Marks of an Unhealthy Church?

Not long ago my co-pastor and BFF, Rev. Chris Márquez, said in a sermon that something that isn’t growing is dead. He said this in reference to Christians that are not growing can often times be spiritually dead. I think the same can be said of churches. Before you push back and think that I’m getting ready to come down on small churches, chill… it’s not that kinda’ party! Where I’m actually going with this is a whole different path. Ya’ll know that we’ve recently had some denominational challenges, and that experience has challenged me to be more thorough and strategic in how we go forward. 

It’s sad, as I’ve come to realize that many Reformed/ Presbyterian churches can be extremely territorial. For instance, there is a friend of ours, Peter Bell, who is planting Santa Ana Reformed in Orange County, CA. and as he was soliciting support and encouragement from other Reformed/ Presbyterian churches, I recall the story being told to me about how they hosted a meeting of interest in which they opened themselves up to meeting with folks who might be interested in this work that would begin in Santa Ana. At these types of meetings, there are usually snacks and the vision and mission of the church plant is explained, there’s a Q&A session for folks who have specific questions about the plant, etc. 

I recall ours in 2017 and within the first 2 minutes we were getting asked hot topic questions about roles, gender, leadership, theology, denominational affiliations, etc. Well, at this meeting that Peter and his wife hosted to try and gather support for a launch team that would commit to helping get this church plant going, there were people that showed up from another Reformed church, but instead of being there to support, the attitude was more of a “you don’t need to plant in Orange County, we’ve got it covered”. And I believe those might’ve actually been the words used, verbatim. I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. And that’s kinda’ where I want to go with this blog post… as Reformed folk, we talk A LOT about having the right theology, a lot about solid doctrine, and we talk a lot about those who have a whack theology, but when it’s time for the rubber to meet the road and help reach lost souls… you’ll hear one of three things:

  1. Crickets.
  2. Go for it, we gotchu… and then crickets.
  3. Or don’t plant here, we’ve got it under control. 

You see, the funny part is that this church, who was being represented not by the pastor or elders, but by an elder’s wife. There’s so much more that I could say but won’t, but I will say this, that church represented by these folks at that meeting was the very one insinuating that RCLA was egalitarian, crazy right? But that’s another story for another time. Why is it that many Reformed folk talk a lot about reaching the world and are quick to quote Matthew 28 and Acts 1 but won’t make an effort to reach their neighbors. Why is it that so many Reformed folk are quick to throw money at overseas missionaries but won’t throw some conversation to their neighbor to get to know them and share Christ? Seriously, why not?

I recently had a conversation with another brother, a Presbyterian dude, and he said that’s not how it works, he said that somehow God would sovereignly place these lights in the darkness in order to draw His people in, and I’m like, “Yeah bro! Those lights are the church!!!” Jesus didn’t wait on folks to walk into the synagogue before He ministered to them, nah man… He pounded the pavement (not literally, right? But the dirt!) and walked the hoods of Jerusalem seeking to meet the needs of the broken and lost. 

He healed the sick, He fed the hungry, He called sinners to repentance, He met with the powerful as well as the lowly, and all this He did as He went out to the people. If Jesus did this, why are so many Christians then so comfortable with not doing the same? Why are so many churches inward focused alone and feel good about just sending a check to missionaries overseas but not willing to cross to the other side of the tracks (the hood) and get to know their neighbors there, share the Gospel, see what needs they have (as Jesus did) and help meet them? And please, I am not talking about helping meet their needs and leaving the Gospel out, no, quite they contrary. We should do all these things to build up rapport and trust so that these folks would know that we actually care. There’s a saying around these parts that says, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care!”

So what do we call churches that won’t support church plants, who are inwardly focused, commute to church because they don’t reside in nor connect with their community, and some of these types of churches don’t even have a pastor…. yep, you read that right. We call them “Unhealthy!” That’s what we call these types of churches, unhealthy! It matters not the church’s solid doctrine, it matters not their dope theology, or even their beloved Reformed confessions… those things are irrelevant, I believe, when our faith lived out goes against the teachings of Jesus. 

Seriously! How can a church that makes no effort to reach the lost, isn’t known by it’s community, makes visitors feel uncomfortable, looks down their theological nose at others who hold to different views or practices, how can a church that has no lead pastor, unable to find a pastor, who not only fails to support Reformed churches in their region or county, and even hinders the work by trying to intimidate and spread untruths about other churches who in fact are doing the hard work of ministry… how can that type of church be considered healthy? It can’t, right?

I strongly believe that is one of the major downfalls of my beloved Reformed/ Presbyterian culture… we’re not aware of our theological arrogance and can even jokingly boast about it and attempt to play it off as jest… but there ain’t nothing funny about hindering the work of God. I know that these types of churches don’t think they’re hindering the work of God but what else could it be? We’ve recently been having some not so pleasant conversations with our church landlords. They’re a great group of saints, but utterly disconnected from the reality of what ministry is like in 2022. They’ve got 5-6 seniors that worship regularly on Sundays and that’s it. I so admire their desire to grow the church, I admire their dreams and aspirations to try to bring the church back to life, but it’s justs not gonna happen, at least not the way they think or hope.

I remember reading an article from Exponential that caught my attention. It was, “Dying to Restart: Churches Choosing a Strategic Death for a Multiplying Life” and many churches deny their death, refusal to enter ministerial hospice, and they won’t accept that fact that their church is dead… I get it that we can feel like we failed Jesus but the reality is that it is not failure. I wonder how many churches are still going from the 1st century, not many right? I believe that all churches (not the Church” have an expiration date. And if a church, like any other living thing is not growing, then it is in fact is dead, and the church can do one of two things:

  1. Acknowledge that their time is over and discern how to best use their remaining resources to continue or best support Gospel ministry. 
  2. Remain in denial and hinder other Gospel ministry work. 

I think this is the case for many Reformed, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. In fact, one of my best friends is a Lutheran pastor who recently went through a similar situation, the difference is that he knew the reality of the dire situation of their church and chose to do the right thing, honor God with their resources, see how to use what they had to impact the community in the name of Christ, and to best steward it all for the purpose of exalting Jesus. How I wish that others would have the same grasp of reality and be willing to say, “Hey, our time is over… how can we bless the next generation of Kingdom work being done in the name of Christ?” But there’s a major hindrance to that… it’s called idolatry. 

You see, one of the things that I’ve observed is that at some point these churches were doing extremely well. I say extremely well in the sense that you could look at them and see the church as it would appear to be thriving (only God knows how many of those there were truly saved when thriving) and flourishing. One church comes to mind who had a very active presence on the radio, and from what I’ve heard that seemed to be their draw. It was as if they were known for the pastoral personality and the other theological bigwigs connected to them by way of said programming. That’s a really good thing, especially as a ministry like that can impact so many people far and wide, right? But what happens when that’s over? What happens when the program dies? When there was never true discipleship, and when the pastor retires or moves on there is no one left to fill that void? What happens when a church like that can’t seem to find the right pastor to fit their culture? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the endless candidates who just don’t fit their mold, but instead maybe something is wrong with that culture?

Most Reformed folk all agree on what a true church looks like, and we look at 3 things:

  1. The pure preaching of the Gospel. 
  2. The proper administration of the Sacraments. 
  3. The exercise of church discipline. 

I would agree with all these and many true churches have these marks but have failed in the area of discipleship, outreach, and establishing a leadership pipeline. Practically speaking, the way many Reformed churches plant and call ministers just isn’t working anymore, and if I’m 100% sincere, I don’t think it’s ever worked longer than a few generations. Our past church planting strategies have been not so much to plant new churches, but instead start new services in areas where there may already be a group of “Reformed” families living. So, what would happen is a young minister finishing up seminary would be called to intern or do some type of residency and see if he’d be willing to relocate to said area, mother or sending church would send 50-100 people and voila! A Reformed/ Presbyterian church would be planted… but the truth is that’s NOT a church plant. It’s a church “transplant” or a new service or extended service, in a new area from an existing church. 

To plant a new church is so much more different than that. It’s planting seeds, its watering, it’s seeing new folks come to faith, seeing baptism after baptism, folks growing in their knowledge and love of Christ. It’s folks understanding biblical truths for the first time and seeing them on fire for Jesus… it’s seeing new churches truly make an impact in their communities as they seek to see the lost saved. In my humble opinion, I think that if churches aren’t reaching their communities, if they aren’t seeing conversions and baptisms (not just babies but adults), if they aren’t known in their city, if they have no new leaders being trained and prepped for the next generation, if they can’t seem to fill vacancies because no one is the right “fit” then maybe, just maybe that church has an expiration date on it and needs to figure out how to best move forward instead of trying to relive the past. That’s where idolatry comes in, the constant desire and fight to have things the way they used to be. 

The truth is that times change, and either the church adapts to continue to preach and teach the same message, without adding to it, changing it, nor diluting it… but doing so in a way that keeps the church in the know of what’s happening culturally, that they might best meet the needs of their community in the name of Christ, or not. And, if churches refuse to stay up to date with what’s going on… well, eventually they will die, or might in fact be dead already and unwilling to admit that. I pray that my church family would always be cognizant of our need to remain open handed and know that whatever we have, it’s because God has called us to steward it. Whether they be finances, property, relationships, and opportunities… they all come from God and we will be held accountable and responsible for how we handle it all. I pray that Reformed Church L.A. can be a place that continues to have a consistent flow in our leadership pipeline, that we’d continue to plant churches in hard places, and that we’d always be aware of what God is telling us to do. We never want to waste what God has given us for the sake of theological arrogance and memories of the past. 

If you’re a pastor reading this, please check your heart (as I check mine) and see where we might be doing more to help others outside our own churches. If you’re an elder or deacon, talk about this at your Consistory/ Session/ Council meetings. If you’re a church member not in leadership, talk to your leaders and ask questions. May all we say and do be for the glory of God, for the preparation and good stewardship of what He’s given us for the sake of reaching the lost that they too might be saved, and that we’d be healthy churches for generation after generation. And this can’t and won’t happen if my beloved Reformed friends and their churches have territorial issues, competitive spirits amongst each other, and in the process focus more on the past than being relevant for Christ in the future. 

Our own Santa Ana crew showed up to show our support of Santa Ana Reformed’s first public service!

Friends, they’re not our churches, they belong to the Triune God and how dare us challenge His work being done by fellow brothers and ministers because we think we’re all that and a bag of chips. RCLA is also planting a church in the same exact city as our friends at Santa Ana Reformed, and there is ZERO rivalry, we’re all on the same team. We even went to their initial public launch last week. Why? Because we love them and will support them even if we’re not in the same denomination, they’re our homies, but even more importantly, they are brothers in Christ working hard for Jesus, why would any real believer not support each other’s work and ministry. The truth is that one day we will have to give an account for every careless word and deed. I pray that I am more of a blessing to folks than a hindrance. Please pray for church planters all over, it’s not an easy job, we’re not supported in many ways or even at all at times. Consider joining a church plant, supporting a plant, or giving to meet its financial needs, it’s our duty and privilege.

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