30 November 2020  |

What Makes a Healthy Church?

Article to read for this week.


The term “health” here is used in a metaphorical sense; namely, that of general wellbeing. In the past, health used to be defined mostly in terms of the absence of sickness. But today the description given by the World Health Organization, first formulated in 1946, is generally accepted: health is a state of complete mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Thus when the term “healthy” is used to characterize the church, it suggests that it is not just important that the church has no major problems and does not suffer from serious conflicts or is marked by deteriorating strength, but is energetic and constitutes a community in which the members find a good spiritual home where they can develop their spiritual talents and grow in their faith.

Peter L. Steinke, a congregationalist systems consultant, states that, just as we must see our biological body in terms of a system rather than a collection of body parts, we also need to see the church (congregation or denomination) as a system. A healthy church is not as an organization that is without troubles, but one that “actively and responsibly addresses or heals its disturbances.”[1]

A superficial view

When speaking of the denomination, often the emphasis is on numerical size and positive growth patterns. The fact that a church is growing in numbers suggests vitality and dynamism—especially when this is a sustained growth over a substantial period of time. Economic prosperity is often seen as another sign of a healthy denomination. A church with a budget that allows for nice buildings, adequate staffing, and developing a diverse offering of programs and activities is considered healthy, for it shows that the members feel involved and are willing to support their church financially.

Denominations also point to their institutions—seminaries, health institutions, etc.—and to their glorious history as signs of health. Having a nation-wide or even a strong international presence is seen as a sign of health.

Although success shouldn’t only be counted in terms of growing membership lists and annual budgets, institutional strength and geographical presence, they are legitimate concerns. We do notice in the New Testament that repeated reference is made to the numbers of men and women that were added to the church (Acts 2:41,47). And material support for the church is often a sign of commitment to the mission of the church. Moreover, the missionary mandate that Christ gave to his church (Matthew 28:19, 20) suggests that penetrating new places with the message of Christ should be a natural ambition.

Yet, all of this remains a rather superficial way of measuring the church’s health. A satisfactory answer to the question as to what constitutes a healthy church must be based on a sound ecclesiology.

The notae ecclesiae

When the New Testament speaks of the church, it recognizes relationships between local churches, but the word “church” refers most frequently to the local church in Rome, in Corinth or in Ephesus. While denominations must be healthy, they will never qualify as such when the local congregations that constitute this denomination are not healthy.

Through the ages the question has been what aspects must be present in an organization to qualify as “church” in the true sense of the word. Theologians give four key terms: (1) unity; (2) holiness; (3) apostolicity; and (4) catholicity. These marks of the church are traditionally referred to as the notae ecclesiae. The words were already present in the Nicene Creed, as reworded by the Council of Constantinople in 381: “[I believe] in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” They stress (1) the “oneness” of all Christians in Christ; (2) the desire to be “holy” in the biblical sense of the word:, i.e., to be “set aside for the service of Christ; (3) the recognition that the message of the church must corresponds with that of the first apostles; and (4) the universality of the church, without geographical, cultural, linguistic and other limits.

The ecclesiology of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has long been underdeveloped. In the earlier phases of Adventism the focus was on what the church—the Adventist denomination—should preach and should do, rather on defining its nature and developing a theology of the church. From its beginning the Adventist Church claimed to have a special unique message.

But this does not take away from the fact that in many ways it built on the views and experiences of other Christians and was quite eclectic in its adoption of its organizational model—both on the local level and the higher levels of the ecclesial structure. In the course of its history of just over 175 years, Adventism has been quite pragmatic in finding ways of fulfilling its mission as effectively as possible. Whether or not all of this has made Adventism a truly healthy church remains a very pertinent question.


Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education and church administration on three continents, his last post before retiring as president of the Netherlands Union. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching and writing. His latest book is I HAVE A FUTURE: CHRIST’S RESURRECTION AND MINE.


Loren Seibold is the executive editor of Adventist Today.

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