It's such a common question. It's the perennial question that pastors ask one another whenever we assemble. It's the ministerial equivalent of "How about this weather we're having?"
It's such a versatile question. One person may ask it out of concern, having already been "read in" about an ongoing problem. Another person may employ it pridefully, salivating at the chance to answer the inevitable reciprocal inquiry. To a third it may be a completely empty question, asked with no expectation of a real answer just to build rapport and get the conversation going.
It's such an important question. Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it (Ephesians 5:25). Pastors give up less for their churches than Christ gave, but most pastors still sacrifice profoundly for the sake of churches. We pastors are sinners covered by the grace of God. We're trying to overcome a lot in ourselves-some of us are battling avarice, lustfulness, arrogance, hair-trigger tempers, domineering personalities, dysfunctional families, ingrained insecurities, overtaxed intellects, or exhausted emotions. Our bewildering variety of personalities and temptations notwithstanding, I've never met a pastor whose soul wouldn't delight in the satisfaction of being able to answer (truthfully), "My church is doing GREAT! Thanks for asking."
This question being so prominent, it amazes me that I've so often been entirely unprepared to answer it in a thoughtful and biblical way. How is my church doing? How would I know? Is that the same question as "How many people attend these days?" or "Are you going to make budget this year?" or "How many did you baptize last week?" For some of the people asking the question I know how THEY measure a church's health, but how does God evaluate my church? Isn't that the important question?
And so, while pondering that question, I decided to search the New Testament looking for those occasions where God gave a report card to a church. I'm not just talking about places where the Bible describes a church or even places where God evaluates an individual believer in the Bible. I'm talking about places where the Bible explicitly gives divine evaluation of a church.
The most prominent passage in this category occurs in Revelation 2-3, where Jesus delivered His sometimes-scathing, sometimes-sympathetic assessments of seven churches in Asia Minor. When God grades churches, what does He consider? As we grade our own churches, here are some questions we might ask.
How well does my church endure hard times?
The emphasis upon perseverance, endurance, and faithfulness through times of trial is easily the predominant theme of these letters. In every letter but the ones to Sardis and Laodicea, Jesus issued commendations to those who had been found faithful in difficult times. "I know…[that you] did not deny your faith in Me, even in the days of Antipas…who was killed among you." (2:13, all quotations HCSB)
From reading these letters, one might understandably conclude (wrongly) that these early churches knew nothing but hard times. In homage to Charles Dickens, we could say of the first-century church, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." It was an age of persecution in some churches, as these letters make clear. It was also a time of explosive church growth and geographical expansion for the gospel. I find it remarkable that Jesus had not one word to say about evangelism and missions-neither in praise nor in condemnation-when addressing seven churches during the most productive century of evangelism and missions that Christianity has ever known! There were plenty of good times to talk about, with so many people coming to know Jesus in Asia Minor, but Jesus chose to emphasize trials and endurance.
Might I suggest one possible reason for this? Maybe the health and character of my church is revealed more by the difficult times that we endure than by the good times that we enjoy. Dear pastor, the hard times your church is enduring right now are the test question, not the grade.
How important is sound doctrine to my church?
Intolerance is a virtue in Revelation 2-3-no, not intolerance itself, as though God had an undying admiration for the curmudgeonly, but rather principled intolerance toward a few things that, in Jesus' opinion, it is imperative for believers not to tolerate. Jesus complimented the Ephesians: "you cannot tolerate evil." (2:2) He chastised Thyatira because "you tolerate the woman Jezebel." (2:20) Pergamum and Sardis He upbraided for being tolerant. The intolerance that these letters applaud is intolerance toward breakaway sects and deviant doctrine.
Has my church clearly identified doctrines that we will not compromise no matter what the cost? Are there things that we would not do or say even if doing them or saying them would double our attendance, pay off our note, and put me on a speaking circuit? Are we determined never to please men if it comes at the cost of displeasing Christ?
Is my church hard at work?
Repeatedly Jesus opened the letters by telling these churches "I know your works." (2:2, 19; 3:1, 8, 15) Jesus' proposed cure to the church at Ephesus for having "abandoned the love [they had] at first" was that they should "do the works [they] did at first." (2:4-5) The first-century churches were hard at work, and their hard work paid off in the rapid spread of the gospel. From the frequency and position of these statements, we must conclude that Jesus is paying careful attention to every church's works.
No, works don't earn salvation, but the price paid for our salvation certainly earns a little of our work. Apart from the discussions about "the works of the Law" and miraculous works, work is a recurring theme in the New Testament. Jesus implored His disciples to pray for workers to be sent out into the harvest. Oh, Father, make me a pastor who is the leader of a team of workers!
Is my church pounding the pavement? Do we undertake the hard ministries, the difficult mission assignments, and the labor-intensive challenges? Are most of my people mobilized for service?
Does my church know how to repent?
When is the last time that your church repented of something? The Southern Baptist Convention has repented of racism in the past, but how many churches have done so? All systems of church polity have this much in common: They put the church into the hands of sinners. And so every church, even good churches, winds up offending the Lord and harming people sometimes. Is my church capable of acknowledging responsibility, owning blame, and saying that we're sorry?
How often does it happen that a church needs to repent of something? Jesus called more than half of these churches to repentance. Maybe that's an indication to us that, the way Jesus sees things, it needs to happen more than it does.
Of course, with so many people poised to find fault in churches, one can hardly wonder why we pastors spend more time reminding people what's going right with our churches than what's going wrong with them. Nevertheless, I believe that the reciprocity of forgiveness and repentance is the lubricating oil of human interaction. I pray that God will keep me from being so much of an optimist that I cannot see my church's sins-my own sins-and be contrite about them in repentance.
There are other important things in those letters: love, moral living, authenticity. I haven't given us an exhaustive list, but each of these four themes figures prominently in the letters. It strikes me that my friends and I often grade our churches by different standards than the one Jesus uses in these letters. Seeing my church the way Jesus sees it encourages me in some ways and challenges me in others, but in every way, it helps to make me a better pastor.