How many of you like taking a test? People often don’t like the idea of tests. They’re seen as difficult, uncomfortable ordeals. Afflictions.

As I was going into the week of final exams in college, I would often pray, Oh Lord, if you’d be willing, this would be a really good time for your Second Coming.

Typically, we want to avoid test, but tests can be a good thing. Tests help you evaluate how you’re doing. They help you measure your progress: Yes, you attended 9th grade classes, but did you learn the material? Are you ready to move on to the 10th grade?

Tests can be very helpful. You check the oil in your car (that’s a test) to make sure your engine can run properly.

Tests can keep us safe. You should regularly check your fire extinguishers. Once each year you should change the batteries in your home fire alarm and then test it to make sure it’s working.

Tests can alert us to problems or challenges needing action. The President gives the “State of the Union” address at the beginning of each year. At my age, my doctor recommends an annual physical exam or check-up (even when I feel healthy) as preventative medicine—to catch unseen problems early.

I say all this only as an introduction to our theme for the next few weeks. We will not be learning specifically about tests. Instead, we will be looking at the results of a test to evaluate how we’re doing as a church.

If we can check our the health of our physical body, it stands to reason that we can also check the health of our spiritual body—the church. In the same way that you would have a physical exam to see how physcially healthy you are, there are ways to measure how spiritually healthy a church congregation is.

There is no perfect test for this. Each method or evaluation will have some weaknesses—and some strengths. We can learn a lot from the process, but we can’t claim to have all the answers (or even necessarily the best answers). But we know we can improve as a church and grow stronger and healthier, so that’s why on occasion we will try to check the pulse and the blood pressure of the church.

We did this about three years ago, and some of you may remember that we came out of that test with a determination to work on “loving relationships.” So recently we did the same test again, and we got the results this past fall recommending yet another area for us to work on and strengthen.

Before I talk about that area, however, I want to review the eight key characteristics of a healthy, balanced church. This is according to “Natural Church Development” (by Christian Schwarz). After analyzing 1000s and 1000s of churches around the world, he determined these eight to be the consistent qualities in growing, healthy churches.

His idea was that churches reasonably strong in these eight characteristics will develop and grow naturally. If a church is healthy, you don’t need a lot of human effort to artificially inflate church growth or ministry. Why? Because a healthy organism will grow all on its own—whether you’re talking about a plant in the natural world or a church in the spiritual realm. Given the right conditions with the right climate, minerals, nutrients, water, and sunshine, a plant will grow. You don’t have to “force” it to grow by pulling and stretching its branches and leaves. It will grow on its own.

The same is true of the church. Jesus designed the church—his body—to grow naturally! But if spiritual disease or unhealthy conditions invade the church, you’re going to have problems.

Sinful attitudes, bickering and strife, selfish egos, envy and jealousy, bitterness, resentment—all are symptoms of spiritual disease the devil uses to make the church sick. The Bible warns against such things:

  • See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Heb 12:15)
  • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs… (Eph 4:29)
  • …rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation… (1 Peter 2:1-2)

So let’s take a quick look at eight ways to evaluate the health of a church.

If these eight “vital signs” are in place, your church will be doing well. If one or two of these characteristics are lacking, then the church may be struggling, needing to focus on those areas to become stronger and healthier.

1      Empowering leadership. Are your church leaders focused on equipping believers for ministry? This does not mean recruiting “helpers” to help the leaders attain their own goals or fulfill their own visions. Rather, it means having leaders committed to helping Christians achieve the spiritual potential God has for them. It means equipping, supporting, motivating, and mentoring individuals to become all that God wants them to be. Eph 4:11 NLT: Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. [mending nets, mending broken bones]

2      Gift-based ministry. Are tasks in your church distributed according to individual gifting? When Christians serve in their specific area of gifting, they usually function more in the power of the Spirit than in their own strength. They also find more fulfillment and longevity in serving. 1 Cor 12:7 NLT: A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. CEV: The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others.

3      Passionate spirituality. Is the spiritual life of your church people characterized by passion? A church that is “on fire” will express faith not as religious duty but as a joyful and enthusiastic passion for God. You see it in the way they worship, but also in the way they serve. Are they excited about living for God? Romans 14:17 NIV: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

4      Effective structures. Do the structures (programs, committees, decision-making processes) of your church contribute to growth—or do they bog it down? A broken-down, dysfunctional body cannot sustain a vibrant and healthy life. In the same way, the vitality of a church cannot thrive in a stagnant environment, weighed down with the baggage of useless tradition. Example: a freeway is designed to get somewhere quickly, without delays. If you take your 4-wheeler through a mud bog, though, you’re not going to get too far too quickly. You get caked in muck and mud, but you don’t make much progress. It’s the same way in churches. Some are designed for quick action; others will bog action down in committees and traditions. Mark 7:9 NLT: …You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. John 6:63 NIV: The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing…

5      Inspiring worship service. Are your worship services an inspiring, uplifting experience for people? When the Holy Spirit is given freedom to impact the flow of worship, people will be encouraged and enthused. They more they sense God’s presence, the more they will enjoy the time. Attending a church service should not be boring. It should be a fun, uplifting experience! 2 Cor 3:17 NLT: …wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. John 4:23 NIV: …true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…

6      Holistic small groups. Do your church small groups address real-life issues? Gathering in groups to study God’s Word is good, but it’s better for those groups to go further, applying the Bible’s message in daily life—developing relationships and serving one another in an intimate community where both practical help and intensive spiritual interaction occur. Matt 18:20 NIV: For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.

7      Need-oriented evangelism. Are your evangelistic activities related to the needs of those you are trying to reach? Manipulative, pushy methods of sharing faith are ineffective. Instead, each Christian should serve non-Christians in practical ways, cultivating relationships with them and earning the privilege to speak Good News into their lives. Matt 25:35-36 NIV: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

8      Loving relationships. Are relationships within your church characterized by love? Laughter, fun, hospitality, fellowship, and sharing are readily seen in a healthy church. Unfeigned, practical love gives a church greater magnetic power than all the marketing efforts of this world. Acts 2:44 NIV: All the believers were together and had everything in common. Acts 4:32 NIV: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. Romans 12:9 NIV: Love must be sincere…

In 2011 we began to concentrate on activities and ideas to strengthen loving relationships within the church. We still have a good ways to go in that area—but we’ve made progress.

(Of course, if you’re one who has come into the church and still needs to connect with someone or find a group to belong to, you won’t personally feel the progress we’ve made. So after the service, if you’re still experiencing a deficit in the “loving relationship” department, let’s meet here at the front for a group hug.)

By the way, “loving relationships” is perhaps the one characteristic that must rely upon a “grassroots movement” more than any other. We can try to mandate it by church “programs,” urging people to be more loving towards one another. We can even provide opportunities for people to show a little love. (“Take a moment to greet the person sitting near you.”) But it won’t matter to you how loving Fred or Rich might be, if the person sitting next to you has a scowl on his face and won’t speak to you when you leave.

So even as we take on another characteristic to work on this year, I don’t want us to forget about working on “loving relationships.” In fact, I’d encourage you to become so filled with the love of God yourself that you can’t help spilling some of that love out on others. Let your cup runneth over! Look for ways that you can personally express God’s love in tangible, practical ways.

Here’s one: smile at people. Look them in the eye—and smile. This isn’t Wal-mart—you know, where you meet a stranger coming down aisle towards you. And you don’t want to seem too weird, so you avert your eyes. You look at the display of crock pots instead of the other person! You may even study the crock pots. Stop and read about crock pots. But you don’t smile, and you don’t say hi.

Well, this isn’t Wal-mart. So around here, it’s okay to smile at people…look them in the eye…say “Hi.”

But let’s go on beyond “loving relationships.” Some of you are wondering: What were the results of our church self-evaluation? Which characteristic would be the most important area to help our church be healthier and stronger?

The truth is we could work on any one of these eight characteristics, and we would see the health of our church improve. Why? Because when one area improves, other areas will also improve (just as developing healthy physical habits will, in general, make your body healthier).

However, if we work on our weakest area, we’ll see more immediate benefits. This illustration will show what I mean… Let’s say that this wooden bucket is the church, designed to receive the blessings of God. The more God pours out his blessings, the more full our bucket becomes. But there is a limiting factor that restricts how much God can do in us.

[Remember when Jesus could not do many miracles among the people because of their unbelief? (Matt 13:58; Mark 6:5-6) The unhealthy condition of their faith limited what God could do among them!]

The minimum factor is the vital characteristic of church health that is weakest among all the others factors.
Each of these staves in the wooden bucket represents a different characteristic.

The test results for our church show that our minimum factor right now is “gift-based ministries.” This means that some people feel their abilities and talents could be put to more effective use in different ministries or ways than they what they are currently.

So our goal is to make improving our gift-based ministries a primary focus for the coming year. To that end, we’ve already brought in a consultant to advise us in practical ways. Some of you may remember Mike Harder, from Iowa, who was with us for a leadership retreat a couple years ago. Mike met in October with four people from our church who graciously agreed to be a lay advisory team to the church leaders: Julie Harris, Tami Matuszak, Scott Parpala, and Kim Werhan. They already have offered some fantastic ideas—and will be watching to see how we do over the next few months.

So in the coming weeks, we’re going to unpack this biblical idea of spiritual gifts being the basis for effective ministry. This should provide us with a “map” for going forward in ministry and spiritual growth over the next year.

Will you pray? Ask God to show you where you fit into his plan and purpose. Commit yourself to following his will—to giving yourself over to his higher calling.

That reminds me, some of you might be wondering about the sermon title and the bulletin cover. We haven’t touched on that at all today. In fact, today was simply an introduction to the conversation I hope to have through this month and beyond.

So next week, even as we prepare to look at spiritual gifts and gift-based ministries, I’ll try to get to the foundational attitude for ministry—what it means to serve.

Vital Signs