The number of churches and Christians in China has grown tremendously over the past several decades, but are there enough healthy churches to welcome the increased number of believers? What does it mean for a church to be “healthy” anyway? In this article, Cheng Fengsheng, a Three-self church pastor in Wenzhou, gives four practical concepts for developing healthy churches.
Four Major Elements of a Healthy Church
When it comes to the topic of a healthy church, many people have many thoughts on what makes a church healthy (as well as what does not). I believe, however, that if we tend to approach this topic as simply some kind of academic and sensory stimulation, then it would be better not to discuss it at all. Therefore, I am going to point out only four simple, to the point, and easy to remember aspects [about what makes a healthy church] that you can take into consideration.
The Four Major Elements of a Healthy Church:
- The lordship of Christ; reject individualism
- Primacy of unity; pursuit of steady development in unison
- Diverse gifts working together; bound together in perfect harmony
- Sound church administration; essential for all the other elements
The Lordship of Christ
“Come follow me.” This is Jesus’ call to his disciples—the call to surrender sovereignty over their lives, and to follow and serve him. The first disciples answered his call, laying everything down and giving the Lord authority over their lives. Making Jesus Christ Lord demonstrates how the church is connected to Christ, and how the preacher is likewise connected to the church and to Christ.
Paul described the church as the body of Christ, and Christ as the head of the church. This speaks to the closeness of the church and Christ, and of Christ’s authority over the church. Christ is the head of the church, just as the brain is the command center of the body and each part of the body follows its orders. In the same way, the church must submit to Christ, obey his orders, and follow his teaching. A preacher is but one member of the body, and he too must submit to the standards of Christ’s teaching. This is not up for debate.
Yet, something else entirely is happening in the Chinese church, where growing individualism is in conflict with the duty to make Christ Lord. The Lord called the first disciples saying, “I will make you fishers of men.” Those disciples and all preachers who would give themselves to the Lord left their lives of catching fish in order to catch people. But now, under the pretense of fishing for people, many preachers are casting their nets for more fish. They turn from their sacred calling and are lured by worldly fish now too common in the church: fame, wealth, power, and status. Swept by the tide of secularism and pleasure in the “fish” of this world, these preachers have forgotten the blessing of catching people. Such shameful behavior stunts the growth of the church, grieves the Holy Spirit, and profanes the name of Christ.
The Primacy of Unity
It is hard to mention unity without thinking of Liu Tingfang’s famous quote: “There are many opinions, but there is only one heart!” At the 1922 National Christian Conference, facing a Chinese church with numerous denominations, this celebrated leader and theologian of the early 20th century appealed for unity among Chinese and foreign churches alike.
The disciples heard Jesus’ call and resolutely gave up everything to follow him as Lord. But they were still influenced by the ways of the world and followed Jesus for all sorts of reasons. What they shared was a propensity to fight, argue, and strive with each other. After all, they thought Jesus was about to become king of the Jews, so they had to seize their opportunities to vie for power! James and John even asked their mother to plead with Jesus on their behalf, which greatly angered the other disciples.
We cannot deny that in ministry, and in the growth of the church, there are many different opinions. Even the great Apostle Paul and Barnabas, “the son of encouragement,” disagreed. Indeed, from the story of how they parted ways over John Mark, we can assume their disagreement had become quite intense; however, later passages of scripture, especially Paul’s letters, show that they did not in fact let this incident create a conflict. Although they had different, even irreconcilable opinions, they still had a close relationship. They turned one gospel-proclaiming team into two teams that blessed different churches and raised up even more leaders.
When we disagree, we must guard against fighting and forming factions; rather, we need to submit and defer to one another. I believe the church can grow rapidly in the midst of disagreement as those with different opinions move forward together. The negative witness if we do otherwise does not benefit the church, and actually hurts the name of Christ. Therefore, if two believers cannot agree, they can at least decide to respect each other. If they truly cannot avoid a dispute, then it would be better if one party decided to give up their stand. In a worst-case scenario, if that still cannot resolve the situation, then out of love for the church one side might choose to leave the church—and at least the church will not split or develop into a crisis on account of that person.
Diverse Gifts Working Together
Love binds everything together in perfect harmony [Colossians 3:14]. Love is the greatest gift the church has; the foundation on which it is built. It must not be a mere slogan, but an expression of the Christian life! Today’s church has fallen into the error of exalting gifts and uniformity of gifts, much like the Corinthian church, where many problems sprang up because they neglected and misused love!
A church that puts gifts first falls into crass utilitarianism, judging ministers’ gifts by “size” and “numbers.” As a result, those with more evident gifts are seen as the crown of the church, while those with more hidden gifts are ignored or looked down on. By contrast, a healthy church sees all gifts as equal, not exalting one gift or ranking preachers based on their gifts.
In the same way, gifts are not reserved for ministers, but are given to all Christians. A healthy church should make every effort to discover and utilize believers’ gifts so that the whole church can serve the Lord together. I saw one church where the pastor, preachers, and other servants honored a custodian whom the whole church knew to have a gift of prayer. The church did not belittle her for her humble job but esteemed her for her remarkable gift.
Sound Church Administration
Church polity is one aspect of church administration. When some people hear church administration, they immediately think of corporate administration, but this just secularizes administration. We need to distinguish between business administration, which is inherently and indisputably secular, and church administration, which is a necessity for a healthy church.
It is undeniable that church management today is greatly influenced by corporate management. Especially in Wenzhou, church leaders and believers have consistently said they cannot use the corporate management models to run their churches; many even vocally criticize doing so. But in reality, Wenzhou churches are still influenced to a large degree by corporate management styles. Some churches even come right out and call themselves “corporate churches.” This is because they have not made Christ Lord, they lack unity, and they do not function as one body.
The earliest biblical basis for church administration comes from Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who saw Moses solving disputes for the people all day long. He advised Moses to appoint chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, and of fifties, etc. We likewise see a model for church management in how Jesus chose his disciples—he had the three closest disciples, then the twelve, and then the seventy. Of course, as we can see from today’s various church management styles, every system throughout history has had its advantages.
Any denomination’s system of governance will sooner or later experience problems, even creating conflict in the church. Even so, we cannot just blindly demand that a church switches from this model to that model, and hope that solves the issues. Indeed, demanding too radical a change will do just the opposite. I believe that if the church administrators make Jesus Lord, forsake their own gain and keep an open mind, the church’s administration will gradually improve to correspond to the times, even if the model itself does not change.
“Fish for men.” This is Jesus’ call and promise to all who proclaim his name. In today’s day and age, preachers face many challenges in the world and inevitably struggle with the enticements of secular “fish.” But our mission remains to “fish for men.” This call reminds us that we are not in it to seek our own gain or to worry about our loss because this is not the goal of our pursuit. Anyone who struggles to lay down their “fish” of this world should take strength in another promise of Jesus: “But seek first the kingdom God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)
Original Article: 健康教会四大因素, Chen Fengsheng.
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