Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever
Another distinguishing mark of a healthy church is a pervasive concern with church growth–not simply with growing numbers, but with growing members. Some today think that one can be a “baby Christian” for a whole lifetime. Growth is seen to be an optional extra for particularly zealous disciples. But growth is a sign of life. Growing trees are living trees, and growing animals are living animals. Growth involves increase and advance. In many areas of our experience, when something stops growing it dies.
Paul hoped the Corinthians would grow in their Christian faith (II Corinthians 10:15). The Ephesians, he hoped, would “grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ” (Ephesians 4:15; cf. Colossians 1:10; II Thessalonians 1:3). Peter exhorted some early Christians to, “like newborn babes, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (I Peter 2:2). It is tempting for pastors to reduce their churches to manageable statistics of attendance, baptisms, giving and membership, where growth is tangible; however, such statistics fall far short of the true growth which Paul describes and God desires.
Holiness is Evidence of Growth
In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards suggested that true growth in Christian discipleship is not finally mere excitement, increasing use of religious language, or growing knowledge of Scripture. It is not even an evident increase in joy or in love or concern for the church. Even increases in zeal and praise to God and con- fidence of one’s own faith are not infallible evidences of true Christian growth. What is? According to Edwards, while all these may be evidences of true Christian growth, the only certain observable sign is a life of increasing holiness, rooted in Christian self-denial. The church should be marked by a vital concern for this kind of increasing godliness in the lives of its members.
Neglect of Discipline Impedes Growth
As we saw in the seventh mark, one of the unintended consequences of a church’s neglect of proper discipline is increased difficulty in growing disciples. In an undisciplined church, examples are unclear and models are confused. No gardener sets out to plant weeds. Weeds are in themselves undesirable, and they can have bad effects on the plants around them. God’s plan for the local church does not allow us to leave weeds unchecked.
A Community Growing Together
Good influences in a covenant community of believers can be tools in God’s hand for growing His people. As God’s people are built up and grow together in holiness and self-giving love, they should improve their ability to administer discipline and to encourage discipleship. The church has an obligation to be a means of God’s growing people in grace. If instead they are places where only the pastor’s thoughts are taught, where God is questioned more than He is worshipped, where the gospel is diluted and evangelism perverted, where church membership is made meaningless, and a worldly cult of personality is allowed to grow up around the pastor, then one can hardly expect to find a community that is either cohesive or edifying. Such a church certainly will not glorify God.
Appearance of Growth
God is glorified by churches that are growing. That growth can appear in many different ways: through growing numbers being called to missions; by older members beginning to get a fresh sense of their responsibility in evangelism; by funerals many of the younger members of the congregation attend simply out of their love for the older members; by increased praying, and desire for increased preaching; by church meetings characterized by genuinely spiritual conversation; by increased giving, and by givers giving more sacrificially; by more members sharing the gospel with others; by parents rediscovering their responsibility to educate their children in the faith. These are just a few examples of the kind of church growth Christians pray and work for.
God is Glorified in Growth
When we do see a church that is composed of members growing in Christ-likeness, who gets the credit or glory? “God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (I Corinthians 3:6b-7; cf. Colossians 2:19). So Peter’s final benediction to those early Christians he wrote to was a prayer couched in the imperative: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen” (II Peter 3:18). We might think that our growth would bring glory to ourselves. But Peter knew better. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (I Peter 2:12). He obviously remembered Jesus’ words, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds”–and surely here we would think that it would be only natural to fall into the trap of self-admiration, but Jesus continued– “and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Working to promote Christian discipleship and growth is another mark of a healthy church.
Questions for Reflection
- Read I Peter 2:1-3. What is Peter’s hope for these Christians? What does he mean by “grow up” in salvation?
- Some people believe that “church growth” means only growth in numbers. Read Acts 2:41. Why do you think the number of converts was recorded? Now read the rest of chapter 2. Would the great numbers of converts have been glorifying to God if they had not also been growing in holiness? Why or why not?
- The author writes that weeds can have bad effects on the plants around them. In what ways can undisciplined, sinful church members negatively affect the growth of Christians around them? How can good influences in a church be tools in God’s hand for growing His people? Can you think of some examples in your own church?
- What are some ways that God is glorified by a spiritually maturing church? How many of these things do you see consistently in the life of your own church?