10 Marks of a Healthy Church

Combining elements of both the institutional and the charismatic perspectives, such a model of renewal assumes the fact and the value of some form of the institutional church as well as the need for repeated renewal through more or less distinct renewal movements.

The problem is to conceive of a renewing structure which brings new life to the larger church without either compromising its own vitality or causing a split. It must be a structure which can be seen as normative—that is, whose appearance and impact are seen not as an aberration, but as part of the working of the Spirit of God in the church. (This is not to imply that the decline of the church is ever normative but only that, given conditions of decline, one may expect certain patterns of renewal.)

The following model appears to fit these requirements. All the elements described hereafter were found in early Methodism and could be illustrated as well from other renewal movements. And this model seems to me to be an elaboration of the way John Wesley himself understood the Spirit’s renewing work in the church.

1. The renewal movement “rediscovers” the gospel.

Initially one or more persons discover, in both experience and concept, what they consider to be a new dynamic in the Christian faith. This experience alters their perception of the nature of the faith, or of its essential core, thus constituting or leading to a new model or paradigm of the gospel and of the church (a paradigm shift). Whether this rediscovery is true to Scripture or not is in each case an open question to be evaluated. Some rediscoveries may be heretical or bogus! A new movement’s initial renewal cell consists simply of those who have gained this altered experience and/or perception of the faith. It seems that renewal movements are made up primarily of those who have gained the new experience, with varying degrees of understanding, but also of a certain number of people (often more or less on the fringes) who have had the conceptual conversion but not yet the new experience. August Hermann Francke and John Wesley illustrate such an intense personal religious crisis; Philip Spener and Count Zinzendorf less so. Spener’s and Zinzendorf’s altered perceptions of the faith seem to have come more or less gradually and to have been less linked to a personal spiritual crisis. Yet clearly these two figures, quite as much as Wesley and Francke, set forth a conception of the faith which, though formally orthodox, was also distinctly different from the prevailing conception—different at least in the placing of accents or in the basic models and paradigms used. Based on my study of Pietism, Methodism, and Moravianism and comparisons of these movements with others through history,

I conclude that such a gospel rediscovery is a distinctive factor in renewal movements and should, therefore, be a key element in any mediating model. Genuine renewal movements often begin when a few people, by God’s grace, rediscover the heart and power of the gospel.

2. The renewing movement exists as an ecclesiola.

That is, it is a smaller, more intimate expression of the church within the church. It sees itself not as the true church in an exclusive sense, but as a form of the church which is necessary to the life of the larger church, and which in turn needs the larger church in order to be complete. It understands itself as necessary not merely because of a perceived lack in the larger church but also because of a conviction that the Christian faith can be fully experienced only in some such “subecclesial” or small-church form.

3. The renewing movement uses some form of small group structure.

It is an ecclesiola not in a vague or general sense; it takes on a specific small-group form within the local congregation. Thus it is an ecclesiola in two senses: both as a group within the Christian church at large and in the more restricted sense of a movement expressing itself in specific small communities within the local congregation. While the size and structure of these small groups may vary, generally they are composed of a dozen or less persons and meet regularly once a week. This is a fairly consistent pattern across movements.

4. The renewal movement has some structural link with the institutional church.

This is crucial if the renewal structure is to have a revitalizing impact without sparking division. Some kind of tie between the two structures is mutually sought and agreed upon. This may mean ecclesiastical recognition as a religious order, ordination of renewal leaders, or some other organizational linkage. This may take the form of official recognition of and liaison with the renewal body, as wisely happened in Roman Catholic accommodations to the Catholic charismatic renewal.

It was precisely this structural tie that was lacking in the case of Methodism and the Waldenses. Count Zinzendorf with his Moravians sought such a tie, with only limited success. Francis of Assisi fully achieved the link by gaining papal approval for his order.

Effective movement leaders who gain some recognition by the larger church become saints. Those who do not are often pronounced heretics. Francis of Assisi (Franciscans) and Peter Waldo (Waldenses) are two outstanding examples.

5. Because it sees itself not as the total church but as a necessary part of the church, the renewal structure is committed to the unity, vitality, and wholeness of the larger church.

It will be concerned first of all with the life of that branch of the church which forms its most immediate context (for example, a denomination or a theological or ecclesiastical tradition), but will also have a vision for the universal church and a concern for its unity and united witness.

6. The renewal structure is mission-oriented.

It senses keenly its specific purpose and mission, which is conceived in part as the renewal of the church and in part as witness to the world. It will stress practical ethics, attempting  to combine faith and love, belief with everyday life.

7. The renewal movement is especially conscious of being a distinct,
covenant-based community.

It knows it is not the whole church; it senses its own incompleteness. But it sees itself as a visible form of the true church. It does not attempt or intend to carry on all the functions of the church but is a restricted community of people voluntarily committed to each other. Based on a well-understood covenant, it has the capability of exercising discipline, even to the point of exclusion, among its members.

As a community the renewal movement prizes face-to-face relationships, mutuality, and interdependence. It especially stresses Scriptures that speak of koinonia, mutual encouragement, and admonition within the body—a “one-another” community. It sees itself as a primary structure for experiencing those key aspects of the church.

8. The renewal movement provides the context for the rise,
training, and exercise of new forms of ministry and leadership.

Out of its experience of community comes a practical emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit and the priesthood of believers. This consciousness combines with the natural need for leadership within the movement and the outward impulse of witness and service to produce both the opportunity and the enabling context for new forms of ministry and new leaders who arise not through the more restricted, established ecclesiastical channels (typically, education and ordination, restricted to males), but through practical experience and the shared life of the group. This happened in Methodism as well as in other renewal movements. The renewal group provides not only opportunities for leadership and service but also a natural environment for training new leaders. Partly for this reason, a disproportionately high number of future church leaders often comes from the ranks of a renewal movement if it is not cut off from the established church. (One thinks here of the important renewal popes who came from the ranks of religious orders.)

9. Members of the renewal movement remain in close daily contact with society, and especially with the poor.

Church renewal movements vary a lot at this point, as can be seen in the case of Pietism, Moravianism, and Methodism. Some renewal movements arise primarily among or appeal directly to the poor. Others do not. We may contrast for example the thirteenth-century Franciscan movement and the twentieth-century charismatic movement.

The Franciscan revival, like early Methodism, was largely a movement of the poor and lower classes. But the charismatic movement, like Continental Pietism, was more a movement of the middle and upper classes, especially in North America. In general, movements that appeal to and spread among the poor are both more radical and more socially transforming than those which do not. The extent of social impact varies, depending on the specific cultural context and other factors. A key lesson here: much of the unique strength of early Methodism was that its members were, on the one hand, in deeply committed covenant community through the Methodist classes, bands, and society while, on the other hand, they were in constant daily contact with the larger society through employment and extended family and social networks. Early Methodists were not cloistered off from society and commerce as were the close-knit Moravian communities at Herrnhut, Germany, or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The early Methodists were radical precisely in being both in the world yet covenantally distinct from the world.

10. Finally, the renewal structure maintains an emphasis on the Spirit and the Word as the basis of authority.

It is both Christological and pneumatological. It stresses the norm of Scripture and the life of the Spirit, maintaining both of these in some tension with the traditionalism of the institutional church. If it veers to the right or the left at this point, it will become either a highly legalistic sect or an enthusiastic cult liable to extreme or heretical beliefs. In the case of Methodism, Wesley was able to maintain a balance which prevented either extreme. The renewal movement stresses the Spirit and the Word as the ultimate ground of authority, but within limits also recognizes the authority and traditions of the institutional church. In summary, this is a model for renewal which assigns a normative role both to the institutional church and to a movement and structure for renewal. Obviously no actual instance of a renewal movement in an institutional church perfectly fits the model. Still, the model is useful in comparing and evaluating various renewal movements, including those of today and tomorrow. It is important to note that this model of renewal is capable of including, at least conceptually, not only renewal movements which remain within the institutional church but also the believers’ churches or other groups that become independent sects. It can include many of the medieval heretical sects, or at least those whose only heresy was to separate from Rome. In the first place, the model helps us understand why such groups become independent. More importantly, if one’s understanding of “church” is broad enough to include all the people of God in the various communions, all those who confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, then various independent churches and sects may be seen as ecclesiolae within the church of Christ, even though they are independent of any particular ecclesiastical structure larger than themselves. One could readily illustrate all the points of this model from the histories of Continental Pietism, Moravianism, Methodism, some Catholic religious orders, various charismatic movements, and other movements of the past and present. The pattern traced here emerges with some consistency throughout history. Looking at it systematically as a model clarifies some of the reasons why renewal happens the way it does. It suggests important points where the flow of renewal can be either choked or nourished, either by action of the movement itself or by reaction of the larger church body. I suggest this model both as a useful hypothesis in understanding church renewal and as a resource for those concerned or involved with renewal. The more we can learn from the past to understand the human and divine processes in renewal, the more useful we may be as agents of renewal ourselves.

All this presupposes, of course, that at the most fundamental level, God remains sovereign and his Spirit moves in the church in his own time and way. But God tells us not to be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding, but to seek wisdom and knowledge of his ways that we may be useful and willing instruments in his hands. God invites us to cooperate with him in the work of renewal, and his acts in history offer clues we do well not to ignore.

Are you interested in learning more about these marks of a healthy church, and whether or not they can actually be realized in a local and denominational context? Howard Snyder writes about one man in the 18the century whom God used to bring important renewal to his church in a way that both challenged and honored its institutional grounding. Read more in Snyder’s The Radical Wesley: Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker. Get it from our store now.

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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