Church hurt seems to be everywhere these days. Hardly a week passes without reading online of painful situations involving church leaders and members. Sometimes the stories reveal the horrific. Other times reports focus on “regular church hurt.” Of course, the phrase “church hurt” can be used as a junk drawer to hold all kinds of experiences, from grievous abuses to misunderstandings.
But the reality that hurt has become regular requires we seek healthy churches. Not every congregation provides a community where people can and do flourish. Some congregations pose risks to the spiritual, social and emotional well-being of those who attend.
On top of any unhealthiness in churches, neighborhoods themselves are sometimes marked by neglect and vulnerability. High concentrations of poverty, drug use, family and housing instability, and crime make the need for healthy churches all the more critical and urgent.
But what is a healthy church?
There is no one formula for church health. Nor is there a series of discrete steps for going from ill to good health. But the Bible does emphasize a few ingredients for being a sound church. The Crete Collective believes these ingredients can make the difference not only in individual congregations but also entire neighborhoods where many such congregations exist.
Not every group of people meeting on a Sunday is a Christian church. On Sundays, people fill stadiums to watch football. They gather with friends for brunch. They meet with extended family for meals at grandma’s. People form bustling crowds at the mall. But none of these group outings make a church.
The first defining characteristic of a true church is the right preaching of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is what the apostle Paul describes as “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). According to the Bible, nothing ranks higher than the message of God’s free salvation through faith in the sinless obedience, sacrificial death on the cross, and amazing resurrection of his unique Son, Jesus Christ.
If the gospel is of first importance, then we understand why the Bible pronounces a curse on anyone who preaches a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-9). By this one thing—changing or abandoning the gospel—a congregation goes from heathy to cursed.
It’s the gospel that gives life. With genuine life comes health. So, we want to see congregations in neglected black and brown neighborhoods preaching, counseling, singing, and sharing the Good News that God in Christ redeems sinners and creation. We want to see churches not only proclaiming this message from the pulpit, but sharing this message on street corners, while hosting neighbors in their homes, in counseling session, in men’s and women’s fellowship meetings, and during various kinds of outreach activities.
We believe the presence and proclamation of the gospel is the first and most critical ingredient for transforming a group of people into an actual church.
The Lord gives us a second ingredient for a health church in John 13:34-35, which reads, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The Lord Jesus makes love the defining mark of Christian discipleship and the greatest virtue of Christian faith (1 Cor. 13:13). When the Lord says, “By this all people will know,” He means that love should be so visible and so compelling that “all people” (including outsiders who are not Christians) will be convinced that the church is made of legitimate followers of Jesus. For that to be the case, love between church members must be like the love Jesus has for Christians—sacrificial. Such love must regularly include acts of self-giving service that benefit other Christians.
One of the people who heard Jesus teach this was John, the author of the Gospel bearing his name and an apostle of Jesus. John elaborated on the command to love in his first letter. He declared that Christian love for one another is a sign that assures us we have actually been born again (1 John 3:14). But such a love must be shown. John writes:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
John expects heathy churches to be places where talk of love is considered cheap but acts of love prove an open heart. These are the kinds of churches we long to see saturate neglected and vulnerable neighborhoods.
Of course, Christians are called to love not only other Christians but also others. The Lord Jesus commands we love even our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). And when we love with deeds, we must not only love other Christians but also love those outside the church (Gal. 6:10).
The love Christian churches show for those outside the church has a winsome effect. Those who are not yet unbelievers ought to see our good works and glorify God (1 Pet. 2:12). The glory of God among those yet to believe is why the Lord Jesus commands we “let our light shine” in the form of good works others can see (Matt. 5:13). Indeed, the Bible tells us we were saved precisely so we might do these good works that produce praise (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14).
In neglected and vulnerable neighborhoods, there is no shortage of opportunity to good. Many people expect the church to serve in this way. When churches become inward focused, consuming its charity on its own needs, limiting its work to its membership, then those who do not yet know Christ end up rightly criticizing the church rather than praising God. Jesus’ life of service and sacrifice is so compelling that the world intuitively knows that following Jesus must also include doing good to others. Healthy churches understand this as well.
A healthy church, with a healthy sense of its relationship to its neighbors, also stands in solidarity with its neighbors. We can’t with integrity live and labor in communities of concentrated need while ignoring those around us in need. A lot of the good that must be done in hurting neighborhoods exceeds the occasional support with meals, utilities, or other one-off acts of kindness. Much of what we face calls for sustained advocacy, strategic planning, and consistent investment of time, energy and other resources.
The call to solidarity, like the other ingredients, comes directly from the Bible. Proverbs 31:8-9 teaches us that wise believers speak up for the destitute, the poor and needy. We must defend their rights as well as help with their needs. Hebrews 10:34 and 13:3 teach us that we must remember those in prison, showing compassion as if we were in prison as well, and identifying with them even to the point of having our own possessions taken as we do so. Isaiah 1:16-17 help us understand that personal holiness expresses itself alongside public justice. Not only must we “wash ourselves” but we must also “seek justice; correct oppression.”
In this sense, a healthy church maintains an advocacy posture. It stands ready to join in the suffering of others, just as Jesus endured our suffering on the cross. A healthy church stands ready to intercede on behalf of the marginalized, just as the Lord Jesus intercedes with the Father on ours. A healthy church cares about justice because God cares about justice and does justice every day (Zeph. 3:5).
We want to plant and revitalize healthy churches because healthy churches are the only churches that bless both its members and its communities. We want to so saturate hurting and vulnerable neighborhoods with gospel-preaching, people-loving, neighbor-serving, and justice-seeking congregations that it becomes impossible to walk down the street without bumping into Jesus. We believe hurting neighborhoods need healthy churches.