Healthy Gospel ChurchCharacteristics

A video and discussion series with downloadable resources

Healthy Gospel ChurchCharacteristics

A video and discussion series with downloadable resources

Introduction

The vision of the Free Church is of A Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland.  But one of the questions we have been asked is “What is a healthy church?”

People have said they really like the vision, they are positive and enthusiastic about it, but some people are unsure what a healthy church looks like, and what part they can play in growing spiritual health.  So this video and discussion series is an attempt to bring some clarity to that, and to allow us to explore together how we can play our part in an increasingly healthy church.

In considering the characteristics of spiritually healthy churches, the place to begin is probably in thinking about Healthy Christians.  Spiritually healthy individuals will be growing in their relationship with God, getting to know him more, loving him more deeply, being transformed day by day by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of his Son.

Many of us though don’t feel that healthy spiritually.  There are ups and downs on the Christian journey and some of us are perhaps particularly conscious of our struggle with sin, or are feeling discouraged or knocked back by the circumstances of life.

In such a situation, it is helpful to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and to reflect on their example (Hebrews 12:1), but it is also helpful to recognise the importance of the local congregation.

We need one another to encourage us in this Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 10:24-25).  As Christians we are not supposed to be following Christ in isolation, rather we follow him as members of a Healthy Congregation.

There are many references in the Bible to the importance of meeting together, encouraging one another, supporting one another, spurring one another on in the Christian faith. Healthy congregations help people come to know God better in the community of believers.

So if what we are aiming for is both healthy Christians and healthy churches, what might be some of the specific characteristics that we would expect to see?

There are many different definitions or models of a healthy church that we could look to.  In our Reformed Tradition we could look to Calvin’s Institutes and his definition of a true church.  He said “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists”.  Preaching of the Word and the Administration of the Sacraments.

Or we could take a modern-day model such as Mark Dever’s 9Marks or the Natural Church Development characteristics.  Or we could turn as others have to Acts chapter 2, verses 42 to 47 and list the qualities of the early church as they are described there.

There is probably no right or wrong answer to how health is defined, or what model is used, as long as our understanding of spiritual health is consistent with what the Bible says in relation to the church.

Many Free Church congregations and ministers in the last year or so have been doing sermon series, and Bible studies and away days, looking at different aspects of spiritual health, and they will have come up with their own particular list or model.

Some of our church leaders have appreciated that flexibility to adapt the healthy gospel church vision to their local situation.  So this model that we are offering in this video and discussion series is primarily for the benefit of those who are lacking clarity, or are unsure what part they can play in growing spiritual health.

In this model, we are going to suggest seven characteristics of healthy Christians and healthy churches.  Churches with Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel at their centre.   The seven characteristics we are going to outline are healthy preaching, healthy worship, healthy prayer, healthy mission, healthy discipleship, healthy relationships, and healthy leadership.

We are going to look at each of those in turn, with opportunity for discussion in small groups and leadership teams.  You will find links to downloadable discussion guides on this page. 
We hope you will be able to have a conversation about this material with others in your local congregation. 

As you think about your own spiritual health, what do you think are the key things that contribute to that?  And what do you think makes for a spiritually healthy congregation?

Under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we want to see increasingly Healthy Christians, Healthy Congregations, and a Healthy Denomination.  That together we would see A Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland.

Healthy Preaching

The first characteristic we are going to consider is Healthy Preaching.  Healthy preaching teaches people the truth proclaimed in God’s word the Bible.  It helps us recognise our need of salvation and the grace and forgiveness that have been extended to us in Jesus Christ.

Healthy preaching promotes the authority of God’s word and encourages us to live in accordance with the Bible’s teaching.  It shows us what obedience to God looks like in our world today, and how to better think and act in a way that pleases our Heavenly Father.

Healthy gospel preaching is going to be important for healthy gospel churches.

The first characteristic we are going to consider is Healthy Preaching.  Healthy preaching teaches people the truth proclaimed in God’s word the Bible.  It helps us recognise our need of salvation and the grace and forgiveness that have been extended to us in Jesus Christ.

Healthy preaching promotes the authority of God’s word and encourages us to live in accordance with the Bible’s teaching.  It shows us what obedience to God looks like in our world today, and how to better think and act in a way that pleases our Heavenly Father.

Healthy gospel preaching is going to be important for healthy gospel churches.

As we work through these seven characteristics, we are going to give a few practical ideas under each area, realising though that you will probably have more ideas, or better ideas than these.   One of the things that is really good about the Healthy Church Vision is that it recognises the need for these characteristics to be worked out at a local level by local church leaders and members.  But here are a few ideas, perhaps to stimulate your thinking.

In the area of preaching, if we are going to be spiritually healthy Christians then it is important to be attending church regularly, preparing our hearts to listen, praying for the preaching, seeking out good teaching when we are listening to material online or at conferences.

For a healthy congregation it helps when ministers plan a sermon series or a teaching program that covers a range of Bible books.  It helps when there is good expository preaching that directs people to the Bible passage, explains what the verses mean, and suggests how they apply to our lives.  It is helpful for the denomination as a whole when ministers train others to preach and teach, and to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ through preaching the Word of God.  And it is good for those who are speaking to receive trusted feedback on their own preaching and to continue to improve.

We are very much hoping you will be able to have a conversation about each of these areas with others in your congregation – perhaps as part of a small group or leadership team.  The discussion guide asks each of us to think about “How might I grow in health in the area of listening to preaching?” and “How might my congregation grow in this characteristic of healthy preaching?”

Healthy Worship

The second characteristic is Healthy Worship.  Healthy Worship acknowledges God for who he is, who he has revealed himself to be, and seeks to give him the glory and honour that is due to his name.

Joining together in corporate praise allows us to hear each other express the truth that God is worthy of our worship and helps to warm our hearts again when we are struggling.

Healthy worship also recognises, that in view of God’s mercy and love, we respond with lives of worship, seeking to bring him honour before a watching world.

So, healthy worship is going to be important for healthy churches.

In terms of fostering healthy worship, it helps when ministers take sufficient time to plan the service, preparing to lead others in worship.  That is probably one of our strengths in the Free Church.  There is perhaps opportunity to involve others in doing a Bible reading or a prayer.  And of course, healthy worship will make the connection to worship as the whole of life, including the challenges of Monday morning.

Throughout this video and discussion series we are wanting to encourage conversation with others in your congregation about each of these seven areas.  The discussion guide asks each of us to think about, “How might I grow in health in the area of worship?” and “How might my congregation grow in this characteristic of healthy worship?”

Healthy Prayer

We talked previously about Healthy Preaching and Healthy Worship.  The third characteristic is Healthy Prayer.  Healthy Prayer expresses our complete dependence on God for everything we have and are.

We need God by his Holy Spirit to awaken faith in us, to strengthen and equip us, to provide for us, to lead us as individuals and congregations.  Healthy prayer allows us to confess our sin, thank God for his blessings, and ask for his help.  And as we know, there is something special about coming together for corporate prayer.  God says that he will be present even if it is only two or three who gather.

Healthy prayer ultimately allows us to humbly submit and align ourselves to God’s perfect will.  So healthy prayer is essential for healthy gospel churches that are seeking to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

In order to encourage healthy prayer, it can help to make prayer points and resources available for the congregation.  It is important for us to spend a good amount of time actually praying at our prayer meetings.  There could be different ways to structure our prayer meeting or different times to gather for corporate prayer.  And perhaps promoting some books on personal prayer, or sharing encouragements and ideas to improve our devotional life.

How a congregation encourages healthy prayer will differ depending on the local situation.  If you are participating in this video and discussion series as part of a small group or leadership team, please take some time to discuss this characteristic.  What might I as an individual do to grow increasingly healthy in prayer? And what can my congregation do to grow in healthy God-dependent prayer?

Healthy Mission

So far in the model we have been looking at we have considered Healthy Preaching, Healthy Worship and Healthy Prayer.  Here is number four in this model: Healthy Mission

A vision for a Healthy Gospel Church requires a focus on Healthy Mission.  Healthy churches will be wanting to grow and multiply as the gospel is proclaimed and God’s Kingdom advances in Scotland and beyond.

That is particularly challenging in a post-Christian secular country, but we know that God’s desire is that many people in our world should yet be saved, and we pray that he might work powerfully in our nation.

As individual Christians we probably each need to be a little bit more intentional in sharing the good news.  There is room to raise the evangelistic temperature across the whole denomination.

There is opportunity also to plant daughter churches or partner with a missionary church plant in another part of Scotland.  In the past we have partnered with church plants in South Africa and Peru.  There is now a great need in Scotland for Mission Church plants.  And so we can support mission in other parts of Scotland by getting behind a church plant.

How might we improve our Mission health?  Well perhaps there is a need for some training, or a time of focussed efforts.  Could you organise events such as a curry and quiz night with a short talk?  Easter and Christmas events are often well attended.  Invitation services throughout the year. And of course, praying for opportunities to share our faith and to give a reason for the hope that we have.

Also mission in our local area.  Making connections to community groups, running a youth club, mother and toddler group, foodbanks, money management courses, and so on, are all ways to demonstrate God’s love to the communities around us.

And healthy churches will be supporting Mission and Mission Partners throughout the world.

You will have ideas from your own local situation.  So please have a conversation with others in your church about how you grow in Healthy Mission.  You may find it helpful to use the discussion guides available below. 

But do please take time to think and discuss with others how you might grow in Healthy Mission, and how your congregation might grow in Healthy Mission.  That we might better share the good news of the Gospel with those who do not know what Jesus has done for them.

Healthy Mission is essential if we are going to see A Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland.

Healthy Discipleship

We have looked at Healthy Preaching, Healthy Worship, Healthy Prayer, and Healthy Mission.  The next characteristic, the fifth one in this model that we are working through, is Healthy Discipleship.  Healthy congregations will be engaged in Healthy Discipleship.

That might be teaching young people and new Christians what the Bible says and the things that Jesus has commanded us.  Or modelling what it looks like to live the Christian life in our families and workplaces and social groups.

It is also likely to involve helping people in our congregations think biblically about the world around them and the issues they are dealing with.

Healthy discipleship will involve new ways of training and equipping today, recognising that there is less Christian influence in Scottish society, and less biblical literacy.

In the past learning and talking about the Westminster Catechism would have been an important part of discipleship, but that is perhaps not as common today, so some form of deliberate discipleship is likely to be needed in our congregations.

Studying the Bible with someone one-to-one and answering their questions can be really helpful.  Or looking at the Bible together in small groups.  There are resources available from the Scottish Bible Society to help congregations read through the New Testament over a number of weeks and discuss it together.  Book reviews or recommending books or podcasts for others to listen to can be helpful.  And Edinburgh Theological Seminary runs Saturday seminars on a variety of topics that many people have benefitted from.

Each of these sections are intended to just be a brief introduction to a longer discussion.  We do hope you will be able to have a conversation with others in your congregation about each of these seven areas.  The discussion guide, available below, asks each of us to think about how we might grow in discipleship, and how our congregation might better engage in healthy discipleship.

Healthy Relationships

The sixth characteristic is Healthy Relationships.  Healthy churches will be characterised by Healthy Relationships.

Jesus said that we as his followers are to be known by our love for one another.  We are to be a visible demonstration to the world around us of what God’s Kingdom looks like.  

Perhaps this is one of the hardest aspects of being a healthy church.  We are a community of sinful people – saved but not yet freed from the presence of sin.  And unfortunately, we often say or do the wrong thing and end up hurting one another.

In healthy churches people bear with one another, forgive one another, they apologise, they don’t hold grudges, they try to love even those who treat them badly, they humbly put the needs and the wishes of others before their own.

Healthy relationships can be facilitated in our churches through things such as connecting people in small groups, or holding church lunches, weekends away, church social events, movie or games evenings, and just by doing fun things together.  Having nice coffee and cake after the service. Having an area for young people to gather.  Setting up a welcome team for Sundays.

You will have lots of good ideas for your own situation.  So do have a conversation with others about what would encourage healthy relationships in your congregation.  The discussion guide asks each of us to think about, “How might I grow in increasingly healthy relationships in the church?” and “How might my congregation grow and foster healthy relationships?

Healthy Leadership

We have thought about Healthy Preaching, Healthy Worship, Healthy Prayer, Healthy Mission, Healthy Discipleship, and Healthy Relationships.  And here is the last one: Healthy Leadership.

If churches are going to be healthy, they need Healthy Leadership.  Healthy servant leadership, that follows the example of Christ by serving the needs of God’s people through obedience to the will of God the Father.

Church leaders are not to lord it over those who are in their care, but are to be godly examples to God’s flock, leading diligently, and fulfilling their God given roles and responsibilities.

Healthy leaders will want to equip God’s people for works of service and will provide clear direction to the local congregation so that it can become increasingly healthy.

It is helpful also to recognise that leadership is not just provided by the minister and elders.  Leadership happens at all sorts of levels, from leading a Children’s Sunday Group programme to leading a maintenance team.

And because we want to see a healthy denomination, we also want healthy leadership in our Presbyteries and Boards.  That together we might be united in our pursuit of a Healthy Gospel Church.

Here are some ideas for encouraging healthy leadership.  As a church leadership team connect relationally with one another and do intentional team building.  Have a special away day for prayer and vision development.  Make sure there is clear communication with the congregation.  Demonstrate accountability and good listening.  Serve the members of the congregation, working for their good.  Create opportunities for others to do things in the life of the congregation.

We are hoping you are able to have a conversation about each of the seven areas with others in your congregation.  The discussion guide asks each of us to think about how we might grow in health in our interaction with church leaders?  And how our congregation might grow in this characteristic of healthy leadership?

Conclusion

In this video and discussion series we have been looking at seven characteristics of healthy Christians and healthy churches.  We have talked about Healthy Preaching, Healthy Worship, Healthy Prayer, Healthy Mission, Healthy Discipleship, Healthy Relationships, and Healthy Leadership.

This model that we have looked at is really just one possible model, but it is a helpful tool for considering the health of our congregations and for starting conversations.  There are lots of good ideas out there, and many things that you can share with others throughout the Free Church.

Do please continue to be intentional in thinking about, and working towards, greater spiritual health.  Keep these conversations going in your small groups and leadership teams.  How can I grow in spiritual health?  And how can I help my congregation grow in spiritual health?

Here is one final thought as we conclude this series.

One image or idea that some of us have found helpful is the image of a wooden barrel or bucket, with staves of different heights.  The bucket can only hold water up to the lowest point.  Similarly, the suggestion is that the local church can only be as healthy as the weakest of these seven areas.

So as we finish this series, we would like to ask you, on your own, or in your discussion group, to think about which of these seven areas needs the most attention in your life, and in the life of your congregation.

Perhaps begin by thinking about which areas are healthy, and give thanks to God for that.  And then think about which areas are weaker, and which area, to your mind, needs the most attention.

Is it Healthy Preaching, Healthy Worship, Healthy Prayer, Healthy Mission, Healthy Discipleship, Healthy Relationships, or Healthy Leadership?

The discussion guide, that is available below, also asks us to reflect on what we have learnt from our discussions and what we want to implement.

But more than anything, lets commit ourselves to pray for Healthy Gospel Churches, and to ask that God would strengthen the areas that most need work.

That together we would grow increasingly healthy as Christians, as congregations, and as a denomination.  And that under the lordship of Jesus Christ we would see A Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland.