5 Markers of an Unhealthy Church
To put it bluntly, Unfinished by Richard Stearns was starting to get a little boring. He was saying a lot of the same things over and over again and mostly seemed to be tiptoeing around them to avoid offending somebody too much.
Then I hit chapter 13 and he seems to suddenly stop holding his punches, offering up 5 ways to tell whether your church has stopped acting within its role as an outpost for the Kingdom of God. I would probably argue that the first one, valuing belief over behaviour, is a major factor in creating the other problems so I’ll start there:
So many of our churches have hung their hats on right belief. We will stand on solid ground only as long as we believe the right things: about salvation, the Trinity, free will and predestination, heaven and hell, the rapture, and fill in the blank— marriage, divorce, Israel, sexuality, evolution, abortion, big government, and so on. Over the centuries cherished beliefs not only have caused a great deal of strife and division within the church but also have been used often as judgmental clubs to alienate those outside the church. But loving our enemies, living with integrity, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and being generous with our possessions don’t ever seem to divide or make enemies. Sometimes we believe so passionately that we are right that we end up being dead right, chasing away the very people Christ wants us to reach with his love.
Stearns, Richard (2013-04-30). Unfinished (Kindle Locations 3103-3109). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
That doesn’t mean that right belief doesn’t matter at all, of course, but it is pretty useless on its own. The apostle Paul put it this way in the text that we usually ignore because we think of it just as a feel-good text for weddings (remember that love does not mean feeling good but is rather a disposition of serving others no matter the cost, as Jesus exemplified):
If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-3)
This attitude has led us to emphasizing explanation instead of exhortation, Stearns’ second marker. Exhortation is a call to arms, pressing the urgent nature of changing something about your life. Explanation explains what they think is the truth, fairly detached from consequences. If all that matters is thinking, of course we don’t need to exhort people to help build the Kingdom. They just have to think about it.
We have also become inward-looking instead of outward-looking, a third way of identifying your church as unhealthy. When our priorities are to be right instead of loving, we usually quickly define ourselves in opposition to somebody else who is wrong, particularly in Protestantism. We want to stay away from those people, keep them out of our churches or at the very least don’t go out to try to love them where they are like Jesus did.
We have become apathetic, or at least bored, instead of outraged at how much in the world is not lining up with God’s Kingdom goals. Sometimes we even sit around and make theologies explaining why evil exists instead of trying to stop it. I think that this is again rooted, at least in part, on the obsession with having our theologies right. It lets us ignore the clear commands of Jesus in order to make sure we have the abstract ideas about Jesus correct (which since we’ll never be certain of many of these things, we’ll waste our entire lives discussing).
And lastly, we have prioritized institution over revolution. The institution is comfortable. The institution thinks like us. The institution doesn’t push us too far because they know they might lose us and our donations if they do. Yeah, we may not really be changing the world the way that Jesus calls us to, but we like it and why mess with a good thing even if we’re being promised a great thing instead?
So, how does your church stack up? Many are doing very well; I, like Stearns, do not want to condemn all Christians or all institutional churches. Part of the problem is that we don’t hear the stories of the millions of Christians faithfully sacrificing for the Kingdom. Many are not doing as well, though, and these probably are good markers to get yourself back on track.