We've all heard them, and a few of us even do them. You know: Eat right, exercise, watch your weight, and all that. Unless you live under a rock, you can't miss hearing this message in America. The message is a good one, especially for Christians. Being a follower of Jesus includes being a good steward of the things He gives us, including our bodies.
But what about the other parts that make up "me"? We all have a spiritual aspect, and an intellectual one, as well. And we have our individual lives and corporate lives, too. BOth spiritually and intellectually, we are made to be with each other. So what about the church? What if we look at "we" rather than "me"? Are there things the church should be doing to promote health, as well? I think so, and they are badly needed.
What characterizes a healthy church? Many churches look at two primary indicators: "butts in the pews" and dollars in the bank. Oh, and no major fights, of course. This is success.
Using our physical bodies to illustrate, this is like saying that as long as we're getting bigger and richer, we're doing well. So we may break the scales, but that's okay: we're "growing."
But healthy growth has to do with more than mere mass. It has to do with bone development, muscle tone, cardiovascular effectiveness, and even mental and emotional maturity. Merely bigger is not necessarily better. That should be especially evident in obese America. And like people, obese churches are not healthy churches.
And then there's the matter of wealth: Does the money keep coming in? More money is good, right? But in a great many cases, the money is used mostly to support the church's lifestyle of more bloat, more obesity, and little mission. Again, not healthy.
Like size, money is not a primary indicator of health. It's one factor, but if wealth alone indicates God's pleasure and blessing, there are many in America who must be right. I'm talking about irreligious people who nevertheless claim God's approval because they are wealthy. We don't have to look far to see examples. Some are in the church. And the lifestyle of too many churches is simply to encourage more of this obscenity.
I want to be clear: I am neither anti-growth nor anti-wealth. A healthy church will generally grow in numbers, and it will also become self-supporting. But unhealthy churches can be both of those, as well.
There's a better way.
The first task of the church is to make disciples. It is to, as some have put it, to "make irreligious people into fully committed followers of Christ."
I suspect most churches would claim they are doing just that. But my question is, "How do you know it's really happening? Are you living on assumptions?" In too many cases it's the latter. Because the numbers increase and the money flows, all is well, and there is no objective measure of spiritual growth.
The folks at Willow Creek in Chicago have in the past couple years gotten some attention for undertaking extensive research into spiritual growth. They were unwilling to trust assumptions. The results, which they have published, make fascinating and surprising reading.
Fascinating because they talk about us, giving us a more objective look at our collective health. Surprising because of the unexpected results. The results brought major changes in Willow Creek's approach to discipleship. But "facts are our friends," and in an undertaking as important as this, operating on assumptions should be unthinkable.
Here's one indicator of the problem: I once recommended a book on stages of spiritual growth to two congregational leaders. One expressed interest, took the book, and promptly forgot about it. It is probably still unread. The other openly scoffed.
Can a church be healthy, fulfilling the mission of our God while operating on assumptions, or in the latter case, even arrogance?
A church may have many worthy outreach ministries, and see good things happening. But unless there is an intentional, carefully planned approach to discipleship, the end result is social work.
In every church, there are those who long for more depth and meat in their spiritual lives. They want to grow, which is a sign of health. But when the "discipleship" consists of random superficial "discussions" on a Bible passage, led by whomever happens to get the nod that week, is it a surprise that there is no deep growth?
Worse, can it be good that those who express frustration with the lack of "meat" in the discipleship diet are told, "Well, you know, every church has people like you. I hope some day you find what you're looking for." As if people longing for depth and intimacy with God were nothing more than malcontents.
This response is not uncommon, sadly, though some churches are more blatant about it than others. Can this possibly be healthy? Is the leadership being faithful to their responsibility before God and the people?
This situation grieves me. These leaders take their people to dry wells, places with no life. What happens then? They seem content with a church of spiritual babies, people unchallenged and uncaring about truly following Jesus in deeper, sacrificial ways, people who ask no questions. But the "leaders" in these churches will answer to God for their care of the people. What then?
This appalling situation grieves and angers me, and I wonder what God thinks of it.