Restoring health to an unhealthy church: What is the goal?

The goal of reformation in a local church should not be to make all the members Calvinists. Obviously (or at least it ought to be obvious to anyone who knows me!), I would not think that a bad thing if it happened, but I would never recommend that as the goal of restoring health to a church. It is simply not big enough. In fact, if that is all that were to happen in a church then there still would be cause for concern and need to press energetically for even deeper reformation.

Anyone interested in seeing a church become spiritually healthy must aim at seeing that body increasingly become everything that God’s Word calls a church to be. Mark Dever has helpfully defined a healthy church as one that “increasingly reflects God’s character as his character has been revealed in his Word.” The most important thing a local church can do is to fulfill its calling to be the church.

As the bride of Christ, the body of Christ and the house of God the church is to live in such a way that puts the goodness and greatness of the living God on display. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 3 when he describes the purpose of Gospel preaching as enabling the “manifold wisdom of God” to be put on display “by the church” (10). The way that Christ’s people live together in covenanted devotion to their Lord and each other makes a statement to the watching world about the character of our God and Savior.

When a church is filled with unconverted or spiritually apathetic members, it lies about Jesus Christ. When it is marked by dissension and open immorality it misrepresents the the God who is three in one and holy, holy, holy. When it is self-consumed and unconcerned about the unconverted it projects a perverted picture of the God who sent His Son into the world to seek and to save that which was lost. When it is happily ignorant of Bible doctrine it sends false messages about the God of truth.

The pursuit of spiritual health will not allow such misrepresentations of the Lord to go unaddressed. The goal is to see Christ honored among His people as they become increasingly motivated and empowered by His gospel to live out His will on earth.

What does all this mean practically? Several things, chief among them being:

  1. To see the Word of God become preiminent and foundational to the life of the church. We should desire that our collective attitude in the church should be, “wherever the Scripture leads, we will go; whatever it teaches, we will believe…whatever the costs or the consequences.”
  2. To see the membership reflect reality. It is tragically commonplace today for churches to have far more paper members than real ones. Our statistics lie. Here is a simple formula to use to help gauge the spiritual health of your church: If your membership exceeds your attendance then you have a problem. The more that it exceeds it, the greater the problem is. In Baptist life we have historically stated it like this: We believe in a regenerate church membership. A local church ought to reflect that belief.
  3. To see the worship gatherings of the church marked by God-centered, Gospel-saturated, passionate intensity where Jesus Christ is recognized as supremely glorious.
  4. To see the lives of the members marked by evangelistic compassion that results in intentional efforts to make disciples for Jesus Christ.
  5. To see a humble, servant-hearted commitment to minister after the pattern of Christ characterize the culture of the church.

The list is not exhaustive, but it does contain elements that are essential to a healthy church. A. W. Tozer once said that every pastor ought to have two churches in his mind at all times. The first when he reads the New Testament instructions on what a church ought to be. The other is the church he sees on Sunday mornings when they are gathered for worship. The goal is to so live and work and minister and pray that the church that is becomes increasingly like the church that ought to be.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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