Well, we chatted for a while, but I didn't barrel in on him with all the stuff I know about church growth and program and congregational development. Sometimes it's better that ordinary folks wrestle with this and come to understand it their own way, instead of assuming that a clergyperson -- the pastor or superintendent or visiting expert -- has the answers all laid out like a route map. But I've been thinking over the issue ever since I got home. And here, in a nutshell, are what I think are the three indicators of a healthy church.
What think ye of Christ?
A healthy church revolves around Jesus. It's his story we tell. And we say we are his body. But it's surprising how often people try to come up with criteria or goals or mission statements that avoid defining the centrality of Jesus to the Church.
This congregation we've joined is not the first one we attended after my retirement. We visited several others. One of those was, by most indicators, a very successful, healthy church. There were lots of people. Multiple services. Lots of program. Well-equipped physically, well-supported financially. Friendly. But the name of Jesus was almost never mentioned throughout the entire worship service. The pastor only mentioned Jesus in an aside concerning another sermon in the series he was preaching, illustrating a very minor point in his sermon of today. So, despite all the generally churchy tone, the talk of daily prayer time, the enthusiasm of the congregation, etc., I asked myself, "What are we here for?" There was no There there. And so, we did not return.
Theology matters. Many UM leaders, however, think that we can make congregations successful ("vibrant" is the latest buzzword) by following techniques. It's sort of like selling cars or merchandising hamburgers: here's how you build your business. The actual theological content, they think, is secondary. But it seems to me that you can have a really nice, shiny congregation with all the indicators of success that is nevertheless spiritually dead because Jesus Christ is either unclaimed or misidentified.
I know quite a number of these congregations and their clergy. They would say that I am narrow-minded, because I have a hard time understanding that there are lots of ways of defining and following Jesus. And there's no use arguing with them. The dead don't know they're dead.
Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.
Making disciples is the Primary Task of the Church. And we could go into all kinds of stuff here about what a disciple is, and what we should be doing to foster the making of one, but here's something you rarely hear talked about anymore: Discipleship is largely a matter of pattern.
Yeah, there are things you need to know, and experiences you need to have, and skills you need to acquire, but they all fit into a life pattern. Discipleship is about forming your habits: habits of prayer, habits of worship, habits of giving, habits of action. That means that it's not mostly about what you do in church, but what you do in your life, all day, every day. It's about how you start your day, how you end your day, how you evaluate what you should do in response to what you encounter throughout the day.
I was never discipled. Church orphan that I was, nobody ever taught me how to be a Christian. (I was told how to become a Christian, but not how to be one.) No one ever "formed" me, spiritually. I was like Topsy, I just growed. And I have felt the want of that formation my whole Christian life. It handicaps me yet.
Once upon a time, Methodism was all about discipleship. It was especially fostered in the class meeting, in which people met weekly to give account of how their souls were prospering (or weren't). The class leader and other members of the class were there to help you learn how to live this life in Christ to which you were called.
We are called to live orderly lives in an ordered community. We are called to become producers of ministry, and not just consumers of it. And we learn this from each other, or we don't learn it. The power we are called to experience is not just the power of an explosion that makes us go, Ooh! Ah! It is the power of a controlled explosion that drives pistons and makes an engine go. We change the world because we are changed, and because we are harnessed together into a mighty engine that performs the work of God in the world.
Discerning the Body
St. Paul says that those who partake of the holy supper without discerning the body eat and drink their own condemnation. "This is why so many of you are sick" he says. But he's not talking about the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist. He's talking about how we fail in our relationships with each other. We are the body of Christ. When we don't act like it, we become an unhealthy Church. So, a healthy church tends its relationships in a healthy manner.
A healthy church includes people who are often ignored. Children are included at every level, not just given their special programs. The elderly, including those who cannot come out for services and programs, are still included. People build real relationships with each other. When you bring somebody to church -- and especially if that person should come to faith because of your influence -- then you can't just dump that person in the hallway and assume they can find their own set of relationships. They came because of you. Nor can you assume that keeping up with all the people who can't participate is the pastor's job. Loving other people means making time in your life for them.
One reason why so many churches don't grow is because so many people in those churches have their dance cards full, so inviting others to the party and then not dancing with them means they don't come back. "Catch as catch can," said Dinadan to Taliessin, "the higher caught in the lower, the lower in the higher, any buyer of souls is bought himself by his purchase."
Healthy relationships means also calling out people who are engaging in unhealthy behaviors. It's amazing how quickly just a few gripers and gossips can set an entire congregation by the ears. One colleague refers to these people as "E.G.R." (Extra Grace Required). I prefer another colleague's saying: There may be only one turd on the meatball sandwich, but it becomes increasingly difficult to eat around it. The crazymakers and turf warriors don't just drive pastors crazy, they drive everyone else crazy, too -- and they poison the well for newcomers.
And who should discipline them? The uncomfortable truth is that until someone whose opinion they value -- another member, a friend -- tells them they're over the line, they'll keep doing what they do. Most people avoid having to do that, hoping that it will blow over or go away, but it doesn't. Until bullies and killjoys are told, firmly but lovingly, where the boundaries of acceptable behavior are, they will trample wherever they want.
Finally, healthy relationships include those with people unlike ourselves. How many poor people do you know? Homeless people? People in prison? We need to be doing ministry with all the different kinds of people in our communities. And that's more than just a programmatic thing. We need to be the same with outsiders as we are with insiders, or how will they ever see Christ in us? A healthy church remembers the poor.
Well, such are my descriptors of a healthy church.