My husband and I left an unhealthy church situation over four years ago, but I still remember much of it clearly. I remember that we felt broken over mistreatment, ongoing misunderstanding, unkept promises, and expectations placed on us that came with little grace and even less compassion for family boundaries. I remember how desperate we were to find a healthy church, and in hindsight, I know that was, in our minds, the elusive “perfect” church. But really, we know that a perfect church doesn’t exist. There’s no perfect church as it’s always composed of imperfect people. I’m not trying to be cliche! We live in this reality as the bride of Christ, God’s chosen people, and the church. As we await together the coming reality of total redemption and restoration from the blight and curse of sin, we still wrestle with our flesh, and perhaps nowhere illuminates this quite like the church.
By God’s grace, we quickly landed at a church that is far from perfect, but perfect for us–it’s a wild story including conversations with a stranger in the park and a Hebrew tattoo. It’s been our home, a refuge of healing, a place of growth and spiritual renewal, a family, and a deep kindness to us for four years. I recognize that everyone’s story is different, hurts are different, and our healing timelines differ, but regardless, if it takes four weeks or four months to re-enter church after leaving a harmful experience, I am confident in the role that the church will take in the healing from church hurt! Not only has that been an experience for my family but also for countless others that I know. I also recognize that the key to this healing is landing in a soft spot–a healthy and Christ-honoring body.
We may all have different opinions of what we’re personally seeking in a healthy church, yet my husband and I had five things we were looking for, all of which I think believers would universally uphold as marks of a healthy church. We did have specific ways that we preferred these things to be applied or practiced, but at the heart, this list applies to every denomination and theological preference.
Teaching of the Word
“Babe, what verse is he talking about?” There was a season in which this was a common question we’d whisper to each other during the service. We’d open our Bible to the text that the pastor was preaching from but never heard it read, and only vaguely alluded to as he offered us what seemed more like journal-entry thoughts on the text. Now, I don’t mean to just highlight the bad experiences that we’ve had but I believe this is not an uncommon experience for many sitting in unhealthy churches on Sunday morning. I’ve certainly encountered this at more than one church, and I know that wasn’t an experience unique to me.
In contrast, for four years I have sat in the back pew each Sunday, Bible open before me as my pastor faithfully walked us through a text, reading out loud, and proclaiming the truth–all the encouraging, cautionary, and tough passages alike.
Do you know what I’ve discovered? It doesn’t always feel applicable. And yet, I always learn something about the Lord. I always take comfort in sitting in God’s Word, knowing that I understand it just a little bit better after the preaching of the Word. This may look different in my church than it would in the church that is the best fit for you. However, a healthy church recognizes that the Bible is God’s inerrant and infallible Word and is useful for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Healthy churches teach the Word of God with gladness!
Scripture is laden with the call to sincere prayer–full of thanksgiving, dependence, and faith (Eph. 6:18, 1 Thess. 5:16-18). Are those things the hallmark of the prayer that you are hearing or observing in both corporate worship and other gatherings at your church?
I remember participating once in a Bible study in which the prayer time was one big gossip session cloaked by prayer requests. That is a really easy trap to fall into–and I surely have been guilty of this before too! It was indicative of the priority prayer had in that church community. It was simply something to do, a habit, and an opportunity for an update on that situation you were curious about.
Prayer ought to be vital in the life of the believer! The way that we “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek His presence continually!” (1 Chron. 16:11). If this is a necessary component of our individual lives, how much more we must see it mirrored within the church as crucial for our spiritual growth, our unity, and our increase in godliness.
I know many who grew up in churches that gave an altar call every Sunday, many of them using pressure points or emotional manipulation to get people to the front of the church or to raise a hand so that they could tally the number of souls saved. But an altar call isn’t synonymous with the proclamation of the gospel!
Churches don’t need to give a two-minute spiel each week explaining the points of the gospel to proclaim it faithfully. But are the sermons saturated with the hope of the gospel? Are members encouraged that transformation is possible for those who are anchored in resurrection hope and power?
There are countless other important signs of health in a church (we’re looking at you accountability and gentleness!), but I truly believe that so many things fall into the right place only after we see a sincere heart and reverence for the Word of God, prayer, and the presence of the gospel.
A church could demonstrate each of the three previous elements but still apply it all with harshness and a desire to assert unbiblical levels of authority and control. A pastor can habitually teach the Word and yet abuse church members in the application of Scripture.
Scripture gives us the qualifications of a pastor, and I often wonder if we’ve spent so many years debating matters of gender roles in the church that we’ve lost sight of the rest of the necessary qualifications required of a pastor.
“He must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” (Titus 1:7-8)
Does your pastor emulate this? Do you have access to your pastor, or the elders offering guidance to your church, so that you can assess this character in them? Can I urge you to go out of your way to meet a pastor or elder at your church if you haven’t? I know that depending on the size of your church this could be difficult, and yet I cannot emphasize enough the deep value of knowing your pastor, and his character.
We are living in a sorrowful season in which many of our pastors do not have the character to match their calling and the results are horrific. A basic Google search can tell us this. Scripture is our standard–for life and godliness–and it is unwavering in its command for godly character to serve as a qualifier for the role of pastor or elder. Don’t settle for charisma, when what you need in the pulpit is godly character.
I remember my parents searching for a new church following a painful church experience when I was in my late teens. After attending the same church for a couple of weeks they invited the pastor over and questioned him for nearly two hours. I’m sure he felt grilled. I’m sure there were other questions we should’ve asked. But at the heart of their questions, was a concern for accountability for church leadership. When seeking a new church four years ago, that was the primary concern of mine and my husband as well.
Levels of accountability differ from denomination to denomination, and even more so within non-denominational and or independent churches. And while each church, pastor, and group of elders are accountable first and foremost to the Lord and His Word, where are they also submitting themselves, in humility, to the oversight, correction, or wisdom of other men and women?
Is your pastor (or the pastor at the church you’re considering) held accountable? Is he surrounded by ‘yes-men’, or does he have others speaking the necessary truth into his ministry and personal life? Is your pastor open about having accountability in place? These are crucial elements and questions to consider if you’re considering a new church–or even wondering if you should stay where you are.
There are many more markers of a healthy church that we could discuss, and perhaps you’d prioritize some of them differently than I have. But I challenge you to look beyond basic preferences and into the heart of the leadership, conduct of the church community, and devotion to God and His Word. With humility, consider and pursue a church that is seeking to honor, glorify and obey the Lord, rather than a “perfect” church.