The life of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is in the local congregation: in the give-and-take of community experiences; in shared worship and shared joys; in facing difficult times; in working together toward common goals and participating in a common mission. It is in the local church—“God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV)—that faith finds its most compelling expression; where the values and beliefs that define us are most clearly demonstrated.
For every report I receive of a congregation that is thriving and growing, I hear of another that is struggling. And as I talk with church members—especially those of the younger generation—I hear a range of concerns and frustrations, as well as hopes and plans, centered around their local church. So often I am asked, most frequently by those from the secular, post-modern West: “What can be done to breathe new life into my church?”
If we’re looking for a perfect faith community—one that exactly models God’s ideal—then we have a long search ahead of us. A local church family is made up of less-than-perfect people representing many different backgrounds, and embracing those of vastly different levels of spiritual maturity and experience.
But God has clearly set before us an ideal, a standard, for how His children should function together within a community of believers. In the coming months, I would like to look more closely at the characteristics of healthy churches. What does a robust, productive local church look like? What characteristics define it? How are spiritually healthy communities nurtured and grown?
There are three litmus tests of healthy churches that come immediately to mind: the spiritual condition of individual believers; how these individuals relate to each other within their faith community; and how the congregation relates to the world beyond its doors—to those who are not believers.
Each of these aspects is intertwined. When there is dysfunction in one facet of church life, the whole body is compromised and its ability to fulfill its mission undermined. In this article, I would like to explore the first of these litmus tests: personal spiritual health.
Ellen White writes: “A healthy church is composed of healthy members, of men and women who have a personal experience in true godliness.”*
What are the characteristics of a healthy believer? How do we pursue an experience in godliness?
Being a serious Christian does not mean being somber or humorless. A serious Christian can be—perhaps should be—also a laughing person. But if you are a serious Christian, you have made informed choices about how you want to live your life. Your direction is determined by the decisions, both big and small, that you make every day; decisions that keep you moving forward on a path governed by faith. You have weighed the consequences and are clear about the values you want to live by. It is a very deliberate and ongoing process.
Being a serious Christian is not necessarily something that comes only with age; it can come to you very early on. But regardless of age or background, all believers who are growing spiritually are serious about God, serious about themselves, and serious about the choices they make.
In spite of what you may have heard, the Christian life is not one steady, uninterrupted upward journey. Each one of us experiences our fair share of defeats, as well as victories. And this is life. Spiritual growth is not about keeping score of defeats and victories, and God is not to be viewed as a referee—He is our friend.
I was wonderfully blessed to grow up in a home where Christian values were very uncomplicated. When you felt you had disappointed yourself, disappointed your parents, and disappointed God you didn’t get stuck on it. You were loved and embraced and forgiven. You moved on.
Yes, spiritual victories are markers—indicators—of growth. As I take stock of my Christian walk, I am hopefully able to say: “There was a time when I struggled with certain things—I messed up, I failed. But I’m done with that. That particular struggle is not there anymore.”
But the inevitable defeats are also part of the same growing process. They can be difficult and painful, but they are not the end of the story. When I fail, God reminds me of my value in His sight. He gives me strength by telling me that I’m loved and that, if I stay with Him, He will see me through.
You cannot nurture spiritual health if you don’t communicate with God—regularly, frequently, openly, and joyously. There is no alternative, no substitute, no shortcut. Healthy Christians are those who take responsibility for their own spiritual lives. They have discovered God for themselves—their faith is not dependent on the opinions or experiences of someone else, whether it is a parent, a spouse, a particular author, or a church leader.
Spiritual dependency on another person is a dangerous enterprise—it produces a skewed perspective that lacks the balance and depth that can come only through direct contact with God through Scripture, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines.
Read God’s Word for yourself; it is amazing what you will find. When I reread passages of Scripture I often say: “Why didn’t I see that earlier?” The words are the same, but things have happened in my life that bring new meaning, a new perspective.
Take also the writings of Ellen White. People are too often accustomed to making judgments based on excerpts, or paraphrases, or others’ interpretations. They do not bother to read her books for themselves—to see the breadth and balance and depth of her comments on a given subject. And they miss the wonderful wholeness and warmth that can be discovered only through personal inquiry.
It is vitally important that we teach our children from a very early age not to become dependent on their parents, their teachers, or anyone else for the development of their faith; that they know: “I have a primary responsibility to go to the Lord myself.” And to Bible teachers, pastors, and church leaders I say: “Do not succumb to the temptation of making personal spiritual disciples—it is a risky business.”
More than anything, I want to see Seventh-day Adventist Church members who are mentally and spiritually strong; church members who can say: “God is my friend.” And friendship with God is developed primarily through communication with Him in prayer.
How should we pray? There is no one “correct” way, or formula, for communicating with God. Approach Him with both awe and confidence. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you. But don’t expect Him to speak to you in mystical ways, although He can. God usually speaks to us most clearly through our rational mind, through patterns of thinking that have been shaped by disciplined study of His Word.
What is the outcome of personal spiritual growth? When you are growing spiritually, you have an unshakable sense of safety, a knowledge that you are loved and wholly accepted by God, that your salvation is secure—a gift of the One whose primary concern is to heal and to save.
It is time for us to revive the spiritual disciplines in our churches and homes. Lives that are grounded in regular communication with our Lord produce strong, secure, and compassionate men and women of God. And it is upon this bedrock that healthy churches are built.
* Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 710.
Next month: Pastor Paulsen continues his look at the spiritual markers of healthy churches.