I recently received an email from someone looking for a new church home. They were asking for insight into learning how to discern the health of a church. So often, especially when we are looking for a new church home or after we have had a bad church experience in the past we wonder how we can learn from our experiences and make wise decisions in the future. What indicators can we find to “test” the health of a church body?

Here is the answer I sent (slightly edited):


I think I can sum up a reply in a few thoughts.

We can see in politics, and in the church, especially the Bible belt, a shift over the last several generations (since the advent of tv I believe). That shift is a movement away from content and into style.

The best example I can think of in politics are the debates between early potential candidates. Their travel was limited, costly, and time consuming so they would engage in written debates published by the papers. Nowadays we deal with debates on tv and hear only sound bites – the best sound bite wins. There is less thought and more talk, less patience and more focus on style and presentation. We do not wait. We do not meditate. We do not work through reading written works.

We live in culture that also worships celebrity. Looks, personality, being a “good ol’ boy” or a “nice guy” are what it is all about. Everybody wants a preacher who is their friend. Now, certainly it is not wrong to befriend the preacher, but too often we avoid or overlook substance and take style for the standard of ministry.

We rarely judge a church by its fruit. We judge it by its personalities and how it makes us feel.

Think of it this way. You may know the story of Jonathan Edwards. He was so nearsighted that he had to hold papers right in front of his face to read what was printed on them. He spoke in a monotone with little to no emotion. He was by all accounts a frail, thin, unimposing man. And yet, to take one example, when he preached the famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon people were screaming out, grabbing onto pews and pillars fearing that the floor was going to open up and the flames of hell swallow them right then and there. He wrote the sermon out, read the manuscript with the paper right in front of his face in a monotone. And the power of God came with such an anointing that people were jolted out of their seats in fear of God’s wrath. This was not the only sermon he preached with these results.

Nowadays, God’s Spirit notwithstanding, people would get up and walk out or fall asleep. There is no entertainment value! Yet the anointed preaching of the Word is used by the Holy Spirit to change lives.

So most of us either go to the church or a church like the one we grew up in. As we grow into maturity our thoughts on worship, the word, and the church are transformed. Yet often there are no solid churches nearby and so we settle for what we can get in a kind and good pastor and a church that is not too offensive to our convictions. Inevitably we start to truly seek for another church – we cannot stomach it any longer – believe me, I get emails from people in this stage of their church search often as people want to know where a good church near them is. That lead us to put as one of the first links on our website a “church finder” to help people search for a body of believers.

This cult of personality finds us settling for churches that are not healthy and pastors who do not really preach the Word with any skill, authority, or application. They preach sermonettes that amount to fortune cookie theology and pop-psychology that make shallow Christians (and the lost) feel good. And if we feel good we are not convicted, we become complacent, and we do not grow out of the milk stage and into the meat. Church growth becomes about numbers, not the fruit of the Spirit. Worship becomes entertainment. The gospel is gradually replaced by man centered doctrine that humanizes God, deifies men, and minimizes sin. We lose sight of who God is and who we are and what we really need.

And anybody that rocks the boat is seen as a holier than thou threat to the stable lukewarmness that is the status quo.

How do we avoid these churches? How do we know up front about the pastor and elders? How can we spot these weak, sick, or dying churches?

Usually it is in the preaching.

The preaching sets the tone for the life of the church. Solid preaching comes from men who walk with God, are skilled at handling His Word, and know how to shepherd. Not necessarily perfectly eloquent, and certainly not slick, but they will be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). That means that he can rightly divide (handle) the Word, preach it with conviction, authority, and anointing, apply it to our daily lives, and that the Spirit uses his preaching both to plant seeds and water seeds already planted (affect all ages and all spiritual levels of maturity).

Too many preachers today are novices. Old, tenured novices. They may preach nice sounding messages, but they leave maturing believers hungry and non-believers or back-slidden believers happy and content with their spiritual state. It is the equivalent of cotton candy or fast food spiritually.

Really – If you do not get mad at what your preacher says every so often he likely is not preaching the Word! Not because he says things offensively, but because the Word of God is a mirror that reflects to us our sinfulness, and conviction may be good but is rarely enjoyable.

If a man is really preaching the Word then the rest of worship will usually be built on the Word as well. How the church focuses on the Word is the key.

If the focus or the theme of ministry is centered on church growth, the building, tithing, families, children, singles, teens, the choir, worship, or anything else other than the faithful preaching and living of the Word of God out of love for and in obedience to Christ then however good the goals are they are misplaced.

Ephesians 4:11ff shows us that pastors are given to equip the church for the work of ministry. Their work, according to the Apostles in Acts 6, is prayer and preaching. We expect pastors to be CEOs, managers, politicians, peacemakers, and everything but prayer warriors and preachers.

If a man is praying and preaching as he should, the church will be equipped so that the saints will be ready, willing, and able to do the rest of the ministry of the church. That includes evangelism, missions, outreach, visitation, mercy and benevolence ministries, etc. A skilled pastor will use the Word to equip the church to be the church.

It helps too when the deacons actually do what deacons should do – the word means servant. Most deacons in most churches act like elders or board members or think it is a honorary position. Too few actually serve (“wait tables”) to care for the needs in the body.

That is why we must know what a healthy church is and how it acts. Dever’s book The Deliberate Church lays it out so well. A healthy church with a spiritually healthy pastor will start by focusing on the Word and prayer. Then by equipping the saints, the work gets done.

In your case, I encourage you to forgive fully and quickly and move on from these past experiences. Men will fail you. Pastors will fail you. Even godly pastors will disappoint you. Any human being will eventually fail you. Christ never fails.

And moving forward in fear for what might happen in the future will keep you from obedient service to Christ and His Church. Satan will use fear of being hurt to drive us away from the safety of the Church. I have seen too many eventually even drop out of church altogether – godly people who let their wound or their bitterness overtake them and make shipwreck of their faith.

That reminds me, another good and simple book that might help is Elder Tim Challies The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment.

Look to God and His Word. Test churches, pastors, and ministries by that standard – what do they preach? Start with the content of the preaching. That is the quickest most sure test of any church or ministry. And then look for fruit. If the preaching fails, move on and keep looking. I have not seen a church yet that had the preaching wrong and everything else right. The preaching of the Word in the foundation for church life. When the preaching is right (the Apostles Doctrine) then the other elements of worship are rarely wrong (fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread/Lord’s Supper, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, giving, etc – Acts 2:42; Eph 5:18-21). Reformation starts with preaching and continues with preaching. As the preaching goes, so goes the church.

When we look for fruit, we should not judge one another, but we should be skilled fruit inspectors! Our spiritual lives and the lives of our children depend upon it.

I do hope that helps.