A Healthy Church is a Flourishing Church

Paul Davies

Our dreams and visions for the renewal of parish life and our longing to join in with God’s mission in the world as signs of the kingdom of God are influenced and largely determined by the health of our church communities.

As we seek through prayer, reflection and action to live the life of Jesus as communities of his disciples we continue to affirm or discover new ways of engaging with and being a part of God’s mission in our local society and in the world, particularly in terms of the pursuit of justice and salvation for the world in Christ. In our times, as in previous generations, we face the challenge of global injustice and poverty and yet in this generation we face the possible collapse of the earth’s ecosystem and the devastation of our life and planet through climate change.

Church health is of the essence if we are to have the energy and the will to have any chance of overcoming these destructive forces and make the Kingdom of Heaven a reality in our time and that of our children. Our endeavours, through the grace of God, are to create flourishing churches so as to fulfil God’s purpose for the Church and the people of the world, for the soil, water and air that we inhabit as God’s creatures.

For our church community to flourish as part of these endeavours we need to affirm the importance of church health as communities of faith. Church health as it is understood today is spoken of as the “fundamental principle,” or the DNA of church life.

A healthy church creates a flourishing church.

A church cannot flourish and grow
in influential action where its health is at a low ebb.

We live in a world of constant change and sometimes we can feel that everything has changed, particularly in the face of difficulties and things we don’t understand. The whole history of the Church from the time of Jesus has always been about change and yet the importance of what contributes to church health has stayed the same throughout, which explains why church health is spoken of as the DNA of the church, or the fundamental principle from which everything else springs forth for good and for ill in the life of the Church and its influence in the world.

One of the simplest ways to begin to talk about church health is to make a reference to human health. In the same way as our bodies need to have a balanced and a healthy diet so as to flourish, so it is with the church.

Church health has three fundamental elements just as in the same way a balanced food diet has three fundamental elements. These are Worship (protein), Fellowship (fats), Mission (carbohydrates).

Worship in church health is defined as the experience of personal and corporate acts of worship and prayer.

Mission is the twofold sharing of the Good News of the Life of Christ and of the Kingdom of Heaven and the bringing of that Life into the world through the pursuit of service, wellbeing and justice in the world as the body of Christ on earth.

Fellowship is the social and personal flourishing of church life and the coming together as disciples to share the things of God which is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and when he said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”.

Each of these three elements are a requisite and necessary for a healthy church.

For a church diet to be healthy it is not enough to simply have the three elements present. The three elements need also to be in a right balance with each other so as to be healthy. For the human body this means there will be more proteins than fats in a healthy and balanced diet. To take the analogy one step further it would be to say that for church life to be healthy and then to flourish the balance between Worship, Fellowship, and Mission will often need to be positionally realigned so as to be able to meet the challenges and opportunities of the moment.

The symbiotic dynamic of the three ingredients for a healthy church can be spoken of as Worship being the Receiving from God and each other. Fellowship as the Sharing with God and with each other and Mission as the Giving to God and to the world.

The essential dynamic and natural movement is from Receiving to Sharing, from Sharing to Giving, from Giving to Receiving.

In the same way as the hand of the clock moves clockwise and not anticlockwise. This is not to deny a possible movement in the opposite direction.

Examples of church health in Scripture

In Acts 2 the disciples, “Give to anyone who had need,” (mission). They “Broke bread in their homes,” (fellowship), “Praising God,” (worship) “And enjoying the favour of all the people”.

In John 15 there is the abiding in the vine (worship), there are the many branches (fellowship) and the bearing of fruit (mission).

The fundamental principle of a healthy church can also be seen when Jesus reminds us, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

To love God is to worship, (to Receive), to love our neighbour is mission, (to Give) to love ourselves is in fact to love each other (to Share) as the body of Christ.

Perhaps the hardest thing in our time may be not loving God (Worship) or the world (Mission), rather it might be taking the time and energy to love ourselves – each other (Fellowship). Despite the fact Jesus says to us,

“A new command I give you: Love one another as I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

Jim Wallis writes in his book, The Call to Conversion, “Our communion with God and with one another is so small that we just do not have the strength or the resources to live the way Jesus taught.” page 24.

He also writes, “The greatest need of our time is for koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world. The creation of living breathing, loving communities of faith (Fellowship) at the local church level is the foundation of all the other answers.” (Page 112.)

Energy and church health

Can these dry bones live? The prophet asked.

Church (A) experiences energy and hope while church (B) experiences the same church life as something that is dispiriting and lacking enthusiasm, at a deep level there is spiritual tiredness, even anxiety. Clearly church (A) will be able to work towards making its God given vision a reality more joyfully than church B. Both these different experiences of church life are determined by the awareness and the attention that is given to the importance of church health in terms of Worship, Fellowship, Mission and their symbiotic and relational nature. What needs to be avoided is for Worship, Fellowship, Mission to be in competition with each other. When this happens energy is lost, it’s like driving a car with the hand brake on. When there is competition the church diet becomes unhealthy. Unless they are brought back into a symbiotic balance it will lead to a deep sickness, and a lack of influences of the loving Kingdom of God in praxis.

Working with church health imbalance 

In church life any one of the three elements of a church diet can become out of balance with the other two and will need to be attended to so as to enable the church to continue to be healthy and to flourish. For example, a church can recognise that while there is a lot of worship and mission taking place there is only very limited fellowship being experienced in church life at this time. What is more, while people are being attracted to the church community because of its worship and missional activities people do not stay and become a part of the community because of the lack of their experience of fellowship.

A healthy church creates a flourishing church
A church cannot flourish when it’s not healthy.

Answers to church health imbalance 

A second imbalance can be experienced when a church can desire in its vision and action to reach out to the wider community through offering relevant Fellowship and then feels frustrated at the lack of of response in the local society. It’s as though everything has been tried with little outcome.

One answer to this experience in the understanding of church health would be to review, revaluate and renew the initiatives or create new ones.

Then if there is still a spirit of being stuck and lacking good outcomes then the natural and creative thing to do would be to work out how the church community’s experience of Worship and Mission can be strengthened with more positive energy which will then organically strengthen the influence of Fellowship indirectly.

Breathing well with a strong Heart

A helpful metaphor for understanding church health is to look at the relationship between the lungs and the heart in a body. To have good health a church needs to have two strong lungs, one is worship, and the other is mission, so as to breathe in the breath of God the Spirit (Receive) and to have the energy to breathe out (Give) through the whole body in thought and action.The church body also needs a strong heart to pump the blood round the body and to enable the lungs to inhale through the lung of Worship and exhale through the lung of Mission.

The heart being Fellowship without which the lungs cannot function. In our western culture, because of the value that is placed on individualism and personal freedom and privatisation of the home, it is perhaps the heart that needs the greatest attention in terms of strengthening through the creation of nutrients to feed the mission tree in the context of parish life so as to be fruitful.

The healthy tortoise

When considering church health for renewal of parish life there is a lot we can learn from tortoises. For a tortoise to be healthy so as to live and move it needs to have grown a healthy shell. A healthy shell can only be created through calcium and the metabolization through Vitamin A and D3. Each of the three elements need to be in balance and in the right proportion to each other for the shell to grow and be healthy. The same is true for church health in terms of Worship, Fellowship and Mission.

Are we a good gardener and farmer?

It is life giving and energising for each church member to pay attention to the health of the church as does a gardener or farmer in the growing season. Attention is essential if the symbiotic nature of Worship, Mission and particularly Fellowship are to do their job in stimulating the energy and life sap that is needed so as to create a flourishing church life. In one of Jesus’ parables a man wants to cut down his fig tree because of the lack of fruit. The gardener says to the owner of the fig tree, “Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig around it and put in some fertilizer.” (Luke13)

The fertilizer is the nutrients, the three elements of church health.

Final thought

Much of what has been said about church health may be seen to be obvious and implicit in all the activities of local parish life. In response it can however be said that when something is not seen to be demonstrated explicitly in thought, word and action then it cannot be considered a priority. For parish life to flourish church health needs to be a priority and needs to be expressed explicitly and not assumed to be implicit.

Church health provides the
fundamental nutrients to feed
our vision, hope, dreams.
Without due attention to our health,
we are a danger
to ourselves and to our world.
A healthy church creates a flourishing church.
The church like our planet cannot flourish
when it is not healthy.

One local example
‘Time 4 You’ – a Wellbeing Café
Clapham Parish Church, Bedford

Six years ago, at the start of Advent, a couple of people in a village church felt led to open the door and be more available for people. They put the kettle on, took mugs of hot chocolate into the carpark where parents had just dropped off their children for school and invited them into the warmth of the church.  Over time relationships began to grow and a few became a dozen or so. Grandparents helped with the little ones, joys & sorrows were shared and underpinned with prayer. During lockdown the WhatsApp group started by one of the parents came into its own, with a recipe and prayer/thought/picture every Tuesday and occasional al-fresco gatherings in the summer on socially distanced picnic rugs. A readiness to listen to and engage with people was foundational and as relationships grew so did the support and prayer for one another in the group.

Coming out of lockdown and with PCC approval and help from others in the church, T4Y became an intentional Wellbeing Café which now meets every Tuesday in school term times from 8am to 12.30pm in a large prefab building used as a church hall which offers a more flexible space. As well as giving parents and others an opportunity to relax together in a welcoming and supportive environment, there is now a more deliberate focus on mental and spiritual wellbeing – it is becoming a form of ‘Relational Church’.

On my visit to the Café known as T4Y, I found 15 women, mostly young mums with babies, sitting talking to each other round a long table. The table has grown in time as more people have come to sit together and it’s where the craft activities usually take place. There are toys on the floor and toddlers freely move around the space. There are some grandparents and helpers who play with the young children. There are church members who are part of the team who sit and chat with everyone. The place feels full and is a happy place, a place of community, with good coffee and tasty homemade cakes – what a joy.

There is no real advertisement of T4Y in the community as it speaks for itself. It is a place where people want to gather, a place where neighbours and friends are glad to be invited and are glad to stay and often return and become part of the café community.  At some point during the morning, those who would like to, are invited to move to a quiet space in a nearby room for a time of reflection and prayer. At present the Lectio 365 App is used as a basis for the prayers, being easily accessible to everyone. People take the opportunity to relate the Bible reflection and the prayers to the struggles, joys and sorrows in their lives and there is opportunity to share concerns and prayers for others or themselves. After the prayers some stay and continue to talk together in this quiet space, sometimes deeply. When I asked Rev’d Christine what makes T4Y work and be so attractive to people in this large urban village, the reply was “first and foremost relationships, and then prayer, and then helpers”.

This Wellbeing Café is an example of what could become a sustainable and healthy church of tomorrow as it includes the three elements of a healthy church.

Most importantly, for Relational Church, the fellowship of the community experience round the common table has a Eucharistic feel about it. As well as the many one to one relational conversations taking place, there is a deeply felt fellowship of mutuality and trust. Worship, the second element of a healthy church, is experienced through the intentional inclusion of the time of prayer.

Mission, the third element of a healthy church, happens naturally through the creation of a suitable environment in which community building, personal support and development is enabled, particularly with those who are struggling with the demands of life. The quality of the mission and worship of T4Y is clearly determined by the quality and emphasis on building a strong relational culture underpinned by prayer.

Most of the people who come have had very little to do with the Church and Christianity and would not see themselves as traditional Sunday church goers. One of the more recent developments is that some of the T4Y regulars wanted to meet together at another time to talk through their questions about God. Under the leadership of Rev’d Christine, they are reading through Luke’s Gospel bit by bit and relating this to their own life experiences. This is surely an outworking of the mission of the church, which has arisen from the Café community which is deeply rooted in the values of relational church in practice and where the fragrance of love is experienced in people’s lives.

Some people would want to call this a Fresh Expression, an example of “mixed ecology” or simply Church, the life of Christ lived out relationally. In the “dynamic theory” of Relational Church the positive energy is generated through the fellowship, which creates and reinforces the mission and worship of the Café community. T4Y is a good example of the understanding and living out of Relational Church, growing in depth and in numbers, an example of people building the new church of tomorrow, right now.