Great Commission formula, nevertheless, he makes measurement subjective. He offers opinion polls and surveys within the congregation to determine church health. This message offers to scratch the ears of pastors itching with an inferiority complex over unrealized big and/or increasing numbers. And this message leaves pastors firmly entrenched in the theology of glory. Vaters builds castles that everyone can plainly feel are castles. His castles are built by the heart.
    Vaters offers a more expansive explanation of his principles and methods in his book, “The Grasshopper Myth”. Its title is taken from his (mis)understanding of Number 13:33. And though he did not intend it, his book literally is a myth.
    In Numbers 13:33 the unfaithful ten spies used the term ‘grasshopper’ to rightly describe the diminutive size of God’s people in the face of the mega size of their enemies and wrongly disbelieve God’s promise to defeat those enemies on their behalf. There is nothing redeemable in the report of the ten. By their report, the people are incited to open rebellion against God.
    Vaters uses Numbers 13:33 as pre-text to justify a place for small churches amidst the modern landscape of mega churches. Not only is this use unfaithful to this text of Holy Scripture, it becomes ironic that Vaters’ use of the term ‘grasshopper’ would be consistent with the faithful two spies dwarfed in number by the unfaithful ten. That is, the two were indeed not inferior because of their relative ‘size’. But validation for them is not that they had strong outward leadership qualities, nor that they had strong internal fortitude, but that they believed the Word of God. Their report was a faithful report. Thereby, the true myth comes from Vaters’ misapplication of the Word of God.

    To Martin Luther, the Church was the elect of God, called out kicking-and-screaming unconvinced from the world of unbelief into the kingdom of God entirely by the power of His Word; the people God gathers to identify with them in the divine-human person and work of their living pierced Savior from sin, death, and the devil; the authenticity of God’s work demonstrated by Jesus Christ in action through His people and the good works He prepared in advance for them; summed up in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, as revealed in Scripture alone. To Luther, Scripture was divinely inspired power. Baptism and Holy Communion, divine means of grace. The Holy Spirit, the “caller, gatherer, enlightener, sanctifer, keeper, forgiver, raiser, and giver” person who works through Scripture and Sacrament. Worship, performance by the divine. The pastor, called physician of souls.
    Marty, therefore, would define a healthy church as a congregation that is known of God, known among themselves by God’s Word, and known among people for the Christ-in-action love of God through them for their neighbor. Marty’s are castles that everyone can plainly believe are castles. His castles are built by God’s Word.
    Lutherans define a healthy church the same way Marty would. Which makes sense because Lutheran theology has always relied on the God who makes Himself known through the theology of the cross. They know there are no numbers by which to count God’s Isaiah 45 hiddenness. They know there are no measures by which to forecast His John 3 wind speed or direction. They know there are no eyes by which to recognize His Romans 4 work through opposites.
    This is consistent with the Lutheran confession of how people are saved. A believer is a blind, dead, enemy of God born again of God by the Word as His exhibit of good works He Himself performs through him. This rebirth is outcome of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, precisely by not counting, that is, not crediting against man his own sin but rather against His own Son, who laid down His own life, poured out His own blood, and took up again His own life.
    This view of salvation is Christ-centered. As such, it begs for Christ-sourced means. And so the language of the Church is reflected in the confession of the Church – all three articles.
    Like everything sacramental, this basis for church begs for God’s gifts: Word and sacrament – this is how we believe. And like everything God-given, faith receives it. The Lutheran world receives the solace of faith in the confessional emphasis on faithfulness. Validation comes not by numbers but by the Word of God. Noah’s church of eight was healthy not by a grasshopper myth but by faithfulness to the Word of God. (2 Peter 2:5)

    Asking, “What is a healthy church and how would you define it?”, is tantamount to asking,“What is a healthy Jesus?” And the Arminian would answer, “Jesus is as healthy my good works.” But the Lutheran would answer, “I am dead. It is Christ who lives in me.”
    Perhaps, then, it becomes clear there is no church health harmony between Jake and Marty. Because the moment conversation with an Arminian moves beyond the First Article, there are two different kinds of castles being built. And only one of them saves people.

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