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.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

6 Responses

  1. overton says:

    Please throw away that NIV translation, it’s an abomination. One that only contributes towards greater confusion, exceptionalism, and negation. Poor Paul truly suffers gross indignities throughout its pages. Conservatives crave an existence defined in absolutes, however, deeper reflection upon scripture tends to belie such notions. Traditionally, I Corinthians 13:1 begins with the word ‘though’; a conditional expression that is inclusive of one, or perhaps many, conditions. ‘If’ is a conditional word of Boolean absolutes; something either is or is not. Subtle points, however, I believe the cumulative effect of many similar translational adjustments results in a potential for drastic deviation of initial premises. That is to say, the core foundational concepts upon which we build our Faith—is it to be one of inclusion, universal acceptance and forgiveness, or rather, one of exclusion, condemnation and judgement?

    By which criteria shall we choose to define the ‘healthy church’? If nothing else, ought not the text be consistent with the message of the faith? So, where do you stand?

    • I really only cited the NIV here because that’s the default on Bible Gateway. I don’t have the hatred for it that you do, but I don’t have any particular love for it either. I don’t have a deep training in the Greek but I know that prepositions are typically the hardest to translate because there are a lot of things which are valid to the original word. Not sure I ever read into the use of “if” at all, though – doesn’t mean you don’t have a point, I’d just never thought to conclude from “if” that there are only two absolutist options.

      To me, “healthy church” primarily means “church that looks like Jesus.” I think Stearns’ five markers of unhealthy churches are all examples of ways that large portions of the Western Church have stopped looking like Jesus.

      • overton says:

        It’s not a matter of hatred. I do have objections derived from rational concern.
        Subtle, seemingly innocuous changes can radically alter or negate meaning.
        By way of example, let’s contrast a brief passage from Micah 4:
        “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and
        no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
        All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the
        name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.” — Micah 4:4-5 NIV

        “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.
        For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.” –Micah 4:4-5 King James

        The choice of conjunctions, ‘but’ & ‘and’, in the middle verse 5 illustrate the point.
        ‘, but we will walk…’ makes the passage one of separation and exclusion–a class of people set apart.

        ‘, and we will walk…’ makes the passage one of unity and inclusion–a condition of coexistence
        So, which text ought we choose? Which best conveys the Faith of the living Christ as we perceive it?

        In some ways, this dilemma was touched upon in the Femonite’s recent blog entry, ‘Evangelical?..’
        I found the following from her post most poignant:
        “Truly embracing interreligious life together would mean holding tight to
        my own convictions, and speaking about them widely, while also being
        willing to hear others speak about their own beliefs. It meant that,
        when I spoke, I could still be convincing without expecting conversion.
        We could all still sow small seeds of belief among each other, gleaning
        hope and wisdom from each other’s traditions.”
        [ http://www.femonite.com/2013/08/25/evangelical-what-who-me-huh/ ]

        It speaks of a faith that is secure and respectful, one that embraces and
        invites. Of the two translations above, which best addresses that

        In summation, I am concerned that the NIV, and other translations of its
        ilk, serve more to impede rather than promote Christ’s messages of Faith.

        We are all children of God, Peace to you.


        “Prove All Things, Hold Fast That Which Is Good”

        • Sorry for the unnecessarily strong word “hatred.” I did not mean to imply that you did not have your reasons.

          I see what you mean. Contrary to what some would claim, translation always requires interpretation, and there are a wide range of interpretive philosophies as well as a wide range of biases. I recall from both Greek and Hebrew that but/and are the same word, so it does come down largely to interpretation on which to use. I’m not sure your example is the best one – I see the wording as offering clear distinction but not necessarily exclusivity or judgement either way – but I agree with your point.

          Since you seem to be very knowledgeable about translations, may I ask: what is your preferred translation?

          • overton says:

            Of those on-line versions available on Bible Gateway, my preference tends to favor the American Standard (ASV), the King James (KJV), and the Authorized King James (AKJV). It is interesting, too, as
            a matter of curiosity cross-referencing the 1599 Geneva (GNV) available on that web site.
            Bible Hub offers the Webster’s Bible Translation. Their site seems easier to
            negotiate. The parallel translation interface offered there includes the Aramaic Bible in Plain English.

            I must have a soft spot for those translations more directly connected to the Peshitta for it seems the one version I consult the most in the actual world would have to be the Holy Bible
            From the Ancient Eastern Text, George M. Lamsa’s Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta.

          • overton says:

            One is reminded of Hebrews 5:13-14. From milk we graduate to strong meat.