The Healthy Churches’ Handbook

In the seventies and eighties, various methodologies on church growth were all the rage, but they now seem very mechanistic and dated. A new approach by Christian Schwarz in the nineties, in his Natural Church Development Handbook, was more qualitative and took the novel concept of plant growth as its model, but was still set in the framework of a tight and complex methodology.

Canon Robert Warren’s The Healthy Churches’ Handbook is different. It seems the natural early 21st century successor. It is much more ‘touchy-feely’, qualitative and simple, and uses the expression ‘health’ rather than simply ‘growth’. It is based more on who we are rather than what we do and in places is quite critical of the earlier types of mission audit and growth methodology. Robert Warren has strong evangelism and church health credentials and the knack of a very contemporary approach, with new angles and a way that resonates with where people are coming from today.

The concept is based around examining seven ‘marks’ of a healthy church: the church is energised by faith rather than just keeping things going or trying to survive; it has an outward-looking focus with a ‘whole life’ rather than a ‘church life’ concern; it seeks to find out what God wants, discerning the Spirit’s leading rather than trying to please everyone; it faces the cost of change and growth rather than resisting change and fearing failure; it operates as a community rather than functioning as a club or religious organisation; it makes room for all, inclusive rather than exclusive; and it does a few things and does them well, focused rather than frenetic.

Each ‘mark’ is broken down into three of four specific practical examples which work out the principles underlying the ‘marks’. Evangelical Methodists will recognise and warm to the quite challenging example, within the ‘makes room for all’ mark, of six levels of welcome given to newcomers: everyone who is currently ‘in’ feels welcome; the church wants more people ‘like us’; the notices and stewards talk a good talk about welcome but then the regulars huddle in their own groups; the welcome is good and personal but with little idea of what to say after ‘hello and welcome’; visitors are welcomed into the life of the church but as part of the audience; finally the level of ‘making others part of our life, allowing the warmth of the friendships we enjoy to be taken, broken open, blessed and given to others with whom the only thing we may feel we have in common is our faith in Christ’.

One of the major strengths of the book is that it offers a host of different ways in which a church can go through this process, from a quite detailed review, to something that can be done in a single evening. It also provides for people who look at things in different ways, with a chapter called ‘The angel of the church’ prompted by Robert’s reading about ‘the shift in the business world from a focus on “mission statements” to identifying the “spirituality” of the organization’ - many readers will cheer this one! The chapter is named after the letters in Rev. 2 and 3 and those who adopt this approach are asked to think about the church’s ‘colour’ (mood and ethos, not paintwork!), what the building ‘says’, the local context and colour, the story of the church, and how to describe ‘the angel or personality of this church’.

I find that Robert Warren’s sometimes off-the-wall way of thinking does not necessarily ‘click’ the first time of reading as it is so different from the methodological, linear way I am used to, so it sometimes needs, and always repays a second read and further thought, at which point it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, this title shares a common problem with other excellent CHP books on evangelism in that they are very well known and used in Anglican churches but others are not so familiar with them. For my money, this title deserves all the recognition it can get.

Category: