I want to be careful here not to do what I detest in others, namely, making my church out to be the model of what all churches should be. There is something about pastoral smugness that makes me want to stick a hot french fry up someone's nose and pray for them while they unintentionally speak in tongues.
That said, God has been very good to us at the church I am blessed to pastor, and there are indeed some things that are pretty good indicators of a healthy church. And my intention for writing this is neither to praise us nor to discourage anyone else but to give some good targets to strive for and to point out potential weaknesses to address as churches everywhere strive to serve the Lord for the long term.
On Sunday morning, after I teach my adult Sunday School class, I slip back into my office for a few moments before the worship service starts. But about five minutes to 11, I almost always slip back into the back corner of the auditorium unobserved, close my eyes and just listen.
It is the best of paradoxes, a happy cacophony.
There is a general ambiance of many voices, mixing with lots of laughter, happy squeals from children and crying from several babies. On the low end of the spectrum, there are many deep bass voices, our men hanging out in groups discussing who knows what. I can hear not-so-good music coming from the platform; some of our musicians are teaching different kids how to play the bass, the guitar, the violin, the piano, the electric drum set or the mandolin. Today's apprentices will end up being regular musicians as the years go on.
The door going out the back of the auditorium is being opened and shut repeatedly. People are coming up to the church from fellowshipping out in our family life center. It is, in the words of the Grinch, "noise noise noise noise!" But my heart is gladdened by it, and I have no desire to make it stop; happy noises mean that there are people of all ages and that they are glad to be there.
Finally, I must open my eyes and head onto the platform. I go off to the side and pick up a mandolin or the bass guitar as needed. Our congregational song leader opens the worship with a hymn. Young and old blend their voices as they sing songs loaded both with joy and with solid biblical doctrine. Then the choir comes up, and the choir leader takes the worship from there. Men, women and children fill up the choir loft and raise their hands in praise as they smile and sing. In the early days of the church, I had to lead both the congregational singing and the choirs. Now I lead only the youth choir; others capably do all of the rest.
My assistant comes up after the choir and gives announcements. He and his wife and son are such a blessing to our church, and he does a fantastic job at all that he does here, including leading our soul-winning visitation. We are having people saved and families join because of their efforts.
When the special singing starts, it is what I call "wonderful whiplash." It often moves from a four-part a capella men's quarter to a very Southern-sounding husband and wife duet, with him playing the guitar to a classical Christian piano number that is done well enough to be in Carnegie Hall, to our lady Hawaiian soloist who could sing a solo for the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. None of them are even remotely similar; all of them sing and play with skill and the touch of God on them.
As I go into the pulpit to preach, I see that most everyone has a Bible ready to open. And the people holding them are every color of the human spectrum. They sit side by side as forever family and dear friends as they learn the Word together.
When I have finished my message, the most crucial sign of health at all is seen: People flood the altars. And I mean every single service. I do not take this for granted at all; it is worth more than the wealth of all the world. Hearing the Word means very little if that Word is not responded to. But having the altar and the front pew and sometimes even the choir loft full of people praying during the invitation means that people are doing business with God over what they have heard. And for my part, I stay pretty quiet during that time. They have already heard me preach; this is now between them and God.
After service, people hang around and fellowship in the vestibule and front porch and parking lot. Kids go swing on the swings while their parents catch up. It takes a long while for everyone to go, and I am thrilled with that.
A healthy church is normally going to be noisy and maybe a bit messy. And the more age and people groups well represented, the better. Lots of different people will be serving. The church will be reaching out into the community with the message that sin is still horrible, but there is a God who can forgive and change lives and that there is a group of people who love you and want to see that happen. The worship will probably not be monolithic -- godly but definitely not cookie-cutter.
The Bible will be front and center, and most everyone will have one and be following along in it. A church can no more be healthy without Bible preaching and teaching being the main thing than a building can be solid without having a foundation. And people will respond; they will not just learn information; they will seek transformation. And having done all of that together, they will love spending time with each other because they have all of the most important things in common.
You Bible-believing churches and pastors out there, know that I am pulling for you. Be healthy, and do great things for God where he has planted you!
Bo Wagner is pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church of Mooresboro, North Carolina, a widely traveled evangelist and the author of several books available on Amazon and at wordofhismouth.com. Email him at email@example.com.