Marks of a Healthy Faith CommunityPosted: March 21, 2011
For Baptists Today
Marks of a Healthy Faith Community
By Chris Gambill
What is a healthy faith community? That seems to be one of the great mysteries of the faith. There are many approaches to describing church health and definitions vary widely. As a consultant to hundreds of churches over the past 17 years, I have yet to find the one all-encompassing definition. I can say with assurance that, while no one definition of health fits all, there are some basic characteristics, or marks, of a healthy faith community.
In the Center for Congregational Health’s® extensive 17 year experience in working with faith communities, we have discovered that healthy congregations don’t all look or act the same. We have observed healthy faith communities in a variety of sizes and ministry contexts, with vastly different resources, and with varying outlooks for significant growth and development.
Congregational health is often viewed in light of theological principles derived from scripture. These include transforming spirituality, prayer, discipleship, compassion, evangelism, stewardship and generosity. It is important to point out that, while a sound theological foundation is vital to any faith community, it is simply not enough to keep it healthy. The Center for Congregational Health’s® approach to opening doors to hope and wholeness for faith communities, lay leaders and clergy enables faith communities to maintain their own theological perspectives. Our goal is to help them develop and maintain the framework within which these ideals and aspirations can flourish.
To understand and identify the marks of a healthy community of faith, I suggest turning to scripture. Examples from the earliest Christian communities provide helpful glimpses into the lives of God’s people striving to live together well.
The Biblical marks of a healthy faith community
Constructive conflict resolution
A healthy faith community is not one that never has conflict; it is one that resolves conflict constructively. When faced with internal conflict over the distribution of food in Acts 6, the apostles allowed the congregation to own the problem and participate in solving it. They avoided polarization (Grecian Jews versus Hebraic Jews) and sought what was best for the congregation. They were able to remain in a constructive, problem-solving mode and find a collaborative solution.
Adaptation to change
A healthy faith community has the capacity to adapt. Beginning in Acts 10, the scriptures portray an early church facing a potentially crippling crisis over identity and diversity. Christ followers were no longer limited to Jews. With this change, questions arose over who could rightfully be a member of the faith community and under what circumstances. Faced with this challenge to its most fundamental sense of identity, the early church adapted, emerging stronger, more inclusive and ready to take on the task of evangelizing the world.
A third mark of a healthy faith community is, well, community. One of the many casualties of life in the twenty-first century is the loss of what Robert Putnam calls our social capital.[i] He has documented numerous ways in which our relational connections have broken. This is in stark contrast to the church where “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46, NRSV). Many faith communities attempt to make difficult decisions, resolve conflict, overcome a financial crisis, grow and develop their ministry, and plan their future with minimal social capital within the congregation. The result is a decision-making that erupts into conflict and processes that produce not progress but frustration.
Ministry that reaches out as well as in
A healthy faith community ministers to those outside as well as inside the church. The Acts 2 believers shared among themselves as needs arose. They sold their possessions and “had everything in common.” Their strong ministry to believers was balanced by Peter’s and John’s healing and preaching outside the community of believers, as when they healed the beggar at the temple gate in chapter 3. They were also bold in proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers. It is easy for churches to be caught in the trap of spending the vast majority of their resources, time and energy on those within the faith community, while neglecting their mission and service to those outside the walls of the church.
A healthy faith community encourages honest and civil discourse. Communication is between people, not about them. In Acts 10 -11, when facing a critical juncture in the development of Christianity, the earliest Christians had to wrestle with whether Gentiles could be full members of the Christian community. To their credit, they were able to have what was, no doubt, a challenging conversation. It ended with Peter describing his experiences and the assembled apostles and believers declaring, “then God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). The scriptures are full of many examples of God’s people having honest, but difficult, conversations about important issues. On their best days, the honest discourse led to a realization of God’s will and purposes and a desire to fulfill them together.
A balance between clergy authority and lay leadership
A healthy faith community supports participatory leadership. Clergy and lay leaders see themselves as ministry partners and work together to build fundamental capacities within the congregation. Clergy support, encourage, mentor and coach developing leaders. In Acts 6, seven church members were elected to share leadership responsibility. Their empowerment helped the church to grow. In I Corinthians 12, Paul emphasizes the importance of every gift within the church.
Clarity of identity and mission
A healthy faith community is bound together by a shared identity and mission. Faith communities are riddled with differences of opinion and belief about everything from politics to theology. They need something to bind them together that is bigger and more compelling than those things that could tear them apart. Getting clear about identity—understanding the congregation’s values, its shared history and culture, and its unique strengths and challenges—is one kind of binding agent. Another is identifying what inspires the congregation and pulls them forward into mission and ministry.
The early church in Acts again provides an example of a faith community with an overarching sense of identity and mission. In Acts 4:32, the writer says of this community, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Their sense of connectedness was so deep that “there was not a needy person among them” (4:34). Though Acts clearly shows there were significant differences among the early believers, they were able to overcome these and seek the greater good of the community and their calling in Christ.
It must be said of healthy communities of faith that there are no perfect ones. A case in point can again be found in the Book of Acts. For many Christians, the most compelling picture of a healthy church is the early church described in Acts 2. However, later portrayals of this same church in Acts 5 and 6 reveal major shortcomings. Even within healthy communities of faith, it takes balanced effort and resourceful leadership to live together well in a fallen world. The striving for well-being is continuous, but absolutely worth the effort.
[i] Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
– Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Please site Chris Gambill, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.