I want to see strong churches, heaps of them. And I know many other people who want the same. More than merely ‘want’, people dedicate themselves to prayer and effort to support strong churches.
A strong church would have many, if not all, of the following characteristics (and many more beside this list):
- Obvious declaration of the truth of God’s word, the Bible
- A living prayer life
- Active loving relationships, with church members as well as with neighbours of church members
- Good giving to the the church and by the church
Church numbers are also relevant: perhaps the church is stable in numbers despite being in a high turnover region, perhaps the number of attendees is growing. Also, the ‘numbers’ reflect the local area: no missing ages groups, not a monoculture, and so on.
It seems easy to identify a strong church (identify, as opposed to establish!). Easy, that is, until we read the Bible. God has a tendency to confound human, measurable indicators.
Consider Jesus’ commendation of the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4), in contrast with the temple’s rich donors. Her minor gift of two copper coins would not register on an assessment of financial strength – unlike that of the rich. Yet she was the greater. What if our church is full of people like her, not them?
Consider the church in Corinth. As a church, they were gifted in every way with all speech and knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:5). Yet what a mess! Division, immorality, and with teaching and activity that undermined both cross and resurrection.
Finally, consider the seven churches in Revelation. These churches all have a self-assessment, or a reputation with outsiders. But these points of view needed realignment with the view of Jesus. Ephesus did OK, but had lost her first love (Rev 2:4). Impoverished Smyrna was, in Jesus’ judgement, rich (Rev 2:9). Pergamum persevered even in the face of martyrdom – wow! – but needed a warning about the sword that Jesus wields (Rev 2:16). Thyatira tolerated false prophecy, immorality and idolatry, yet Jesus spoke of this church as increasing in good works (Rev 2:19). Sardis was the most deceitful church: by reputation alive, but in reality dead (Rev 3:1). Philadelphia, of very little power, will receive humble adulation from her enemies (Rev 3:9). And rich, prosperous, successful Laodicea makes Jesus want to vomit (Rev 3:16).
These salutary passages do not imply that we stop looking for strong churches. It’s not necessary to give up improving our ministries. We have, I believe, two warnings to keep in mind.
First, when we measure how strong a church is, it is possible that we are mistaken. If Christians were wrong in the first century, then we will be wrong in the twenty-first.
Second comes a warning not to push the first warning too hard. Some might see the potential for mistake as reason not to make any assessment, but that would also be wrong. After all, the New Testament has many people making a judgement on the standing of a church: Jesus, Paul, churches and Christians in general. Sorry for the double negatives, but they are what I want here: it is not impossible to assess church strength. To some degree, though not perfectly, we can get it right about church strength.
Here’s how it works in practice: we should assess how strong our churches are, but we should do so humbly.
When we assess, we can ask if we are as divided as the church in Corinth. Or if we are showy like the rich temple-donors in Luke. Or if we are as feckless as the church in Sardis. In fact, we should ask these questions. Yet humility will drive us back to the Bible (so we may assess correctly), and back to prayer (for God to mercifully inform and guide us).