One of my heartbreaks in recent years is the trends in the American churches to compare. A lot of what I write sounds like comparisons, and in all honesty, sometimes I am bitter and find myself pointing fingers. If I’m sounding like that here, please understand two things about me: (1) I am absolutely committed to healthy local churches and believe wholeheartedly that Jesus works through the local church to bring about Shalom (a very deep, relevant peace) and (2) because I love the church, I read a lot of things, consider a lot of angles, observe as much as I can, and process it all, sometimes out loud with my husband or anyone who cares to discuss these things. There are people out there doing a lot of work on the state of the church today and I highly commend some of them if you don’t believe me. Thom Rainer, 9Marks, Phil Douglass (Church personality studies), and many more.
All that said, here are some key factors that I don’t think you can overlook when deciding where to go and maybe when to stay, not necessarily in order of importance:
- Can you count the number events in any given week that are inward focused v. outward focused? Meaning how many are open and outside of the church facility – or ongoing efforts to reach outside of your four walls. More on this another day.
- Do you know about all the finances of the church? Can just about anyone who wants to look at “the books?” If you’re a member, do you feel you have a complete picture of where the church stands financially and if you ask questions, do you feel encouraged in the answers?
- What is the percentage of church attenders to active ministry involvement?
- If you have a small group ministry, would you say the groups are primarily social, primarily outreach, or somewhere in between?
- Do you have a process where you can talk in confidence to someone in leadership about any concern you have? Is there a New Member class? If there is, are there any indications of how to handle conflict within the church or possible abuses of authority?
- What is the structure of the church? Is there a discrepancy between what’s “on paper” and what actually happens? How accepted is this discrepancy by the congregation, and even the leaders? Are the leaders just “on paper” or do they actually have influence and buy-in from membership? Are there committees that exist in theory but do not function in reality?
- How often does the church meet corporately to pray? Probably the most important so far.
- Do you know what decisions are being made by leaders right now?
- Does what happens during Sunday/worship have anything to do with what happens the rest of the week? Do the sermons inform what else happens during the week? Are the events of the week celebrated, prayed for, supported by what happens in worship?
- Notice I haven’t talked about doctrinal statements or theology yet. Answer all the questions above and I can probably tell YOU what that church’s doctrines and theology are.
We are enjoying our current gig. My husband is the Interim Pastor at a church who has gone through some trying times in the past few years. It’s been discouraging at times and hopeful other times. They have had a roller-coaster experience and God saw fit to move Rob into the position to help them regroup and move forward.
Because of this, my thoughts on what a church should be have become more and more clarified. I’ve been on staff of a church once before for a few years. I have attended churches of many different denominations in the past. I have been in the PCA for ten years now and I have found that there is much to be said for basing your structure and sense of procedure on a tried-and-true system. Presbyterian government has been around since about, well, the Protestant Reformation, more or less. It isn’t that it’s perfect by any means, but that much history and constant refining has something going for it. End commercial for PCA.
That said, each local group of people acts like their own cosmos in many ways, and it’s been challenging and enlightening to begin to understand how a local church works. It’s fascinating to me. I have a Masters degree in Organizational Management – this is the study of organizations, how they work, how they don’t work. Because of humanity and varied personalities, any group of people will have sources of conflict and an overall ethos that will be the rule of the day, whether they realize it or not. How self-aware a local church is – from the “top down” so to speak – will determine how healthy it is. Is there constant space for repentance? Acknowledging failures and celebrating Spirit-led successes? Can the church honestly say that they are unified, in vision, in mission and purpose, in relationship with minimal conflict, or at least engaging conflict in healthy and biblical ways?
So much to consider. For the glory of God.