Church Education Trust

4.4 Church Health.

Warren teaches, “that the key issue for churches in the 21st century will be church health, not church growth”.[1] This belief cannot be overstated, Church health is the priority for Warren, nothing else matters for church health equals maturing discipleship, maturing discipleship equals the fulfilling individually and collectively of the five major principles of worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and evangelism. If that takes places the church will naturally grow numerically.

So the outcome of spiritual health is a growing church, by definition a church that is not growing, has “growth restricting diseases and barriers”.[2] Much has been written on the subject of church health; Warren suggests that, “I believe that key issue for churches in the 21st century will be church health, not church growth”.[3]

Some studies have included analysis of the church context, family systems theory, contemporary church models, scientific studies and exposition of all the relevant biblical passages associated with the subject.To understand church growth and church decline, a complex pattern of interacting factors need inspection.

Social sciences have demonstrated that the context of a church and can greatly influence its growth and decline.Donald McGavran[4] was one of the first church growth specialists to write on the subject of church health.  In his book “How to Grow the Church`, he introduces the concept of diagnosing church health and thereby discovering what the church was meant “to be and to do”. 

The idea of understanding growth restricting diseases and barriers within the life of the local fellowship and then understanding how to remove them was at the very heart of McGavran’s research. Church health for McGavran was the absence of disease and so the logical conclusion must be, if disease can be identified in the local church it presupposes that health can also be identified. 

Chaney and Lewis states,in medical terms a diagnosis is the determination of the disease by a comprehensive examination of the patient. Accurate diagnosis is the foundation of modern medicine. Proper treatment is only possible when the cause of an illness is known…. comparable procedure is necessary to determine the growth health of a church.[5] Chaney and Lewis devised a system for testing the health of a church. In their analysis they identify areas where significant growth and disease are to be found.

They examined areas of numerical growth, the rate of growth, the type of growth, the location for growth, the numbers of leaders, and the use of all available resources.On the other hand Peter Wagner[6] believed that if the church was made up of the same ethnic group or of older people, then decline was inevitable, this may be considered too simplistic and certainly open to debate.

Many of the Mega churches in America would challenge this theory, especially in the areas of cultural, national, tribal, racial or ethnic groupings, but it may be a little premature to do so as ultimately historical appraisal of Wagner’s suppositions and Mega counter arguments will prove which approach was correct.

The problem with this approach is that all perceived decline in the church is being measured sociologically and not biblically. Wagner seems to have no realistic and relevant connection of church decline with the Bible and that in itself would be considered a major challenge in his evaluations being given credibility at least in traditional circles.Other scholars have tried to evaluate the church not from the angle of numerical strength but from the position of being a healthy family.

Murray Bowen[7] has written widely on the subject of healthy families. In his model for church health, church leaders are challenged to look at the congregation not as individuals but as a family system, measuring the effectiveness of the family’s strengths in times of difficulty. Richardson[8] suggests in his book entitled “Creating a Healthier Church,” that there are two important forces interacting in the life of every local congregation.

There is the force of the united family, coupled with the power of the individual.  He believed that these two ingredients in the life of the church are a powerful medium for resolving conflict, understanding the very life of the church and arriving at the point where the church family could comfortably set goals.

For Richardson this type of model created a very effective framework for growth and health within the church and for understanding what the church was to be and to do in community. Robert Logan writes in his book entitled, “Beyond Church Growth” that church growth can only take place through a system of “trial and error”. He believed that if his system was followed church health would lead to church growth and in so doing, what the church was meant to be and do would then be clearly known.

In his book he suggests 10 principles for developing effective, healthy and growing churches. He suggests that a healthy church can be arrived at through visionary faith and prayer, effective pastoral leadership, culturally relevant philosophy of Ministry, celebrative and reflective worship, holistic disciple making, cell groups, developing the leadership, mobilizing believers according to spiritual gifts, appropriate and productive programming, and starting churches that reproduce.[9]

Others have attempted to produce a formula for healthy churches, Steven Macchia in his book “Becoming a Healthy Church: Ten Characteristics” lists,God's empowering presence,  God exalting worship,  spiritual disciplines,  a learning and growing community,  a commitment too loving and caring relationships, servant leadership development, outward focus, wise administration and accountability, networking with the body of Christ, and stewardship and generosity.[10]  

After intensive research into the ministries of almost 2000 church workers Macchia was able to come to develop his 10 characteristics for a healthy church reflecting what he considered the church was meant “to be and do”. Very few of the surveys that have been carried out over the past few years with regard to church health provides additional evidence which can prove that ultimately church health can be realised.

One exception to the rule is found in a book entitled “Natural Church Development” the author, Christian Schwarz writes,there is an unspoken assumption in the church growth movement that growing churches are automatically healthy churches.  But is this equation accurate? We can find a great variety of statements on this subject in church growth literature, but in the end they are no more than opinions and hunches. 

The reason is simply that while quantitative growth in a church could be measured with a certain degree of accuracy, a reliable procedure for measuring qualitative growth with objective, demonstrable criteria was not yet available.[11]  Schwarz developed a model whereby he believed he could measure the qualitative element in the life of the church.  His model of measurement was called the “quality index.”

This “quality index” was made up of eight characteristics and these characteristics are listed below,Empowering leadership, gifted leadership, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need orientated evangelism, and loving relationships.

In each one of these areas Schwarz developed a list of questions to which the answers had to fulfil certain criteria, the answers given would receive a mark of one to 10 and the overall score would indicate the health of a particular local church. Schwarz analyzed over 1000 churches in 32 countries and in his study of the health of those churches he concluded that church health is extremely important in church growth.

He suggested that were churches had a score of more than 6.5 out of a 10 in his marking system that church would grow.  He suggests that where a church overemphasizes the quality aspect against numerical growth, church growth would be very slow. He also concluded that no single factor leads to church health, in fact all the eight characteristics which originally he suggested necessary for health needed to be at work in any growing fellowship.

He discovered that church health was greatly enhanced if there where small cell groups and the need for contextual, institutional and spiritual dimensions were all very important factors in church health.  He also suggested that small churches win proportionately as many people to Christ as does the mega church movement.

It is not often that the CGM has a member who has carried out such a scientific analysis; some 4 million responses in 18 different languages were received. In this survey a serious attempt to understand the nature and possibility of developing healthy churches that are both numerically and spiritually growing is realised. Unfortunately no scriptural basis or scientific explanation for the eight characteristics that are foundational to Schwarz’s theory have been provided.

Schwarz’s pragmatic approach to Scripture in particular and ecclesiology in general is reflective of the general church growth attitude, in that theology must not get in the way of church development, church growth and perceived church health. Schwarz’s own statements concerning his attitude to theology is recorded here,Christian doctrine by contrast with the person of Jesus Christ is changeable and must be changed over the years if it is to fulfill its task of serving the proclamation of the gospel in different historical and geographical contexts.  [13] 

It is into this environment that Warren began the development of his philosophy of Church growth and health by suggesting that, “the New Testament is the greatest Church Growth Book ever written”.[14] He openly admits that he has, “nothing new to say about church growth”,[15] only to revisit the scriptures, re-discover the principles and processes which to some degree have faded with time and tradition.

Donald MacNair qualifies Warren’s position by suggesting,the church must have a continually modified vision and plan, unique to that church body at the time and in that community, which focuses and implements its purpose and mission.[16] Warren comments that if those principles and processes are not re-integrated as foundational into the life of the church, its decline and death are inevitable.

This is a  key observation, health for Warren resulted in the implementation of his five key principles, worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and evangelism and a process to carry them through the church to community. Describing the Saddleback Church, Warren suggests that it is “a Paradigm change and a purpose driven church”. [17]

Could a paradigm shift in the church commence from a seemingly simplistic position, that is, a few biblical principals and a process? Warren clearly believes that his Saddleback ministry was developed through principles and a process and suggests that, “what outsiders notice about a growing church rarely explains the real causes of growth”. [18]

The key for Saddleback’s health and numerical growth was the underlying principles governing all belief and the process of communication to community.As Warren grappled with the questions, “what is the church meant to do?” Of necessity he would have been aware of or influenced by the Church Growth Movement surveys for he[19] admits to having read everything that has been written on the subject of Church Growth.Warren believed that principles would not only explain the existence of the church but also what the church was meant “to do”. 

Certain challenging questions arise as Warren began his search for principles. Is it possible for Warren to return to a pure gospel even though it was housed in a Middle Eastern first century cultural setting? Could it authentically deliver the necessary principles, which could be contextualised into a 21st century western world or is Warren’s interpretation of the New Testament writings just another interesting approach among so many others?

This is a massive challenge for any enquiring mind, but even more challenging is the fact that Warren believed that he had successfully opened up the scriptures in such a way that they presented him with the principles that he so long searched for. Warren’s approach reflects a scholarly yet a simplistic interaction with the New Testament Text. J.C.K.Hofmann[20] in a series of writings attempted to give credibility to the belief and authority of the scripture (something that Warren would not disagree with) by developing the concept of “Heilsgeschichte” or salvation history.

His concept of “Heilsgeschicte” would not find its fulfilment until the final eschatological consummation; the key point in his understanding of the spiritual development of the purposes of God was the process, Warren could identify with that concept. The church was to be a movement, a process delivering the gospel to the next generation by principles producing church health.

Warren identified with this belief that scripture could issue not only governing spiritual principles but also a process for their development in the modern church. On the other hand while Ethelbert Strauffer[21] rejected the “system of doctrine” approach to understanding the New Testament and moved toward the idea of a Christocentric theology of history which saw the out working of God’s plan of salvation enacted in New Testament history.

His interpretation of the New Testament created a number of problems. His idea that Christ’s Spirit was not so much making history as opposed to influencing history as He moved in the hearts and minds of people.[22]  Revelation, principles, processes and an intervening Spirit in the affairs of men are not only reflected in Hoffman and Stauffer’s interpretations but it would seem that many of their ingredients are inter-woven in Warren’s ecclesiological thinking also.

Warren’s re-visitation of the Gospel writings in search of principles says much about his rejection or loss of confidence in the traditional church’s teaching on the nature and mission of the church. Did Warren conclude that it was not safe to accept orthodox interpretation of scripture? Was he rejecting orthodoxy and looking for a completely new beginning? His principles, his process of delivery would suggest that to be the case.

Warren reminds his readers that McGavran through his writings influenced him to think in a certain way about the visible church and its spiritual health, “McGavran brilliantly challenged the conventional wisdom of his day about what makes churches grow with a biblical basis and simple but passionate logic”.[23]Warren examined an age where the church had many distinctive theological positions which caused division on many levels.

There were for example, the Hebrew Christians who saw their future worship and witness based only in Jerusalem. On the other hand there was the growth of Hellenistic Christianity, which rejected Jerusalem’s worship, witness policy and much of their doctrine. Then there were the Judaisers, the Gnostics and Christians who based their beliefs in apocalyptic theology.

It is from the 21st century dilemma of church development to the first century beginnings of the church that Warren believed he could travel and sift though all the differences, interpretations and glean principles which would be foundational in the construction of his ecclesiology. Those principles would give the church its direction to becoming all that God had purposed in Christ.  Pentecost had given the first century church guiding principles that he believed were also transferable to any situation, anywhere and at any time.

These principles he believed would give the foundation for the ministry into which he had be called and ultimately give the new born church the spiritual health it needed. Increasingly a reaction to the church growth theory comes from those who believe that church health is the number one priority in ministry. In the debate about the Saddleback model, Warren is seen to be clearly moving toward the side for church health, significantly he identifies with Schwarz who calls for balance, “a healthy balance is needed in our church life which is neither super-spiritual, nor super-technical”.[24]  

Warren was convinced that with the power of God and the five New Testament Principles that the development of the church in Orange County was assured. Warren became aware that, “vision was the ability to see opportunities in one’s current   circumstance”,[25] which would allow for the foundational principles discovered through his New Testament research, to be practically outworked in the daily ministry of the believer.

Church health was a vital ingredient in the Saddleback experience developing through personal spirituality, conversion, commitment and guidance, followed by collective beliefs in the Sovereignty of God, Holy Spirit, the Word of God and revelation, when  drawn together reflect spiritual health and increase the potential of numerical growth.Warren reminds his readers that, “any church can come alive (church health) if we allow the Spirit to infuse (spiritual healing process) us with a new sense of His purpose, that is what the Purpose Driven Church is all about.”[26]

[1] Warren, TPDC, 17.

[2] Warren, TPDC, 16

[3] Warren, TPDC, 17.

[4] McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 8.

[5] Charles L. Chaney and Ron S. Lewis, Design for Church Growth, Nashvile, TN, Broadman Press,

     1997, 87.

[6] C.Peter Wagner, Your Church can Be Healthy, Nashville, TN, Abingdon,1997.

[7] Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson,1994.

[8] Ronald Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church, Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press, 1996, 26.

[9] Robert E.Logan, Beyond Church Growth, Grand Rapids, M1: Fleming H.Revell, 1989, 17.

[10] Steven Macchia, Becoming  a Healthy Church, Michigan, USA, Baker Books, 1999.

[11] Christian A.Schwarz, Natural Church Development, Journal of the American Society for Church

     Growth, 1998, 71-78.

[12] Schwarz, Natural Church Development, 22.

[13] Schwarz, Natural Church Development, (Journal of the American society for Church Growth, 1998), 71-78.

[14] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 18.
[15] Warren, TPDC, 18-20.

[16] Donald J. MacNair, The Practices of a Healthy Church, New Jersey, P&R Publishing 1999, 11.

[17] Warren, TPDC, 19.
[18] Warren, TPDC, 21.
[19] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 25f.

[20] Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 4.

[21] Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament,4.

[22] Ladd, ATNT, 103f.

[23] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 29.

[24] Schwarz, Natural Church Growth, 3. (Ref. Monica Hill).

[25] Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 29

[26] Warren, TPDC, 398.

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