What Every Church Should Aspire to Be: Healthy

Mark Dever , Pastor, Author

[Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from What is a Healthy Church? (Crossway, 2007).]

If you're a Christian parent, what do you want for your kids? If you're a Christian kid, what do you want for your family?

Probably you want a number of attributes to increasingly mark your family: love, joy, holiness, unity, and reverence before the Lord. You can probably think of a number of items. But let's try to sum up all those qualities with one not very exciting word: healthy. You want a healthy family—a family that works and lives and loves together as God designed the family to do.

So it is for our churches. I propose that Christians, whether pastors or church members, should aspire to have healthy churches.

Maybe there's a better word to describe what the church should be than "healthy." After all, we're talking about the people purchased by the blood of the eternal Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords—is "healthy" the best that I can come up with? Yet I like the word healthy because it communicates the idea of a body that's living and growing as it should. It may have its share of problems. It's not been perfected yet. But it's on the way. It's doing what it should do because God's Word is guiding it.

I often tell my congregation that when it comes to battling sin in our lives, the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that non-Christians sin whereas Christians don't. The difference is found in which sides we take in the battle. Christians take God's side against sin, whereas non-Christians take sin's side against God. In other words, a Christian will sin, but then he will turn to God and his Word and say, "Help me fight against sin." A non-Christian, even if he recognizes his sin, effectively responds, "I want my sin more than God."

A healthy church is not a church that's perfect and without sin. It has not figured everything out. Rather, it's a church that continually strives to take God's side in the battle against the ungodly desires and deceits of the world, our flesh, and the devil. It's a church that continually seeks to conform itself to God's Word.

Let me give you a more precise definition: A healthy church is a congregation that increasingly reflects God's character as his character has been revealed in his Word.

So if a pastor were to ask me what kind of church I would encourage him to aspire to have, I might say, "A healthy one, one that increasingly reflects God's character as it has been revealed in his Word."

And Christian, what kind of church might I encourage you to join and serve and patiently work toward? A healthy one, one that increasingly reflects God's character as it has been revealed in his Word.

If you were reading carefully, you noticed that I kept saying "might." I said "might" for two reasons. First, I don't want to suggest that this is the only way for us to describe what churches should be. Different occasions and purposes might call for different descriptions. An author might want to respond to legalism or licentiousness in churches, and so begin his description by claiming, "The most important thing our churches can be is cross-centered." I would say "amen" to that. Or an author might want to respond to the lack of Scripture in our churches, in which case he might call for Bible-centered churches. Again, I would say, "amen."

Second, I don't want to presume that someone couldn't better articulate what I'm trying to get at. This is, quite simply, the best I can presently do to explain what I believe is the central biblical goal for what we should generally aspire to in our churches—reflecting the character of God as it's been revealed in his Word.

What Christian doesn't want that?

Thoroughly Equipped

Imaging God's character as it's been revealed in his Word means, quite naturally, beginning with God's Word. Why should we turn there, and not to "whatever works" in determining what our churches should do and be? In Paul's second letter to Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus, he told Timothy that the Bible would "equip him for every good work." In other words, there are no good works for which Scripture would not equip Timothy—or us. If there is something our churches think they should do or be that's not found in God's Word, then Paul was wrong, because in that case Scripture couldn't be said to equip us for "every good work."

Does that mean I'm saying we shouldn't use the good brains God has given us? No, I'm just saying let's start with Scripture and see what we find.

©Crossway Books 2007. Used with permission. This article originally appeared on February 6, 2009.

Mark Dever serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. A Duke graduate, Dr. Dever holds a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a Th.M. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from Cambridge University. He is the president of 9Marks Ministries and has taught at a number of seminaries.  Dr. Dever has also authored several books and articles. He and his wife Connie live and minister on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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