The Measure of a Church

How do we evaluate a local church, or even a denomination? (Not that I think we have to do this, but at some level we will begin to use terms that border on or express our evaluation of a church.) We will say things like “That’s a good church” or “There’s something special going on” or “That church is dead” or one of the more common ones “That church is totally irrelevant.” What term would you use?

In what I think will prove to be the Book of the Year (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City) for seminaries and churches and denominations and pastors, Tim Keller sketches three models for evaluation a church:

Success measured by numbers: conversions, membership, giving.
Faithfulness measured by Bible and Theology: the pastor’s sermons and ideas and the church’s ideas are faithful to the Bible and to the church tradition.
Fruitfulness measured by how the word “fruit” is used in the NT: conversions, moral character, good deeds.

Since Keller doesn’t think the first is adequate and thinks the second too often falls short, he opts for a term that in essence combines the second with terms like “impact” and “productive” and “thriving.” I’m not sure he entirely escapes “success” with his term “fruitfulness” but I agree with him: we evaluate a church by its faithfulness and with the belief that the aim of ministry is to have an impact. So perhaps “fruitfulness” combines success with faithfulness at a deeper level.

Tim Keller’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan NYC, has become a model church for those who want to minister in an urban context. Not that this book is just for city ministries — we’ll see if it expansive enough for all — but Keller’s church has been so “fruitful” that pastors have been asking him for years how it happened — and this book is the result.

The “secret” to Redeemer is a Theological Vision, and much of the Introduction seeks to spell this out. He is rooted in Richard Lints’ book The Fabric of Theology. For Keller “theological vision” mediates one’s doctrinal foundation (theology, what to believe) into one’s ministry expression (what to do). So it looks like this:

Theology –> Theological Vision –> Ministry Expression

It is not, in other words, one’s doctrinal statement or ministry philosophy but a theological vision that combines theology with culture in such a way that it becomes default orientations. He defines theological vision:

It is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.

Thus, theological vision is about what you are going to do with your theology/doctrine in a given context.

At the core of Center Church’s vision is gospel, city and movement, with movement meaning relationships to community and heritage and other churches.

What do you think of this concept of “theological vision”?

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  • This is interesting, and I would have been very unlikely to come across these ideas if you hadn’t written about them, Alan. So thanks!

    ‘…At the core of Center Church’s vision is gospel, city and movement, with movement meaning relationships to community and heritage and other churches.
    What do you think of this concept of “theological vision”?’

    I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction. I would pick out relationships to community and other churches as being key, but I’d replace ‘relationships to’ with ‘love for’ and expand ‘community’ to mean the Almighty, one another, and society.

    I’d make those changes because my opinion is that if we truly loved the Lord, one another, our neighbours and our enemies we would fulfil everything we have been commanded to be and do. Of course, think that and doing it are two very different things! I judge myself in writing that.

    In other words, I think Tim Keller’s analysis is good and on the right track, but Jesus’ analysis is better. There is a major caveat to my opinion – I haven’t read the book…

    The letters to the churches in Revelation are worth rereading with thoughts of church success in mind. Love, perseverence, faithfulness, truth, life and fervour – these seem to be the essence of success in the eyes of Christ. Perhaps this is also at the heart of what Keller is saying.

  • Erm.. ‘Alan’? Where did that name spring from? I’m as mystified as everyone else. Also ‘think that and doing it’ should have been ‘thinking that and doing it’.

    Exits stage muttering ‘Proof read, proof read, proof read…’

  • Jim

    I’m nitpicking but wish I/we could get away from using terms like “impact”, metaphors derived from physics in favor of metaphors that are more suitable for the organic/ information processing entities that we are. I believe our understanding of the task to which we are called and our understanding of the effects we are having would be less about “measurement” and more about ongoing conversation if we did.

    We aren’t trying to “impact” people but are trusting and hoping that God’s word spoken and demonstrated transforms the very organic human heart and mind.

    But, like I said, I’m probably nitpicking around a peeve.

  • Rodney Reeves

    Forgive the aside, but how about a fourth category: a healthy church? (playing off Paul’s metaphor, the Church as Body.) I may be assuming too much, but the third category sounds like a more pious version of the first.

  • I still like Gene Getz’s old book on measuring a church: Faith, Hope & Love. Those categories resonate with me in any context: cultural, geographical, denomination, independent, etc.

  • Adam

    How do these distinctions engage with time? I see lots of possibilities where churches today would meet all the criteria but under the surface is a rot that destroys the church in ten years.

    Or the other way too. There can be churches today that won’t make the cut but are planting seeds that in 15-20 years explode into a vibrant congregation. If that is the potential of a church can we really say that it’s currently “irrelevant”?

  • Jason

    Some good early comments here. I had looked at the preview for this material on amazon and wasn’t sure whether I’d buy into it. TGC is worrisome at times, but then Keller always seems to be pushing it to a balance without “reframing” or changing terminology.
    I’m definitely going to buy it now. I think “theoligical vision” is the same sort of thing as “theology drives mission”. What we believe about God and everything else in relation to him affects how we live as the people of God. Perhaps I’ll have to translate and reframe, but it should be worth reading.

  • I agree with Brian (#5). Gene Getz was on to something with his book “Measure of a Church” that showed the Apostolic focus on the graces of faith, hope, and love. interesting that St. Augustine structured his catechism along the same lines.

  • As an aside, I read the first chapter on Amazon. Scot, did you read these first few statements about the gospel? “Not everything the bible teaches can be considered the Gospel…The Gospel is a message about how we have been saved from peril”

    Somehow I don’t think they’ve read, ‘King Jesus Gospel!’ 🙂

  • I can’t say enough “Amens” to this: “Thus, theological vision is about what you are going to do with your theology/doctrine in a given context.” I don’t know if this your summary, Scot, or Tim Keller’s statement, but either way it is spot on. “…in a given context.” Amen, hallelujah. 🙂

  • BTW, I don’t think we need to veer off the topic–local church praxis–into Keller’s soterian-leaning “gospel.”

  • Thanks for posting, Scot. I just ordered 3 copies.
    Our church is trying to do this, we just need more language and imagination!