Three markers of healthy and unhealthy churches 

After serving dozens of churches as a pastor or consultant, I have concluded that there is no single formula for health.

There is no array of attributes that can be assembled to guarantee health. There is no package of fixes that can be implemented, no checklists that can be applied everywhere.

Yet you can walk in the door of any church and know fairly soon whether it is healthy or unhealthy. Health and unhealth are different. They sound different and look different. Healthy churches make good decisions and handle crises capably. Unhealthy churches consistently make poor decisions, and the normal crises of community life undo them.

Here are the three markers that a healthy church will show.

OTHER-ORIENTED. The healthy church is fundamentally oriented toward other people. Sunday worship focuses on visitors, strangers and the not-yet-affiliated. The unhealthy church, by contrast, takes its cues from longtime members.

The healthy church looks beyond its walls to see the surrounding community, to discern and to serve its needs. The unhealthy church, by contrast, looks inward, worries about keeping members happy and pays special attention to large givers.

The healthy church talks in the many languages and interests of the world. It is consistently seeking to communicate with people it doesn’t yet know. It spends generously on tech-savvy communications. The unhealthy church, by contrast, serves up insider language to a controlled cadre of known constituents.

BEYOND SUNDAY MORNING. The healthy church doesn’t over-spend on Sunday morning. It does Sunday worship, but not to the exclusion of other ways to nurture community and to serve emerging constituencies. The unhealthy church, by contrast, spends the vast majority of its resources staffing, housing and supporting Sunday worship.

The healthy church encourages small groups, where people can engage with each other face to face. The unhealthy church, by contrast, channels people toward sitting in a pew on Sunday.

The healthy church respects its pastors and needs its pastors, but the focus is on empowering all people, helping everyone to encounter God in their lives. The unhealthy church, by contrast, is pastor-centered and hierarchical, sees a few laity as helpers of pastors and all others as an audience.

CHANGE IS WELCOME. The healthy church embraces risk, failure and change. It is open to new ideas and willing to spend on unproven projects. Entrepreneurs are encouraged, and failure is seen as an opportunity to learn. The unhealthy church, by contrast, resists new ideas and resents those who propose them. It sees risk as dangerous. It pounces on failure.

The healthy church sees its role as transformational: helping God to transform the lives of God’s beloved, even daring to dream of transforming entire communities. The unhealthy church, by contrast, places ultimate value on sameness, consistency and not making waves in the community.

The healthy church respects its pastors and needs its pastors, but the focus is on empowering all people, helping everyone to encounter God in their lives.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.