Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Newkirk about how to judge whether a church is healthy or not.
Topics of conversation include:
- Characteristics of a healthy church
- How a church can balance evangelism and discipleship
- Unhealthy trends in churches today
- Resources for further study on church health
Dr. Chris Newkirk serves as lead pastor of Whitton Avenue Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona and has been involved in vocational ministry for over 15 years. He earned a DMin from Reformed Theological Seminary and helps train students for local church ministry through the Ministry Apprenticeship Alliance program at Phoenix Seminary.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
At Phoenix Seminary, our mission statement is this—”Phoenix Seminary trains men and women for Christ-centered ministry, for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and the world.” So I often get the question—what is a healthy church? Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of unhealthy churches recently—toxic pastors, scandals, and abuse. These are obvious examples that cause a lack of health in the church, but there are others. There’s a version of Christianity-light that is taking over the church today, that is devoid of doctrine and infused with bare emotionalism. This too leads to unhealthy churches. So what makes a healthy church? How do you know if you’re in a healthy church, and how can you help make your church healthier? Well, to help us understand these questions today, we have Dr. Chris Newkirk with us. Dr. Newkirk is the lead pastor at Whitton Avenue Bible Church here in Phoenix, Arizona. And prior to that, he’s been involved in vocational ministry for 15 years or so, in Oklahoma, Louisville, Kentucky, and Washington D.C. In addition to pastoring, Dr. Newkirk has earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Reformed Theological Seminary, and he teaches adjunct at Phoenix Seminary as part of our Ministry Apprenticeship Alliance program. And I’m honored that he’s with us today, in studio. Dr. Newkirk, welcome to the podcast.
Chris Newkirk (01:26):
Thank you so much for having me.
Brian Arnold (01:28):
So we ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what is a healthy church? And obviously we picked you because we think you have a healthy church. So be encouraged by that today, brother. So how do we even judge, if a church is healthy or not?
Chris Newkirk (01:42):
That’s a great question. You know, I think first and foremost what we have to understand, is that the New Testament actually does say a tremendous amount about not only what a church is, but what is a healthy church, what are unhealthy churches. And I think oftentimes we don’t give the New Testament near enough credit for what it does say. And so I think that, first and foremost, we have to say that when we enter into this discussion, this is a biblical discussion. This isn’t a pragmatic discussion. This isn’t a church growth, best practices situation. This is a…we have to know the Word, we have to submit ourselves to the Word, and that will lead us to the right conclusions in this.
Brian Arnold (02:30):
I think we’ve seen, even in the past 50 years or so, church health be reduced to things like size of church, and budgets, and the new, biggest, best, shiniest leadership principles. You know, pastors as CEO, more than pastors as shepherds. Just a lot of those business-y kind of practices taking over the church. Which at times can be helpful, because pastors are leaders. But also—what are we missing then from the church? Well, we’ll get to a lot of that. Maybe we just need to start with—what is the church? So how do you define the church, so that we can even know if we have a healthy one or not?
Chris Newkirk (03:09):
Yeah, sure. That is kind of the fundamental question, is what is the church? And obviously we need to kind of differentiate a couple different ways that the New Testament speaks about the church. So this word, ecclesia, oftentimes is used in the New Testament to speak of what we would call the universal church, the triumphant church. But more times than not in the New Testament, it is talking about local assemblies, and they are marked in particular places. They meet in certain places, they are led by certain leaders. And so there is a differentiation between the universal church and the local church.
Brian Arnold (03:51):
So let me just say it—like big C Church, right? When you say like “the church,” and you’re talking about all Christians in all places at all times, that kind of make that up. But in the New Testament, almost always it is referring to the church at Galatia, the church at Rome. Right? Even in the letters that we have.
Chris Newkirk (04:08):
Yeah. And so, like, I think when we read in the New Testament, and especially when we read church history, people have wrestled with, and tried to kind of distill down the fundamentals of what makes a local church, a local church. And throughout church history, especially, I think what we see is that historians, reformers, they have kind of boiled down the irreducible, ecclesiological minimum being something like—a local church is a group of regenerate Christians who commit themselves to seeking to be a church. And therefore, they submit themselves to the right, faithful preaching of God’s Word and the right practice of ordinances. And then I would say, kind of attached to the ordinances, there has to be some form of church discipline, because that’s a central part of what the ordinances do and are. But I would—
Brian Arnold (05:06):
Well, that’s not popular today. Which we’re talking about healthy churches and non-healthy churches. You say “church discipline,” and some people really get offended by that.
Chris Newkirk (05:14):
Yeah, totally. Totally. And I would just add, in addition to those things, that a local church is a people that are gathered around the gospel and the Great Commission. And that is fundamental to what a local church even is.
Brian Arnold (05:29):
Okay. So let’s lay out some of those things before we get into the unhealthy church aspect of it. What are some of these characteristics and features of a healthy local church? So you kind of mentioned preaching. You said the word regenerate, so that’s just people born again. They’ve made a commitment to follow Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit’s indwelling them, kind of like that John three picture, right? You mentioned the ordinances. Right? Meaning baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And then discipline as a way to say—who should get the Supper? Not…let me just say this, for people who don’t really…haven’t thought through that before. Church discipline, as it’s laid out in Second Corinthians chapter five and Matthew 18, is a way to lovingly help correct church members who’ve strayed into sin, to bring them back to repentance and reconciliation inside the church body.
Brian Arnold (06:17):
But, until that time happens, we talk about—and this is more popular in Catholic circles, I think, but I like the term actually—excommunication. You are taken out of the communion, the elements. Right? That’s what it is. So to be disciplined is to say—you are no longer getting access to the Lord’s Supper, because in the Lord’s Supper we’re identifying our unity together as a body. Right? So, okay. So those are some of the features that you’ve kind of mentioned. What else would you say we should be looking for in healthy churches? Or some of these characteristics?
Chris Newkirk (06:49):
Yeah. I mean, I think that like within each one of those characteristics, I think that we are looking for not just good doctrine, true doctrine, but we’re actually looking for Christ-exalting…you know, God-centered, Christ-exalting preaching of God’s Word through the whole counsel of God’s Word. I think we’re looking for churches that are committed to not being ingrown and myopic, not just building their own empires, but actually have an eye outward, both to the lost and to other churches. That are generous with other churches in a variety of different ways. And we want to see those sorts of things. I think we look at…it’s clear in the New Testament that the establishment, the setting aside of leaders, is a central part in a church growing to be more and more healthy. But not just like random leaders, whoever’s pays the most, whoever gives the most money, but actually like biblically qualified, humble, godly people who now step into the offices of elder and deacon. And so those would be some things I would say would be additional marks of—
Brian Arnold (08:04):
Yeah. And I think that’s really important, like what you said there, even of churches working cooperatively with other churches. You know, one of the things that I see, and I’m not from Phoenix, and so this is…I’ve been here seven years now, but there’s a lot of like cowboy kind of mentality and autonomy, to the extreme, where churches are not working together. And sometimes grotesquely working against each other.
Chris Newkirk (08:25):
Brian Arnold (08:26):
Which is unbecoming of the Lord’s bride, to be tearing each other down in ways that are unhealthy. Or even just sheep stealing. Right? It’s not good. And then even things like discipleship, right? Making up a local church. So how do we take the Great Commission, which you mentioned, and really say—we are here to make disciples of people? I’m going to mention this church by name, because it’s not a Phoenix-based church, because they were very public about this when they did it, and a lot of controversy around this church, but Willow Creek. So Willow Creek was kind of the first to be at like the seeker-sensitive kind of approach. So for 25 years, church on Sunday morning is about getting lost people saved. And so what happens—and they found this in a study they did—nobody grew deep. We missed discipleship altogether. And I thought there was actually some humility in that report for them to say that. But that seems like a big one to miss, when Jesus says—make disciples. So how does that look even for a healthy church? In terms of how you, as a local church pastor, think through evangelism and the lost, versus how are you nurturing and discipling believers in the church?
Chris Newkirk (09:36):
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think one thing that we can learn is we can go to something like First Corinthians 14. And we can acknowledge the fact that Paul says that we should be aware, and we should assume, that unbelievers will be present. And so therefore, we should speak and do things in intelligible ways, so that they would not be confused or drawn away. Having said that, the gathering of God’s people is for the edification of the saints, the equipping of God’s people, so that they would then go out and be God’s people—in their families, in their workplaces. And they would take the Great Commission outside of the walls of the church, and actually be missional in their own communities, if I can say it like that. And a central part of what it means to be a healthy church is that people aren’t entertained. They’re not just brought into events. The pastors, the church structure isn’t aiming to cater to the preferences of the people, but we’re seeking to build strong men and women of the faith, who, as the Timothys say—they replicate themselves. They entrust the gospel, not only to faithful men, but to the next generation. And we teach them to obey all that God has commanded.
Brian Arnold (10:58):
And Titus two—the women teaching women, right? There’s a pattern here.
Chris Newkirk (11:01):
Totally. And so I think that the idea of—we just want to reach one people. We just want to bring in one people, teach them a lot of information, fill their heads with stuff, and then that’s kind of good, the more activity the better, is actually like a flawed view. Because in reality, what the Bible talks about is that disciples of Jesus Christ make other disciples of Jesus Christ. And so our eye always has to be on—we’re not just growing attendance or growing participation. We are seeking to reach the nations by proclaiming God’s Word, raising up godly men and women, commissioning them, training them, and then sending them out as well to continue to be those type of disciple-makers.
Brian Arnold (11:49):
And could it be, in all of our rush to do, do, do, do, do, we’ve missed the biggest thing we should have done? And you know, when I think about discipleship, and what that requires of a church, and taking people deeper into the faith…but there’s so much superficiality in what I called Christianity-light at the front of this. We are astonished, as culture gets more challenging in the questions that are being asked, and the youth keep walking away from the church. And even people who have been in the church 20 years begin to lose their moorings on some of these issues. And people are flabbergasted—how did this ever happen? And it’s really not that hard to figure out. You were never discipled in the Word. Your church is not taking very seriously its charge to disciple believers.
Brian Arnold (12:31):
There is a depth that comes to the Christian faith, and Paul, or the author of Hebrews rather, talks about this in milk and meat. Right? There are…milk for babies, and there’s meat for the mature. And we’ve got to get people off the milk, to the meat. And I think that’s kind of what a healthy church is doing, in part. I mean, my youth pastor, who’s now a pastor of a bigger church in California wrote a book called Simple Church, back 20 years ago. Where I think he was trying to say—we’ve over-programmed the church. So we do all these things, but we’ve missed, we’ve neglected, some of the bigger things. So how do you encourage that in your ministry? What types of challenges have you seen that create for people who don’t…haven’t been used to that?
Chris Newkirk (13:15):
Yeah. Well, I think that there are some structural things that have to happen. And then I just think that there are, you know, some interpersonal, organic things that have to happen. I think on one side, like at our church, we deliberately don’t plan a whole lot of stuff. And even if we offer a variety of different Bible studies, we actually say—hey, we don’t want you to do everything. Like we want you there on Sundays. We would love you to be in this training hour, where we really kind of dive deeper. And be involved in a small group, those sorts of things. But we want to free people up to actually say—well, you need to be a good husband and wife, and you need to be a good neighbor, and you need to be a good worker.
Chris Newkirk (13:59):
And so if you’re so busy doing churchy stuff that you actually have no margin to care for your own children well, and raise them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, well, I think we do a disservice. And I think that making people busy, and getting higher and higher numbers of participation—it’s not ultimately the goal. Our goal is to see men and women raised up into godly, mature believers who make disciples. And I’ll just comment on the side, is that part of the way that we make disciples, and part of the way that we build a culture of that, is not just by preaching it, though we should do that. Not just by teaching in a variety of capacities, or maybe creating some structures, organization to do that. But we actually have to, as pastors, as leaders—we have to do that ourselves.
Chris Newkirk (14:51):
Actually begin to meet with people, one on one, in small groups. Raise them up. Give them a vision of the fact that Jesus’ plan was reaching the entire world. And how did he do that? By investing in a few. And even within the few, he invested even more into a few. Now that doesn’t make logical sense if we’re talking about—how do we reach them tomorrow?
But Jesus, out of every strategy he could use, he chose to invest in a few. And then within those few, he said—now I’m not just going to make you disciples, but I’m going to make you fishers of men. And I’m going to raise you up, send you out, so that you would do that work as well. And so I think we take the long view. We tell people within our flock…we not only train them, but then we push them to go out. And we commission them.
Chris Newkirk (15:42):
I just did this last night in a group that I was leading. And I said—just find one other person that you can ask to read the Bible with and pray. And now there’s a lot of consternation and anxiety around doing that, but that is kind of the normal Christian life. And that’s how disciples are formed—is by normal people holding out God’s Word to other normal people, and seeking to be an instrument of change, God’s grace in their life. Helping them to take one step closer to Jesus. And that’s what we want to see. A healthy church is a church that ultimately takes the long view and seeks to have each one of her members not only be spectators but actually be producers, disciple-makers. That can look a lot of different ways but the focus isn’t on more people, more events. It’s on diving deep with God’s people, growing them up in their faith and then sending them out with the good news of the gospel.
Brian Arnold (16:47):
Now that they’re solid and you know, really deeply rooted in their faith. It’s not really profound.
Chris Newkirk (16:53):
Brian Arnold (16:53):
Chris Newkirk (16:54):
Brian Arnold (16:55):
Right? It is time intensive. It is not just about checking off boxes of how many people are there on a Sunday morning. You know, I think as you mentioned, Jesus taking the 12, and then the inner circle of three underneath that…the church growth books today would say—Jesus had 5,000 people at the Sermon on the Mount! What a great start to a church! Like, how do we take that and turn it into 20,000 people, or something? And Jesus isn’t doing that. He’s really talking to his disciples, and addressing them, and people come. Right? How did 12 people change the world? They were really transformed over the three years they spent with the Lord himself.
Chris Newkirk (17:29):
Yeah. And Jesus is actually repeatedly, constantly, leaving the masses, so that he could spend time with the Father. And so that he could invest further and deeper into a few.
Brian Arnold (17:43):
That is not in the church growth books today, I don’t think. Yeah. And yet it’s worked. There’s a couple of billion Christians, I’ve heard. So, you know, I think it did its thing. Let’s flip this now, and ask the questions about unhealthy churches.
Chris Newkirk (17:56):
Brian Arnold (17:57):
So I can imagine people listening today, and are questioning the church that they’re at. And our desire today is not really to even do that. It’s not to have you leave your church this Sunday or things, but to give you a better biblical framework for how to think through these things. So what do you see in the church today? What’s unhealthy?
Chris Newkirk (18:20):
Yeah. I’ll just say that—from the forefront—that no church is perfectly healthy on this side of heaven. So no church is perfect.
Brian Arnold (18:34):
And can I just say this—I take such solace in the fact that Paul himself could not plant a healthy church.
Chris Newkirk (18:40):
Brian Arnold (18:40):
Like, all these letters that we have are total train wrecks happening in the church. And so Paul can’t do it. Don’t expect yours to be that way, either. As a pastor, as somebody in the church.
Chris Newkirk (18:49):
We look at the book of Acts, and we, you know, we idolize Acts chapter two. And I’m like—hey, have you read the rest of Acts, or any of the rest of the New Testament letters, or the first couple chapters of the book of Revelation? Like, okay—churches aren’t, ultimately, in this world, perfect. We are in the process of…just like an individual, we’re coming to look more and more like Jesus. Now having said that, I mean, there’s a lot of concerning things that are happening within the church today. I think there’s this infatuation with indiscriminate growth that we see a lot of times. And oftentimes…people in the pews doesn’t mean that those people are growing and becoming more and more healthy. If we are wanting to see true gospel growth within, what we really need to see is not more people merely attending, but we want to see more people transformed by the gospel, and showing up in repentance of sin, showing up in care for other people, showing up in ministries of mercy and justice.
Chris Newkirk (19:57):
Like we want to see people actually transformed by the gospel. I’ll just add—I’m really concerned, in a lot of respects, by the type of preaching that we see within the local churches today. Whether that’s, you know…there’s good and bad ways to do various things, but we want to see the entire counsel of God’s Word taught. And we want to see Christ exalted and preached in powerful ways from all of Scripture. And so a mark of an unhealthy church is a church that dodges the hard topics, or that preaches to felt needs, or that caters to tickling ears, and sees the preaching of God’s Word as an entertainment, a spectacle, instead of a powerful encounter with a living God that we rightly humble ourselves under.
Brian Arnold (20:53):
Five approaches to better time management, right? Or always going on like the marriage series, but never hitting the hard things of Scripture. Like you said—the whole counsel of God.
Chris Newkirk (21:03):
And why would people be leaving at certain points in the church? Why would people be disillusioned? Well, it’s not because in a precise, cultural moment the church didn’t speak to XYZ issue. Ultimately, it’s because they weren’t fed the entire counsel of God’s Word, so as to be better equipped in any cultural situation. To be more grounded, have a better worldview. And so, I mean, that’s something I’m definitely concerned by.
Brian Arnold (21:33):
I agree. I mean, preaching is one of the most fundamental characteristics of a church. So if the preaching isn’t solid, if the preaching isn’t theologically sound, not doctrinally deep, not…and I think what you’re saying here, is even expository—book by book, paragraph by paragraph, tell people what God says. What else? What else concerns you as you look at unhealthy churches?
Chris Newkirk (21:53):
Yeah. Obviously in our day there is, hopefully rightly, an exposure of unhealthy leaders. Or leaders that lead in especially unhealthy ways. Now I personally think that there’s some downside to this, where there’s just kind of like a rejection or suspicion of any authority, or any leadership, and that we just jump to throw out words like “spiritual abuse.” Now having said that, it’s obvious that those things do exist. And, you know, insofar as I can see in the New Testament, a fundamental part of a healthy church is identifying healthy leaders. And then those healthy leaders leading in the way that God has ordained for them to lead. They’re leading, not as chiefs, but they’re leading as under-shepherds. They’re leading as stewards, who will have to give an account. And therefore, like we read in Scripture, it’s like—you are to not domineer over the flock, but you are to be gentle. You get the image with Paul of being a nursing mother, and a father. And we get those images of healthy, godly leaders pouring in. And not placing this heavy hand of kind of oppression and burden, where Jesus would never have done that.
Brian Arnold (23:15):
It’s rife right now. It’s all over the place. And we see example after example. And it does…I like to quote Luther all the time on this one. The church is like a drunken peasant that falls off one side of the donkey, to get up and fall off the other. And we’re in a period of spiritual abuse right now. And that’s heinous, and awful, and wrong, and bad, and needs to be corrected.
Chris Newkirk (23:34):
Brian Arnold (23:35):
I am concerned that on the other side of that donkey is going to be churches full of men who will not take leadership, and not lead during hard times. Right? They will not…they will feel like any strength in leadership would be abusive.
Chris Newkirk (23:50):
Brian Arnold (23:50):
And so we need to just see the New Testament model again. The picture of Christ, the picture of shepherding we see in First Peter five. And if we do that, I think we’ll be faithful shepherds of God’s flock. Well, what are some resources that you find really helpful on this kind of topic, that people could mine out?
Chris Newkirk (24:07):
Yeah. This sounds corny, but I’ll just say, first and foremost—read your Bible. Again, don’t assume that the best way to learn about healthy churches is by reading extra-biblical resources. The Bible says a tremendous amount, and we should, first and foremost, go there and bank our lives on that. Build our churches on that. Outside of Scripture, I would say I’ve been most influenced and blessed by the works of 9Marks Ministries and the works that are put out by Matthias Media. Matthias Media puts out this book that’s called The Trellis and the Vine. And that’s one of the books that has most dramatically changed and affected my ministry. And I would commend those things to you.
Brian Arnold (24:54):
Excellent. I think those are excellent recommendations. Well, at Phoenix Seminary, we want to continue to build up healthy churches. We’re really thankful for the ministry that God’s called you to do, and the health of Whitton Avenue. And we encourage you who are listening to get in healthy churches if you’re not in a healthy church, and to help promote healthy churches within your church. Chris, thanks for joining us today.
Chris Newkirk (25:15):
Definitely. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.