Imagine this: a thriving suburban church dreams, plans, and then plants a daughter church in the downtown area of a nearby city. An expert is consulted, of course, and everyone is assured that this will be a good, good thing. And, indeed, it is. The church plant is a smashing success, sending down roots that take it through the initial start-up phase to settled and secure. Everyone is thrilled and grateful to God.
No one, not even the expert, told the planting church that 75 percent of the young families in their congregation would leave to follow the planting pastor. No one told them that the new church’s birth would permanently alter the character of the parent. Everyone knew the overall numbers would drop—how else can you plant a church without intentionally embracing smaller numbers for the parent church? But to remove an entire segment of their demographic? Well, some might say that the “old lady” in this story will never fully recover.
Here’s another way to look at the same scenario. Yes, the planting church’s numbers will go down from where they once were. But that congregation can still be a place where truth is preached, people are welcomed, and love is practiced. They can still thrive as the church.
The bottom line is this: the health of a church is not just told by numbers. Don’t get me wrong—I celebrate churches with lots of members. I also celebrate house churches of twenty or fewer. And country churches of 75, town churches of 150, or suburban churches of 300.
As I read the New Testament, I don’t find a lot of head-counting going on—none in any of the epistles and, aside from the Pentecost event, none in the Book of Acts. Apparently, churches are important whatever size they happen to be. What was the numeric formula Jesus himself used? “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of you.” Seems pretty much like the definition of a healthy church to me.
So, where are you gathering with two or three in the name of Jesus?
In the past few weeks, I’ve been in worship with 250 others, in prayer with my husband daily, at the bedside of a sick friend, at a memorial service for a beloved toddler who tragically drowned, at breakfast with a friend comforting me after the death of my mother. I’ve planned a memorial dinner in our backyard with my adult children and grandchildren, checked in by phone, text, email, and in person with several friends who are seeking answers to hard questions, encouraged and confirmed gifts in younger leaders in our church, and brought oil, Pandora tuned to old hymns, and a prayer book to sit with my mom during the last days of her life.
Every single time we reach out to one another in the love of Christ, we are being the church.
I have also witnessed scores of other Jesus followers doing the same kinds of things all over this city and all across the world. Every single time we reach out to one another in the love of Christ, we are being the church. Jesus gave us this blueprint himself: “By this everyone shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:34-35).
As I have learned more and more about this Jesus whom we follow, as I have watched how the Holy Spirit does the winsome work of wooing, this is the central truth I have come to believe about what it means to be a healthy church: We have love for one another.
And if we don’t—if we live with a critical spirit, if we withhold encouragement, if we choose fear, if we refuse to listen, if we withdraw from suffering, or even from disagreement, we are not loving one another, are we? And if we are not loving one another, then no matter how many bodies walk through the door on a Sunday morning, we are not being the church.