What is the formula for a successful church?

People ask me “How are things at Bookham URC?”.  I tend to wonder what indicators they are looking for. I suppose, instinctively, people look for numbers of people attending, and on that basis some parts of the URC Year Book (which is full of church statistics) would make depressing reading.
Obviously numbers are important and often numerical growth can indicate a degree of health. The book of Acts reveals the astonishing growth of the early church which has good models for us to follow, but we must beware of putting large churches (>200?) on a pedestal.
A large congregation can in fact be a small church with a large fringe because the work is done by only the faithful few, or it could have large factions within it, or even might have so many capable people to run and manage an impressive set of activities that there is no space for God. A small church on the other hand could see their need of God as imperative!
The Co-Mission ministry in west and south-west London has been blessed by God and has grown rapidly in numbers, but none of the churches is large because it plants new fellowships into areas that need the Gospel, and some of the plants may initially be very small. Some small churches on the other hand may be the result of spiritual decline and thus they have lost their distinctive witness in the community, so small is not necessarily beautiful either. Sometimes small churches may have a more effective pastoral care system than larger, more impersonal and unwieldy establishments. So numbers can be deceptive
The Bible would say that the church is Mission. The Great Commission (“All authority …..has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them …..and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matt 28: 18-20) would suggest that the church is in the business of growth – but not just numerical. So mission should be under Christ’s authority with Jesus as Lord, who calls out people to himself to be distinctive, with their baptism indicating redemption, and that they should be taught to be obedient.
The church (i.e an assembly of believers) should be evaluated by what it believes and how those believers live. It is a church for every generation and for all people. The early church was not exhorted to evangelise, because its members were overflowing with Christ-like qualities as they drank deeply of Jesus. They gossiped the gospel and built bridges quite naturally.
Our 21st century world may be very different from the 1st, but the principles are the same. The church in Antioch (Acts 11) grew through its ministry to Gentiles, particularly the businessmen of their day “telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” (v.20).  “A great number of people believed”. Then Barnabas and Saul taught and trained that church for a year, which obviously led to spiritual growth.
We too need to be trained and equipped for such growth. Interestingly at Ephesus the church moved to neutral ground. They hired a lecture hall from 11am till 4pm where they preached, discussed, shared, reasoned and generally built bridges. But God’s power through the Word was the agent for change – not their techniques.
So what characterises a successful church? It would seem to be one that acknowledges the lordship of Christ, preaches the word faithfully, and loves and cares for its brothers and sisters in Christ as well as those in the local community. The members are faithful servants, discovering and using the gifts God has given to them and living in the power of the Spirit. They prepare for works of service and free each other to use the gifts God has given them. Prayer is another crucial element as they acknowledge that it is God’s work in which they are involved.
But really, success is the wrong word. What God wants is a group of believers – a living body faithful to his calling - who radiate the life of Christ, who are welcoming, caring, loving, led by the Spirit, faithful in prayer, giving generously and studying the Word which changes lives. A light in a dark world. No church is perfect, but you’ll know a good one when you walk into it!


Common questions
Webpage icon Does faith require evidence?
Webpage icon Surely I don't have to go to church to be a Christian?
Webpage icon Why does God allow suffering?
Webpage icon Are miracles ruled out by science?
Webpage icon Is the New Testament story about Jesus reliable?