Like people, churches can be healthy or unhealthy. Recently there has been a greater focus and interest in church health as opposed to simply church growth. This has led to a great deal of research into what constitutes and characterizes a healthy church.
Dysfunctional Church Defined
Dysfunctional church is a term used to describe a church that is not functioning as a healthy part of the body of Christ. Many people have been wounded and scarred by dysfunctional churches. A dysfunctional church is one in which many of those who attend are not in unity with Christ or in harmony with each other. They generally are not intentionally pursuing God's purposes. If they are, they are not expressing them in culturally or contextually appropriate ways in a balanced manner. Often they identify themselves as Christians who are sincere with good intentions of practicing biblical principles. But they are continually conflicted with combinations of imbalance or erroneous doctrine, fads, irresponsibility, incompetent or dysfunctional leadership, controversial government, and disciplinary problems. This results in strife, division, turmoil, ineffective ministry, wounded and confused people, and a negative reputation in the community. Not every church with problems is dysfunctional, for all churches face problems.
Healthy Church Defined
A healthy church functions as the body of Christ. Most of those who attend are in unity with Christ and in harmony with each other as a community of faith while intentionally pursuing God's purposes in culturally and contextually appropriate ways. This is expressed in four dimensions. First, they hold to right doctrine and truth and maintain spiritual passion. Second, they build loving holistic relationships combined with functional structures for effective ministry. Third, they demonstrate biblically appropriate roles, respect, and relationships between the pastor(s) and church leaders. Fourth, each individual walks in vibrant growing faith with God and others. (Adapted from John Marshall Crowe, The Four Dimensions of Church Health; ©1999)
How does a church become healthy? Health begins by intentionally building God's purposes for His church into our lives and ministries.
The purposes of the church are listed in various studies as worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, service, prayer, and stewardship. Although terms and lists may vary, the meaning remains consistent. One way to discuss God's plan for the church is to keep in mind that the Church is the bride of Christ. We can use the acronym WIFE'S to express the five purposes of the church or the responsibilities of the bride of Christ. The W is worship, I is instruction, F is fellowship, E is evangelism, and S is service.
The Church Is Like the Human Body
The human body has systems essential to health and fitness, i.e., respiratory, circulatory, digestive. If any system fails to serve its purpose, the body is dysfunctional.
Similarly, if any of God's purposes for the church is not intentionally developed, the church becomes dysfunctional. A church may have vibrant worship and a growing worship attendance. From appearances, the church is healthy and alive. But if the other four purposes are not strong in the church, the church will not develop mature believers.
Observations about Healthy and Dysfunctional Churches
Focusing only on part of the purposes causes the church to be unhealthy. Each of the purposes is valuable and essential. When all are not intentionally built into the life and ministry of the local church in a balanced manner, the church's strength becomes its greatest weakness. For example, a family church focusing on fellowship may develop such strong relationships that it fails to reach out to those who don't know Christ. Members are weak in the purpose of evangelism. They don't reproduce.
Which Style Is Your Church?
Experiencing God Church
Bible Teaching Church
Family Gathering Church
Reaching Out Church
Moral Cause Church
Whole Life Church
Balance of All Five
The passion and giftedness of leadership tends to determine the purpose(s) that are emphasized. If the leader's gifts and passion are for worship, the church may focus on and prioritize worship, and the other purposes are minimized. This attracts people drawn to the uplift of worship and may lead to an out-of-balance church culture. The imbalance in the life of the church and its ministries produces believers whose lives reflect this same imbalance. This is why it is so important to build a team of leaders who represent the five purposes.
Churches that have not built all five purposes in balance usually discover that conflicts over style, values, vision, and methods escalate. This happens because those who come into the church when a certain purpose is emphasized think that is the ideal and then seek to perpetuate it. This leads to factions within the church, with each group pushing the church to focus on the purpose they hold most dear.
Churches that have not developed a healthy balance of all five purposes in the life and processes of the church will be dysfunctional and will produce dysfunctional disciples. Except for the fact that God works in spite of us to develop disciples, the dysfunctional church cannot reproduce healthy, spiritual, reproducing disciples.
Dysfunction tends to perpetuate itself in another form. A church may move from an overemphasis on one purpose to an overemphasis on another. If there is not a healthy balance of all five purposes, the cycle will continue.
Healthy churches naturally reproduce healthy disciples. Healthy churches have become a proper expression of Christ in life and ministry. They create an environment that builds healthy disciples. Church is more than a place where people come to observe certain events and participate in activities. Spiritual maturity is not defined as faithfulness to events but as obedience to Christ. The healthy church becomes a dynamic community of believers who reflect the character and values of Christ to a world that needs hope and help. Healthy churches build spiritually healthy and functional disciples.
Breaking the cycle of dysfunction requires the church and leadership to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit and intentionally build all five purposes into the life and ministry of the church. Only with the help of the Holy Spirit and intentionally building in the five purposes in balance is it possible for a cycle of dysfunction to be broken. Only then is it possible for the church to be truly effective in reproducing spiritually productive disciples.
Clancy Hayes is training coordinator and district liaison for the Sunday School Department, Springfield, Missouri. Sunday School. All rights reserved. Used with permission.