The one mark of a healthy church

How do you know if your church is healthy? How do you make a decision about whether or not to join a church? If you are considering a possible calling to pastor a church, what is the first and most important thing you should be checking up on?

A few years back now, Mark Dever wrote “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” and that became such a blue-print for how to do church that it spawned a whole organisation and movement. He lists them as follows.

Expositional Preaching.
Biblical Theology.
Biblical Understanding of the Good News.
Biblical Understanding of Conversion.
Biblical Understanding of Evangelism.
Biblical Understanding of Membership.
Biblical Church Discipline.
Promotion of Church Discipleship And Growth.
Biblical Understand of Leadership.

To be clear, Dever is describing what he thinks should be present in a healthy church rather than the marks of a true church. Additionally he was seeking to react and provide a corrective to what was under emphasised not to give the exhaustive top 9.

Traditionally we talk about 2 marks – the proclamation of God’s Word and the right administration of the sacraments (baptism and communion). On that basis, there is a lot to commend about Mark’s list, even though I worry about failing to remember then all and even though 9 seems to be an odd number to settle on, is Mark sure he hasn’t forgotten any?

Which takes me to an essential point, did you notice the one mark missing?  I want to suggest that Mark’s list leaves off the one mark that really counts. In his defence, I presume he would say that it is assumed and implied in all the other marks. Yet, if we don’t make this one explicit we risk forgetting it.

That one mark is “Love.”

Jesus said:

35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[1]

Paul wrote:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.[2]

In Revelation, the problem with the Ephesian church is:

You have abandoned the love you had at first.[3]

It seems so obvious put like that doesn’t it. We can have all the things on Mark’s list and not have love. If we do, then we are useless. In fact, for the things he mentions including preaching, evangelism, membership etc to be truly effective, then love has to be present.  Further, if these things are important to healthy church life then a loving church will be working hard to make sure that they are present.

So what does it mean for a church to have love? Again, the Bible helps us out here.  We are told that we are to love God whole heartedly and our neighbours as ourselves. A loving church will be seeking to encourage those two things. Loving God whole-heartedly should mean that there will be a hunger to know him and so people will love/hunger for his word. There should be a joy in worship, people should talk naturally and affectionally not just formally and intellectually about God.  There will be real sorrow for sin.  They will love one another and one way this will be seen will be in sacrificial acts of kindness. There should also be a strong emphasis on hospitality. That love will overflow into love for the lost. Primarily that love will be seen in a desire to share the good news for each other.

We will see love in how people talk about God and to God. We will see love in how people talk about and to each other.  We will see love in how people act.

[1] John 13:35

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

[3] Revelation 2:4.

The Afternoon Tea discussion version of this coversation

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