Book Review: “Becoming a Healthy Church: 10 Traits of a Vital Ministry” by Steven A. Macchia (2003)

Macchia, Stephen A. Becoming a Healthy Church: Ten Traits of a Vital Ministry. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2003.

Faith Community Church has a long history in this Midwestern town of being a beacon for the lost.  With age, however, does not always come perfection, and like all churches led by and filled with sinners in the process of sanctification, Faith Community Church needs improvement in some key areas.  Stephen A. Macchia has provided an appropriate textbook for improving a church’s effectiveness titled Becoming a Healthy Church: 10 Traits of a Vital Ministry.  The following reading reflection will briefly summarize the contents of Macchia’s Becoming and will also evaluate several key principles from the text that could potentially benefit Faith Community specifically, ending with a section of application for myself and for the other leaders of Faith Community Church.

Content Summary

Macchia breaks the meat of his Becoming text down into twelve chapters—the ten which focus on each specific trait of a vital ministry being bookended by both an introductory and a concluding chapter.  The following summary will introduce the reader to each of these twelve chapters.

In Chapter 1 (Macchia, p. 17), Macchia introduces the ten traits of a vital ministry by first discussing what basic ingredients are necessary for a church to even begin developing these traits.  He mentions such things as love, integrity, and a desire for growth (p. 19).  He then names the ten traits by listing them in three distinct subcategories: “How I relate to God” (traits 1-3), “How I relate with my church family” (traits 4-6), and “How my church family ministers and manages” (traits 7-10) (p.23). Macchia closes this chapter by disclosing his research base: 100 churches and 1,899 survey opinions (p. 25).

Chapter 2 opens the three-trait series of the Christian’s relationship to God with the first characteristic, “empowering presence” (p. 27).  Through this characteristic, the church seeks constant help and direction from the Holy Spirit.  A church can attain such a dependence, Macchia writes, by breaking its independent spirit (p. 29-31) and by properly displaying the fruit of the Spirit (p. 32-35).

In Chapter 3, Macchia shares the second characteristic, “God-exalting worship,” emphasizing the engagement of the heart, mind, soul, and strength of the people (p. 41).  While Macchia briefly discusses how shifts in worship style can energize a healthy church (p. 42-44, 52-54), his main focus is on both the engagement mentioned above and on the other primary elements of worship: both the leader (p. 52) and the substance (p. 54-55).  In his discussion of substance, Macchia lists fourteen specific elements necessary for God-exalting worship such as prayer, music, celebration and confession.

In Chapter 4, Macchia closes the three-trait series of the Christian’s relationship to God with the third characteristic, “spiritual disciplines” (p. 59).  Macchia’s main concern in this chapter is the church leaders’ constant battles against both busyness (p. 62, 66) and distractions (p. 65-86).  His remedies for these troubles involve prayerfulness (p. 71), study (p. 72), and reflection (p. 72-75).

Chapter 5 opens the three-trait series of the Christian’s relationship with his church family with the fourth characteristic, “learning and growing in community” (p. 77).  Building off the example of Jesus’ own relation to and use of community (p. 80-81), Macchia first discusses such hindrances to community as preoccupation with causes and shallowness in relationships (p.81-82), and then reveals seven issues churches interested in building community must address in order to test their zeal: issues like caring for its children, improving its teachers and impacting its community (p. 84-92).

In Chapter 6, Macchia shares the fifth characteristic, “a commitment to loving and caring relationships” (p. 95).  Intentionality is key, Macchia writes, in building such relationships (p. 95, 111); and this intentionality can be displayed through seven specific methods of building, for example, communication and resolving conflicts, welcoming diversity, and equipping families (p. 98-111).

In Chapter 7, Macchia closes the three-trait series of the Christian’s relationship with his church family with the sixth characteristic, “servant-leadership development” (p. 115).  This chapter could be summarized in Macchia’s closing words: “Jesus’ emphasis was not on the authority of a leader who rules but on the humility of a leader who serves” (p. 132).  Macchia describes a leader as one who is led (p. 123), one who loves (p. 124), one who listens (p. 126), one who lightens others’ loads (p. 128), one who leads (p. 129), and one who leaves a legacy (p. 131).

Chapter 8 opens the four-trait series of how the church family ministers and manages with the seventh characteristic, “an outward focus” (p. 135).  This focus on evangelism and edification of non-church members emphasizes joy in adversity (p. 140-144), preparedness for ministry (p. 145) and dependence on the Holy Spirit (p. 145, 154).

In Chapter 9, Macchia shares the eighth characteristic, “wise administration and accountability” (p. 157).  Macchia approaches the sensitive issue of intra-church administration by abruptly stating that “pastors today need to recognize when they are not gifted in administration” (p. 159).  He then proceeds to discuss the administrative agenda, whether inside or outside a church, which includes such things as strategic planning (p. 159-167), goal setting (p. 167-170), and accountability (p. 170-172).  Macchia’s handling of this chapter will be discussed in further detail below.

In Chapter 10, Macchia shares the ninth characteristic, “networking with the Body of Christ” (p. 179).  The networking Macchia discusses goes beyond the internet-based social networking with which most individuals are familiar these days.  Instead, this networking moves amongst churches, of like-faith or not, who agree on the basic doctrines of Scripture and stand against religious pluralism (p. 184).  Such networking would allow city-wide and worldwide initiatives and outreaches (p. 185-195).

In Chapter 11, Macchia closes the four-trait series of how the church family ministers and manages with the tenth characteristic, “stewardship and generosity” (p. 197). Here Macchia writes to the “emotional barrier” many have against teaching on stewardship (p. 208) by emphasizing how stewardship of finances reflects a believer’s stewardship of life in general (p. 207)—both of which are a matter of the heart (p. 199).

Macchia concludes with Chapter 12, “The Process of Becoming a Healthy Church” (p. 215), in which he shares the key to doing so: “pursue healthy balances and perspectives that reflect the heart of Christ” (p. 216).  He proposes that the church which desires vitality must maintain a proper balance both through  a dependence on God and through honest self-evaluations (p. 217-218); embrace a season of growth through proper time-management, honesty, self-evaluations and action (p. 218-219); and pursue this vitality through such things as prayer, repentance, worship and change (p. 219-221).

Evaluation

The above summary of Macchia’s Becoming sets the foundation for a proper evaluation of his text on the whole, specifically in how a church can use it as a textbook for personal improvement.  With this information available, the following evaluation will cover both the positive qualities and one negative quality of Macchia’s writing.

Macchia has filled his book with keen insights based off extensive research (p. 25) which help to describe what makes up a healthy church.  Some of the positive qualities of Macchia’s writing include his faithfulness to the core values of the local church, his consistent use of definitions, prayers, and reflections, and his overall practicality in suggestions for practice.

First, Macchia demonstrates faithfulness to the core values of Scripture and of the local church by emphasizing prayer, the Bible, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Two ingredients stand out as essential to a healthy ministry, according to Macchia: the Word of God and prayer (p. 18).  The understanding of God’s Word comes only through the art of listening [or “obedience” (p. 63)]; and prayer serves as a tool for both redirecting one’s attention back onto the God he serves (p. 68) and for evangelizing the world (p. 146).  Macchia also writes extensively on how important Jesus’ example is for the local church, naming specifically Christ’s example both in developing and utilizing community (p. 80) and in servant-leadership (p. 116).  Macchia also emphasizes the role that the Holy Spirit plays in church health, specifically naming both the fruit of the Spirit’s role in realizing God’s empowering presence (p. 32) and the Holy Spirit’s role in evangelism (p. 145).

Second, Macchia faithfully shares definitions of the ten characteristics, example prayers, and chapter-closing reflections that consistently remind the reader of what is important and what is at stake.  Quickly perusing the opening of each chapter (definitions) gives the busy pastor or church leader an immediate summary of what each chapter discusses.  Browsing the italicizes portions (prayers) of the text allows the pastor or church leader to prayerfully reflect on what changes his own church needs to make.  Carefully reading through the end of each chapter (reflections) give the pastor or church leader the opportunity to personally evaluate himself and his church.

Third, Macchia proves himself to be a very sensible man and a very practical author who understands his audience.  One example comes in the Preface as Macchia suggests six venues for working through his material [i.e. adult study groups, youth groups, leadership retreats, etc. (p. 15)].  Another example comes in Chapter 4 as Macchia honestly discloses a whole list of common distractions that every Christian leader faces [i.e. messed up priorities, desire for success, skepticism, self-reliance, etc. (p. 67)].  He does not leave his reader distracted, however, because just a few pages later he shares several realistic suggestions for how to improve prayerfulness (p. 71), study and reflection (p. 72).  Some of these suggestions include fasting, meditative Bible study, journaling and writing out prayers (p. 71-73).  Another example of Macchia’s practicality as an author comes in his suggestion for using weekly and monthly reports in order to track the productivity of church staff (173).  Such a method of accountability encourages integrity and good stewardship of all staff, from the pastor to the part-time secretary.

Despite these positive qualities, there was also one negative aspect to Macchia’s writing, which came in his unclear writing in Chapter 4 with regards to spiritual disciplines.  Macchia opens the chapter with the poignant illustration of “The Keeper of the Spring”—the story of how a village that stopped paying the man who cleaned the water upstream soon paid for their negligence when their water turned brown and rancid  (p. 59-60)—and his application that “each new day I need to rehire the Keeper of my inner spring” (p. 60).  His discussion on “being and doing” (p. 62-64) following this application, however, is quite unclear; the chapter is only redeemed by the practical suggestions on prayer, study and reflection towards the end.

Personal Application

Perhaps after reading the above summary and evaluation, the church leaders of Faith Community Church might be able to recognize where our strengths lie, and which of our intra-church issues Macchia’s Becoming would be best suited to address.  Specifically, there are four major issues in Faith Community Church—four particular traits of a vital ministry that Faith lacks—with which Macchia’s book deals: learning and growing in community, networking with the body of Christ, wise administration and accountability, and servant leadership.

The first trait in which Faith Community Church must show improvement is in the area of  learning and growing in community (Chapter 5).  Oftentimes, it seems that Faith Community lacks the authenticity to which Macchia refers, resigning to empty clichés (i.e. “How are you?”) (p. 101) and non-relationships six days a week.  Faith Community must seek to encourage growth in its members’ walks with God and with one another (p. 77).  Following Jesus’ example (p. 80-81), we must actively build community through how we teach, where we teach, and what we teach.  Macchia shares two self-assessing questions to test a church’s zeal, and we would do well to contemplate our own answers: “What are we most excited to accomplish together as Christ followers?” and “What are the top three issues we want to tackle?” (p. 84).

The second trait in which Faith Community Church must show improvement is in the area of networking with the body of Christ (Chapter 10).  For too long, Faith has abused the biblical principle of separation (II Corinthians 6:17) as an excuse to not get our hands dirty.  The time has come for us to view those doctrinally-sound, though non-Community churches in our community as the members of the Body of Christ that they are: we need to unite but not compromise (p. 183-185), reach out but not give in (p. 193).

The third trait in which Faith Community Church must show improvement is in the area of wise administration and accountability (Chapter 9).  While this particular trait has become the most obvious of all needs in Faith Community, it is also the most solvable. Pastor Steve already acknowledged this need by admitting his lack of administrative prowess: he is a pastor, not a CEO (p. 159).  However, as will be seen below in the description of the final needed trait at Faith Community, the church’s lack of organization and administration cannot be laid on Pastor Steve’s shoulders alone: those who refuse to step up and share his burden are more guilty than he, for they—like the priest and Levite of Luke 10—see a man in need and simply pass him by.  In their book Spiritual Leadership, Richard and Henry Blackaby write that “administration can be a significant [lay] ministry” (Blackaby, 225), and it is about time Faith Community as a church recognizes this truth as well.

The final trait in which Faith Community Church must show improvement is in the area of servant leadership (Chapter 7).  While servant leadership is exemplified in Becoming as leaders who serve (p. 132), the most needed trait in Faith Community Church is servants who lead. Right now, the most active servants in Faith Community are Pastor Steve, his wife and their son. Such responsibility ought not be a family venture, but a Family venture: we need people from this church to step up and get involved; we need a treasurer with an accounting background; we need a music director who exudes the joy of Christ; we need someone with administrative experience to handle the day-to-day operations of the church, so we can let our pastor do what God has called him to do—shepherd our flock.  Pastor Steve has been the greatest example of servant leadership we could request: now we need individuals willing to follow his example.

The above summary, evaluation, and personal application of Steven A. Macchia’s Becoming a Healthy Church has sought to introduce the reader to the text for consideration as a textbook for change in Faith Community Church.  While no church in the world is perfect, some churches certainly evidence traits of health and vitality, and it is this author’s prayer that Macchia’s book can help Faith Community regain its vitality by strengthening itself in these four specific traits.

Bibliography

Blackaby, Henry T., and Richard Blackaby. Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God’s Agenda. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

© 2010 E.T.

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