The subject of church health is less precise than the subject of church growth. Unlike the latter the former does not have the coherence of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) nor does it have formidable spokesmen that Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner had been for the latter. As a result, each advocate of church health has his own definition and set of characteristics for what constitutes church health.
The purpose of this review of church health literature is to scope from among the significant authors on this subject for their understanding and criteria of church health. These views of church health may be classified under three broad categories: The Principle, the Biblical, and the Organic-Missional approaches.1 This is not to say that the principle approach is unbiblical or non-missional. It is. However, its emphasis is on the principles of church health. The same can be said of the other two approaches that make much of their own emphasis.
In this article I will review two significant publications that represent each of these approaches. Due to the limitation on the length of the article, the second book in each approach is given less treatment than the first book. I conclude this review of church health literature with a discussion on how all three approaches together may help toward a greater understanding of church health.
THE PRINCIPLE APPROACH TO CHURCH HEALTH
The principle approach looks at what constitutes church health characteristics from both Scripture and practice of church life and ministry. Then it looks at how a church is to improve along the quality scale of these characteristics so that it becomes a healthier church.
Christian A. Schwarz is one of the most quoted proponents for this approach on church health.2 His teaching on church health is found in his basic text titled Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches3 and a later publication called Color Your World with Natural Church Development: Experiencing all that God has designed you to be which was written for Christians to apply NCD principles at the personal level.4 Arising from his extensive research that covered churches around the globe,5 he determined that there are eight quality characteristics that all churches must have. They are: (1) empowering leadership, (2) gift-oriented ministry, (3) passionate spirituality, (4) functional structures, (5) inspiring worship service, (6) holistic small groups, (7) need-oriented evangelism, and (8) loving relationships.
The health of a church is reflected in the overall quality of these characteristics found in the church. The health is determined through a quantitative survey done among selected members of the church.6 Furthermore, NCD research reveals that if every quality characteristic scores 65 and above on their rating scale then the church is inevitably a growing church. This is known as the “65 hypothesis.”7 The point of this approach to church health is for a church to keep improving on the quality of all eight characteristics. The greatest attention, though, is to be given to the lowest quality characteristic because the growth of the church cannot rise beyond the level of that characteristic. This is termed the “minimum factor.”8
The strategy also calls for the incorporation of NCD’s six biotic principles: (1) interdependence, (2) multiplication, (3) energy transformation, (4) multi-usage, (5) symbiosis, and (6) functionality. These principles are biotic in nature because a church is an organism and not a machine.9 When these principles are applied they “create an environment that will allow God’s growth automatisms—with which He Himself builds the church.”10 NCD stresses the development of an environment in a church where the church can grow. In other words, church health naturally11 or automatically12 leads to church growth. Schwarz terms it “The ‘all-by-itself’ principle”13 found in the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29).
Another principle approach to church health is found in Stephen A. Macchia’s Becoming a Healthy Church: 10 Characteristics.14 The ten characteristics were determined from a survey done among the Vision New England churches15 where Macchia served as its president from 1989 to 2003. The study did not only help Macchia and his team to determine the ten characteristics, it also helped them rank the characteristics. They are: Level 1 – How I relate with God: (1) God’s empowering presence, (2) God-exalting worship, (3) spiritual disciplines. Level 2 – How I relate with my church family: (4) learning and growing in community, (5) a commitment to loving and caring relationships, (6) servant-leadership development. Level 3 – How my church ministers and manages: (7) an outward focus, (8) wise administration and accountability, (9) networking with the body of Christ, and (10) stewardship and generosity.16
One of the key concepts for church health advocates is “balance”—a balanced pursuit and presence of all the essential elements or characteristics of a church. Macchia stresses it.17 Schwarz speaks of the “harmonious interplay of all eight elements.”18 Rick Warren posits that “the five New Testament purpose of the church must be in equilibrium with the others for health to occur.”19 Nelson Searcy who takes a systems-approach to church health states that “The eight systems of every church are interconnected. While some may be more developed than others, none of these systems can stand alone.”20 Hence, there is a need to ensure that all the systems in the church are functioning properly at a high level and in balance with one another.
Church health proponents have varying opinions as to what constitutes the essential characteristics of church health. Sometimes it is simply the use of different terminologies or different ways of classification. Barring this, the principle approach rightly recognises that the quality level of these characteristics in a church determine the overall health of the church. Since they are all important, a high quality level for every characteristic and balance among them are key to the health of the church.
One of the features of the principle approach is that it is not simply theoretical and descriptive about what a healthy church should look like. Many of them have developed tools to evaluate the health of the church based on their criteria of church health characteristics. NCD has its 91-question Natural Church Development Survey.21 Macchia, who went to found Leadership Transformation Inc., developed the Church Health Assessment Tool (CHAT) with 72 questions covering the ten characteristics.22 These objective instruments are necessary to produce quantifiable data and measurable results to accurately assess the health of a church.