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What Characterizes a Healthy Church?

I am often asked this kind of question: “How do you know if a church is healthy?” It can be asked in many ways, and often by those exact words, but we all understand the underlying questions: Is my church healthy, and how do we compare to other churches.

This puts me into a quandary because Jesus and the inspired writers of scripture did not make a handy list for us. If He had, hundreds of authors, bloggers, conference speakers and the like would have to find new lines of work. But He didn’t, and this puts me into a bind.

 My job title with the EFCA West team is “director of church health.” A couple of questions immediately come to mind. First, there are no universally accepted definitions of what characteristics a healthy church has. Second, anyone that has worked in a church for a while knows there are lots of things that one can do related to church health (destroy, cultivate, preserve, create, erode, etc.), but I have yet to figure out how to “direct” it.

Yet questions among church leaders persist. “Is my church a healthy church?” and, “What things to I need to do to lead my church to becoming healthy?” are common and important questions, and they are something to talk about.

Fortunately, there are lots of books and speakers and bloggers out there that have answered this question. Unfortunately, their lists of characteristics are not the same. Sigh.

Let’s look at three lists, then I’ll give you mine and suggest some things your leadership team can talk about. Please note that I have no bones to pick with any of these lists or their authors – I have found them all to be helpful. I am providing them as examples of checklists related to determining the health of churches.


After reviewing these lists, one might wonder who is right, if anyone. I like to take a different approach by observing that each author prepared their list based upon their observations and, while no single list is entirely definitive, they are all beneficial to one that is interested in leading well the church entrusted to their care. 

I find these lists helpful, but also note the personality that each has. The Nine Marks list appears to be focused upon being “Biblical.” The Natural Church Development list appears to be a bit more focused upon relationships than doctrine, which does not mean that doctrine is unimportant to them but is in keeping with their large audience being quite doctrinally diverse. The EFCA Church Health Survey focuses upon things that are focal points within the EFCA movement from which it emerged. They are all different because their authors frames of reference are different.

I find comparisons like these to be quite helpful – not for the purpose of judging one superior to the others or criticism, but to learn from all. I can discover new things to think about and add to my mental repertoire, and find that new ideas may further convince me that what I have been thinking is sound and that they are not for me or the church I lead.

I wrote that I would give you my list and now is that time. My list is based upon my own church experiences, reading lots of stuff, and my experiences with lots of churches in the EFCA West District of the EFCA.

I have found that when these three things characterize a church with which I am working, the church is generally healthy. When one or more are missing, it is not so healthy and could be very unhealthy. What does healthy mean? For me, it means that they do the things that churches are supposed to do. Here are my three BIG characteristics of healthy churches.

  1. The Great Commission is actively and intentionally pursued by the congregation in individual lives rather than through programs or just its leaders.
  2. The church members and staff live the Greatest Commandment – they are genuinely intent upon loving God deeply and upon loving their neighbors sacrificially.
  3. The fruit of the Spirit is evident in individual’s and the church’s lives.

 I’m not inferring that all the other things listed above are not important, but that I have found the absence of these three things in almost every church that I have considered to “unhealthy.”

Is your church healthy? That’s something to talk about. Here are a couple of ideas to get the ball rolling with your leadership team.

  • Using the four lists above, discuss how you would rate the church’s health in each dimension. Is there an area where urgent work is needed? Where are you doing well?
  • Note the adjectives and adverbs in the table – they are important. I’ve found that there is a world of difference between a church that values “evangelism” and a church that values “equipping people for intentional personal evangelism.”
  • Considering your church’s ministry context, what measures would you suggest for assessing the health of your church? Make your list and then use it to assess your church.

 I believe it is important for church leaders and teams to have a solid grasp of what is meant by “church health” and what they examine to determine the state of health in their own church. Is it “bucks and butts” or something much more than those? Authors, teachers, other pastors, and even EFCA West monthly article writers can be helpful guides in the process, but the responsibility falls upon each church leader to steward the spiritual health of the church and its members. Church health cannot be directed; it must be pursued. And it is definitely something to talk about. Often.

Let us know if we can help and how your conversation goes. Contact Bob Osborne by e-mail at bob.osborne@efca.org

This is one of a series of articles intended to facilitate and guide church leaders’ conversations about significant issues that often are not talked about among pastors, boards, and church leadership teams. Visit the EFCA West website to see prior Something to Talk About articles.

Bob Osborne

Bob Osborne is the director of church health for EFCA West. He is passionate about equipping, encouraging and strengthening church leaders: “Our good intentions are not enough; we actually need to implement them.”

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