Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Seven Marks of a Healthy Church

Continuing the exploration of healthy church - Robert Warren's excellent 'Healthy Churches Handbook' contains a number of helpful steps. I've used these headings to provoke discussion amongst leaders in various contexts over the years, also finding them personally useful in my own setting. Whilst Warren writes to provoke life in established Anglican churches that have lost their purpose, his challenge remains relevant and provocative for those of us who consider ourselves to be in more progressive movements.

Understanding Warren's primary target church audience means we are not going to import everything he suggests, but the thinking process involved in his seven 'marks' is well worthwhile. I will simply paraphrase his marks below without comment. As you reflect on your own context, you will find they speak for themselves and leave you making mental notes and adjustments. They may even send you running for the whiteboard with your leadership team! Perhaps I will comment in more details on specific steps in future blogs.

A healthy church demonstrates life and fruitfulness in each of these seven areas.

1/ A healthy church is energised by faith.
Not just keeping going or trying to survive. Expecting in worship for people to experience God's dynamic presence. Motivated by an energy to serve God and each other. Engaging honestly with the scriptures in creative ways that connect to real lives. Nurturing faith in Christ over time, which helps people to grow as well as share their own lives.

2/ A healthy church has an outward focus.
It carries a 'whole life' concern that is so much greater than just church life. Deeply rooted in the local community and working with other believing churches, even business and local networks. This will demonstrate a prophetic stance about peace and justice, connecting faith with regular, daily lives and responding to real needs with acts of compassionate service.

3/ A healthy church seeks to find out what God wants.
Discerning the Spirit's leading rather than trying to please everyone. Asking the questions, who has God called us to be. Developing and communicating a shared sense of where we are called to go, then setting deliberate mission centred goals which help us to get there. Enabling people to make sacrifices in order to bring about this change and living out our faith together.

4/ A healthy church faces the cost of change and growth.
Conversely, an unhealthy church resists change and fears failure. We can embrace the past, but dare to take on new ways of doing things. We are free to take risks when things have not been working, learning from experience, responding creatively to challenges which face the church. A healthy church makes change a positive experience, affirming and building on even small, incremental changes.

5/ A healthy church operates as a community.
We are not functioning as a club or a religious organisation. So relationships that cause people to feel accepted must be nurtured in small groups. Leadership works as a team to demonstrate community in decision making and establishing health and life. In this safe family context, volunteer ministry is valued, and all the gifts are given expression and room to grow.

6/ A healthy church makes room for all.
We are inclusive rather than exclusive. Welcoming to newcomers, from children and young people to adult enquirers. This welcome is evidenced by our deliberate plan to help people belong and to be nurtured in their faith. A healthy church must be diverse - Different social and ethnic backgrounds, mental and physical abilities, all ages - this diversity is seen as a strength.

7/ A healthy church does a few things and does them well.
We are focussed rather than frenetic. We seek to do the basics well such as our public worship, pastoral care, stewardship and administration. Our work and call is good news - So we enjoy what we are called to do, and we remain relaxed about what is not being done. We are clear and coherent in our activities, linking them back into our discovery in mark 3 of the unique calling that God has placed on us in our context.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Healthy church - Tolkien v Friends

In our early church planting days, we were hugely impacted by an influential book called 'Natural Church Development' by Christian Schwarz. It was such a fresh voice at the time amongst a raft of church growth books, in that Schwarz majored on qualitative development in church communities, rather than just strategies for numerical growth.

Over the years since, these principles remain valid, although I now prefer to talk about 'Healthy church' and to shy away from any strategies that seek to overquantify growth in percentage terms.

Essentially, church communities who have prayerfully assessed their strengths and weaknesses, aware of their unique culture and context, will begin to engage more fruitfully with the mission that God has for them. This focus on the quality of our life and call together, rather than just a count of numbers attending, is a much more truthful measure of life.

God has given us a model in nature - A healthy plant will simply grow. Give it the right conditions, and the DNA takes over, growth and life comes, up to the measure that is inbuilt within it. So it can be with local churches, rooted in the nurturing soil of God's presence and purpose.

What does this look like in practice? Healthy churches see no tension with the question that so many wrestle with - are we here for the lost or for discipleship? Are we here for mission or for worship? Inward or outward?
A healthy church says a resounding 'Yes' to each of these questions - seeking to find what God uniquely wants for us in our context, facing the necessary change, and going after these few things as a community, but with the intention of living them out excellently and authentically.

A healthy church says 'Yes' to a DNA which naturally embraces both inward and outward ideals without conflict or imbalance. Loving The Lord with all our hearts and loving our neighbours inside and outside of the church community become the the integrating principals.
This is more organic than organised though, shaped around mission, not around ministry. A healthy church prioritises mission, simply doing ministry and one anothering on the journey, we begin to create a community on the move not in a cuddle huddle. 
What do such healthy church communities look like in practise? Well, it depends where you are and who you are. But look behind the context and a healthy church should look much more like a Tolkien adventure than an episode of Friends, growing old together and never venturing out of the apartment!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Lost Generation

I've been listening to the Rizzle Kicks on the radio on the drive into town today, with their sound commentary on the vacuum of real life for the average 21st century Brit. Those Rizzle boys may be fresh faced, but they do behavioural studies like old pros, grasping the emptiness that leaves a gnawing hunger in the unsatisfied hearts of our lost generation.

The underlying question is one of what or who we are worshipping-  Really? We all give ourselves to something, someone. A person, a lover, a child, work, money, sport. We define worship with this question - What or who are you giving yourself to? 
As men and women made in God's image, we are designed to give ourselves, dedicate ourselves to Him. That's how life is supposed to work: We're designed to live out our adventures within the deep safety of a secure relationship with God. In a hostile chaotic world, God still calls us to dedicate ourselves into his care and purpose.

It's always been that way. The big story of the bible gives us the boy Samuel, living in his own version of a lost generation. No knowledge of God, his peers had given themselves away cheaply, dedicated to foreign Gods, each to his own way. It's no surprise to find the comment that the word of the Lord was rare and there were not many visions. The light and glory of God had left the people. This was made physical as the Ark of the promise was taken by their enemies, the very symbol of God's presence with them - gone! A lost generation indeed.
Dedicated by his previously barren mother Hannah into God's active service, Samuel was ready to live the rest of his life in the temple for God's purpose and the sake of his people.

So what would our lives of dedication look like, were we to give ourselves fully to the cause of Christ? We don't live in the rarified atmosphere of the temple like Samuel, we are immersed in the confusion of our communities. Yet we are called to be set apart in the same way for the purpose of God in our lost generation. Each one of us, to come out of lostness - Out of the sterile barrenness of our beginnings, and into a new life of fulness and direction for Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. Leaving behind all the wrong things we prioritise for our dedication, all the idols we wastefully worship, all the dead ends and cul de sacs we blindly chase down. 

The early church came out of their lost generation and instead devoted themselves to the apostles teaching… God and to one another. So they were said to shine like stars in a wicked and depraved generation. Bright lights of dedication, beacons that shine clearly in a squalid and polluted climate. Now I think that's what the Rizzle Kicks are trying to communicate?!