All my life, I’ve heard this sentiment expressed, and if you’ve been around the type of church I have for very long, you’ve probably heard it too: We can’t judge the spiritual health of a church by results.
This, of course, means that the success of a church isn’t defined the way the world defines success. Big crowds, big buildings, and big budgets are not necessarily marks of a healthy church. If the masses are attracted to a church because it embraces the world and never preaches against sin, that church is dead even if its crowds can fill an arena. Pragmatism is not a fruit of the Spirit. Jesus let His doctrine determine the size of His crowd, not vice versa.
The world tells us we should always strive for more. Bigger numbers equals more success. The aforementioned statistics may not paint an accurate picture of a church’s spiritual condition in terms of their absolute numbers, but when we read more into them, they can serve as meaningful indicators.
The main factor we can use is one Jesus used Himself: fruitfulness. When was the last time someone made a profession of faith in one of your church services? When was the last time someone was baptized? When was the last time altars were filled with people responding to the message they heard? If you have to excavate the archives in the church office to answer those questions, your church is in trouble. And before we go blaming the church for just being spiritually deaf, maybe we should consider whether or not they’re being told anything worth responding to.
The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. How can a church claim to be “gospel-centered”, as the fad is these days, when they aren’t seeing people come to Christ? An emphasis on proclaiming the gospel will produce fruit. That’s a promise. If their is no fruit, their “gospel-centeredness” is nothing more than a hollow marketing scam.
When Jesus came across a fig tree in Mark 11, He expected to find fruit. The figs grew before the leaves, so, seeing the tree was in full bloom, there should have been figs. Too many churches are like that tree. They have plenty of bright, flashy leaves–modern facilities, well-dressed members, state-of-the-art multimedia, vibrant music, fresh coffee–and no fruit to be found.
What about attendance? Why do people choose to join the church? Why do they stay? Why do they leave? Is the church growing? Is attendance declining? What if it is? Is the level of turnover normal compared to most churches, or are people leaving like the building’s on fire? Who is leaving? What if the folks who are finding another place to worship are the ones who were active in ministry and faithfully attended for years or even decades? Why leave now, if that’s the case? Something kept them there all that time, and something serious changed if they’re leaving now.
What about budgets? What is the money being spent on? It’s generally regarded as a negative if too much of the budget is inwardly focused (just maintaining the day-to-day status quo). And it goes without saying that the church is facing an emergency when outreach programs are being eliminated and missionaries are being cut off just to keep the lights on and the water running.
You can’t judge a church by its results? Sure you can, if you’re looking at the right ones. By all means, don’t change your convictions or water down your message to draw crowds or protect feelings. But be discerning. Finding no fruit on that fig tree, Jesus cursed it. If it wouldn’t bear fruit, it deserved no leaves, and the Lord left it to wither and die. At that point, it was only good for kindling. If the Lord would declare such judgment on a plan that wouldn’t do what it was supposed to, how much more zealous will He be in judging the church for which He paid with His blood?