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December 30, 2010

A Healthy Church

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

Checking email last night following my arrival home after a meeting, the little hairs on the back of my neck rose ever so slightly as I noticed that my friendly neighborhood Christian-church basher sent me his latest missive. Honestly, last night wasn’t a good time to read another endless rant on why the church on earth, as presently constituted, was not what God wanted for us in terms of worship, fellowship, or anything else. In fact, I clicked the little box next to the email with all the good intentions of deleted it before I even opened it.

But since I was in a decent mood, I opened the email instead.

Surprisingly, the lighter and friendlier tone of the email surprised me. My letter writer even wished me “Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year,” after complaining that the church’s use of the word “merry” actually took away from a true understanding of the day of Christmas. Otherwise, the letter was different that usual – I guess the Christmas spirit even got to him.

In writing about the understanding of the church and why it celebrates Christmas, he asked a rather “devil’s advocate” type of question, one that didn’t surprise me.

“Pastor, what then constitutes a healthy and vibrant church?”

Of course, to my buddy, a healthy and vibrant church is one that is growing by leaps and bounds, has many different programs running at all times of the day, and lives by the social gospel. His evidence? Yesterday in the New York Times, they reported on two Methodist churches who share the same building, but the congregations do not get along. One of the churches is Latino and small; the other is a quickly growing Chinese congregation. The Latino church owns the building and resents that the Chinese church is not living up to its lease agreement in terms of time and space used. The Chinese congregation resents the small Latino church for placing shackles on them as their numbers grow.

“It is obvious, Pastor Iovine, that the Chinese immingrant church is much more healthy and vibrant since they are touching more and more people with the gospel,” my letter wrote. “One cannot claim that the smaller Hispanic church is healthy.”

I didn’t have the heart to respond last night because I believe his premise is wrong.

The use of the words “healthy” and “vibrant” are at many times overused when it comes to looking at individual churches. Simply put, society and many Chrisitian leaders view the terms “healthy” and “vibrant” and almost always tie it into church attendance and growth. If the money in the offering plate and the rear ends in the pews aren’t there, the belief goes, then the church is dying and must either change or close its doors.

But what constitutes a “healthy and vibrant” church, in my opinion?

I believe at the center of a healthy and vibrant church is the Word of God and His Sacraments. Whether there 3000 people sitting the pews or 30, where the Word of God and the Means of Grace are, there is a healthy church. Wherever the faith of the Christian is being fed, one finds a vibrant and faithful church. That doesn’t mean that a spiritually healthy church is large and growing and has plenty of money; it is healthy when the faithful are being fed by God.

As a society – and even as a church body – our focus on business side of the church overwhelms our deep understanding of what is the church. While it is a blessing to have a growing congregation, there are far too many churches that are not numercially growing. If God’s Word and Sacraments are in that place, it would be foolish to consider that place anything less than healthy. And yes, these small churches are a blessing.

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Read more from Christianity, Church, LCMS

A Healthy Church

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

Checking email last night following my arrival home after a meeting, the little hairs on the back of my neck rose ever so slightly as I noticed that my friendly neighborhood Christian-church basher sent me his latest missive. Honestly, last night wasn’t a good time to read another endless rant on why the church on earth, as presently constituted, was not what God wanted for us in terms of worship, fellowship, or anything else. In fact, I clicked the little box next to the email with all the good intentions of deleted it before I even opened it.

But since I was in a decent mood, I opened the email instead.

Surprisingly, the lighter and friendlier tone of the email surprised me. My letter writer even wished me “Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year,” after complaining that the church’s use of the word “merry” actually took away from a true understanding of the day of Christmas. Otherwise, the letter was different that usual – I guess the Christmas spirit even got to him.

In writing about the understanding of the church and why it celebrates Christmas, he asked a rather “devil’s advocate” type of question, one that didn’t surprise me.

“Pastor, what then constitutes a healthy and vibrant church?”

Of course, to my buddy, a healthy and vibrant church is one that is growing by leaps and bounds, has many different programs running at all times of the day, and lives by the social gospel. His evidence? Yesterday in the New York Times, they reported on two Methodist churches who share the same building, but the congregations do not get along. One of the churches is Latino and small; the other is a quickly growing Chinese congregation. The Latino church owns the building and resents that the Chinese church is not living up to its lease agreement in terms of time and space used. The Chinese congregation resents the small Latino church for placing shackles on them as their numbers grow.

“It is obvious, Pastor Iovine, that the Chinese immingrant church is much more healthy and vibrant since they are touching more and more people with the gospel,” my letter wrote. “One cannot claim that the smaller Hispanic church is healthy.”

I didn’t have the heart to respond last night because I believe his premise is wrong.

The use of the words “healthy” and “vibrant” are at many times overused when it comes to looking at individual churches. Simply put, society and many Chrisitian leaders view the terms “healthy” and “vibrant” and almost always tie it into church attendance and growth. If the money in the offering plate and the rear ends in the pews aren’t there, the belief goes, then the church is dying and must either change or close its doors.

But what constitutes a “healthy and vibrant” church, in my opinion?

I believe at the center of a healthy and vibrant church is the Word of God and His Sacraments. Whether there 3000 people sitting the pews or 30, where the Word of God and the Means of Grace are, there is a healthy church. Wherever the faith of the Christian is being fed, one finds a vibrant and faithful church. That doesn’t mean that a spiritually healthy church is large and growing and has plenty of money; it is healthy when the faithful are being fed by God.

As a society – and even as a church body – our focus on business side of the church overwhelms our deep understanding of what is the church. While it is a blessing to have a growing congregation, there are far too many churches that are not numercially growing. If God’s Word and Sacraments are in that place, it would be foolish to consider that place anything less than healthy. And yes, these small churches are a blessing.

Read more from Christianity, Church, LCMS

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