| WORLD VISTA
A Healthy Church Part 3
By Jan Paulsen
What does a spiritually healthy local church look like? In this final article of a three-part series, Pastor Jan Paulsen explores how a strong, effective congregation relates to its local community and beyond.
I have an acquaintance of long-standing, someone who invites me to visit with him and his family when I travel in his part of the world. He is a religious man, but we do not share the same faith. In fact, my friend is a high-level official in another church.
Is this a good friendship for me to pursue? The answer will seem obvious to some, yet the question may give others pause.
How should individuals—how should a congregation—relate to the world of difference, of “otherness,” that exists beyond the church doors? What principles should mark our relationships with those who are not believers as we are? How far, and in what ways, should we be drawn into the life of our communities?
God’s Purpose for His Church
In this series of articles we have looked at the dynamics of healthy churches; at the importance of taking seriously our personal spiritual life; at the ways we can build strong, grace-filled congregations. Yet the question remains: To what purpose do we do these things? Are these ends in themselves?
No, they are not. It is only through witness—through reaching out to others—that a congregation fulfills its ultimate purpose. A church that is not witnessing or reaching a community beyond itself is a dying church. It has ceased to be what God wants, and the local congregation has in fact become just a social organization. An active and effective congregation is focused on mission; it is God’s voice and God’s hands within its community.
Every congregation has its own set of challenges; those ministering in a secular, postmodern environment face unique difficulties, as do those who live in societies where the church is viewed with suspicion or fear. But regardless of the cultural setting, the relationship between a healthy church and its neighbors will be marked by:
1. Confidence. A church that is in constant retreat from society cannot be useful to God. Witnessing at arm’s length is a losing proposition. A healthy congregation does not see itself as an island or safe haven from the world, but rather as a part of the community in which it is located.
Isolating ourselves for fear of “contamination” is a sure way to check growth and begin to die. God calls us to engage in mission, not on some ethereal spiritual plane, but here, in this world, within the reality of our own neighborhoods and towns.
In some places, especially within secular, relatively wealthy cultures, I sense among our congregations a certain level of intimidation, a tendency to withdraw from contact with a society that seems to have largely rejected our spiritual values and has, in fact, become cynical and dismissive of them. In other places I have sometimes sensed a preoccupation with “spiritual purity”—congregations that work so hard to ensure they are not “of the world” that they forget at times they are “in the world.”
But to engage with the world does not mean embracing its values. It does not mean allowing our principles or beliefs to be somehow diminished. Engaging with the world means going into our communities with a sense of confidence in who we are, in what we believe, and in the God we serve.
2. Friendship. Many years ago, my wife, Kari, and I lived in Germany while I studied at the University of Tübingen. Adventists were little known among the faculty and other students, and from the outset I was viewed with a measure of wariness. But as we attended classes and seminars together, their feelings toward me began to thaw. We began to share meals together, to spend time in one another’s homes with one another’s families, and barriers were broken down. Kari and I were no longer seen primarily as alien; we were seen through eyes of friendship. One evening a visiting theologian attended one of our social occasions. On finding that I was a Seventh-day Adventist, he immediately began a line of hostile questioning—much to the embarrassment of the others present. My classmates, who just a little before had viewed me and my beliefs with such suspicion, were now my allies. They were not willing that my faith be disparaged.
There is something powerful in simply being a friend, in eating together and laughing together, in sharing time together. It disarms suspicions and cuts through prejudices. A simple gauge for whether a congregation is truly “salt” and “light” in its community is to look at the social calendars of individual members. Are our friendships, even our business associations, largely with those who share our faith?
3. Service. A healthy congregation serves its local community. It offers service that is practical; that is attuned to local needs; that “scratches where there is an itch”; that encompasses physical as well as spiritual needs. It is service that flows from a genuine feeling for other people—an interest in the welfare of others that is warm and personal.
Ellen White called the church “the theater of [God’s] grace,” the agency through which His compassion and love for humanity are most vividly displayed.1 She frequently reminded the fledging Adventists of her day that “the good works of the children of God are the most effectual preaching the unbeliever has.”2
4. Mission. As I visit and worship with church members in different countries, I am constantly reminded that there is one common force that animates every growing, effective Adventist congregation. It is a deliberate, all-encompassing emphasis on witness and outreach—both within the local community and beyond—through support of the church’s mission work around the world. The focus of members in these churches is not inward, on their own needs or comforts. They have become “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20), and the task of reconciling others to a loving Savior has become their life’s work.
It is impossible to spend time with these congregations without catching a sense of the sheer effervescence, the enthusiasm of church members for sharing Christ with others; their conviction that mission is not a heavy burden, but a joy. And this passion dictates how they use their energy and resources.
What does a healthy church look like? A healthy church is made up of individual believers who are spiritually robust—who have taken responsibility for their daily walk with God. A healthy church is warm, loving, and inviting—it takes seriously God’s plan for Christian fellowship. And a healthy church has opened its doors to its community—it has embraced witness and outreach as its first priorities.
My hope and prayer for Adventist congregations around the world—whether they meet in inner-city churches or college chapels, in homes or outdoors, in sanctuaries large or small—is that they will be faithful to God’s call, that they will be instruments in His hand to fulfill His purpose in the world.
1 The Acts of the Apostles, p. 12.
2 Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 235.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.