Marks of a Healthy Church: Biblically Grounded
In recent months my wife and I have been thinking a lot about healthy eating. There is no shortage of information on the subject, from Internet blogs and websites to magazines, books, and articles. And everyone seems to have an opinion! More fruits, less meat. More meat, less carbs. Coffee is bad, a little coffee is good, coffee is great, and so on. It’s all so complex.
Yet one thing every health expert can agree on is this: vegetables are important. Really important. Especially the green ones. So go ahead and help yourself to an unlimited heaping plate of Brussels sprouts and your doctor will be proud.
And water. Lots of water. I have yet to hear someone ask me, “Could it be that you’re drinking too much water?”
After extensive research, we have discovered that by far and away the two most important staples of a healthy diet are . . . green vegetables and water (I was hoping that Chick-fil-A would crack the top two, but it didn’t even make honorable mention).
In this series of articles I am attempting to highlight some of the most important characteristics of a healthy church. But don’t worry, they’re more exciting than green beans and H2Yet they are basic. No real surprises here. There is nothing that I’m going to say that hasn’t already been said, nor that will surprise you. But sometimes, like with physical health, it’s helpful to take a step back and remember what is most important.
Last time we considered that any healthy church must be shaped by the glorious gospel of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. The gospel isn’t a slogan we tack on; it’s the essential message we preach, teach, and celebrate.
But there is more to a healthy church than this. In addition to being gospel-shaped, our churches must be biblically grounded. Of course, you could make an excellent claim that this should have come first. The gospel we treasure is revealed in the Word God has given.
What does it mean to be biblically grounded? Every Protestant church I know claims to be Bible-believing, and thanks be to God, many of them are. We should praise God for the unity we share with other denominations that elevate the Word of God above tradition and the philosophies of this age.
Yet my concern in this article is to consider what it means to be biblically grounded when it’s easier to say it than to be it.
Churches are spiritually healthy when the Bible is shaping them in at least the following three ways: when the Word is prioritized, known, and shared.
When the Word Is Prioritized
This year we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the start of the Protestant Reformation. Among the most important reforms was a return to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority.
Next time we’ll consider the importance of our Reformed confessions in shaping our identity as churches, yet a warning must be issued. Our confessions are not inerrant, infallible, or inspired by the Holy Spirit.
And while we all know this, there is a practical danger. This came to my attention several years ago when I was teaching a new members class. One of the attendees was a man who grew up in a confessionally Reformed church. As I was teaching on the relationship between the Scriptures and the confessions, he admitted that as a kid he was quite confused. His church preached through the Bible one service, and through the catechism the other service, so he figured they were equal.
Now I have no doubt that this would horrify the church where he grew up. I’m certain they had no intention of communicating this. Yet, this was his perception. He grew up concluding that the confessions were just as important as the Bible. And that’s a problem.
How do we avoid this same trap in churches where we use the Reformed confessions in our services and in our preaching?
Pastors, teachers, and parents need to be clear and intentional. We need to communicate what the confessions aren’t, what the Scriptures are, and the difference between the two. I’m not suggesting that they are pitted against each other; this would be a false dichotomy. We’ve never said that the confessions are authoritative, nor do the confessions themselves claim to be. Yet we must bend over backwards to teach our people, our kids, and our visitors that we prioritize the Bible. That it, alone, is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.
When Paul addresses Timothy, he doesn’t say, “In season and out of season, preach the catechism!” He says, “Preach the Word.” So as we use the catechism as a scaffold, let us make sure that it serves the Word, not the other way around.
Another way we ought to be prioritizing the Word in our churches is in our worship and discipleship. Our services and studies should be robustly scriptural. We should be singing Scripture (see the Psalms), praying Scripture, preaching Scripture, and hearing Scripture. Our Bible studies, too. While it might be appropriate at times to cover topics, there is nothing quite like studying the Word together. The Bible transforms our minds!
When the Word Is Known
We are living in biblically illiterate days, and the church is a big part of the problem. Dr. Albert Mohler, in “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem,” writes, “Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments.” He continues: “Secularized Americans should not be expected to be knowledgeable about the Bible. The larger scandal is biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same. America’s Christians know less and less about the Bible. It shows.” He concludes: “We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs. The many fronts of Christian compromise in this generation can be directly traced to biblical illiteracy in the pews and the absence of biblical preaching and teaching in our homes and churches.”
We can hold up sola Scriptura all we want, but the Bible was never meant to collect dust on our shelves or in our pews. Healthy churches are churches where the Bible is known, studied, examined, discussed, memorized, and taught.
To know the Word is to know God. If we don’t know the Word, we don’t know God. And if we don’t know God, we can’t be healthy.
Let me press this close to home. How well attended are our adult Sunday school classes? Our adult Bible studies? Our evening services? Have our adults graduated from needing to learn more about the Word? Or are we on cruise control now that we’ve made profession of faith? Satan’s trickery includes his ability to persuade lifelong church members that they already know enough about the Bible.
When the Word Is Shared with Others
The final indication that a church is truly biblically grounded is when the the Scriptures are faithfully and eagerly shared with others.
The Word has a way of multiplying. The more we study it, the more we want to share it. Like dining at a great restaurant or visiting the Grand Canyon, we want to share our experience with others.
If the Bible bores us, we’ll have no interest in telling others about it. But when it interests and captivates us, we can’t help but want others to bask in its glory.
Healthy churches have fathers sharing the Word at home in family worship. Healthy churches have women gathering around the study of the Bible. Healthy churches send missionaries who love reaching the lost with the gospel. Healthy churches have Sunday school teachers who are eager to pass on the faith to the next generation. Healthy churches know the Word, and the God of the Word, and want others to know God in his Word, too. And healthy churches treasure the opportunity to make the Word plain to visitors, to explain why we do what we do as churches, and to point them to the hero and center of Scripture, Jesus Christ.
We all want to be Bible-believing. But these can easily become empty words. In churches where Scripture grounds everything, the Word is prioritized, known, and shared. May this be our prayer: “Let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
Rev. Michael J. Schout is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.