What Makes a Good Church?

lighthouseI know the title may be controversial. After all, what is “good”? And I’m aware of what vonBalthasar said somewhere that “success is not a Gospel category, faithfulness is.”

Plus, what you might think is “good,” won’t be to somebody else. But it’s worth asking—however you define “good.”

Recently I read a great book by John Bowen called Growing Up Christian: Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church, and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church. (Click here to see it.) He worked for 17 years in a Leadership Training Program at Ontario Pioneer Camp—a Christian camp. He contacted hundreds of young people who went through that system to inquire about their faith. His book is the result.

Bowen asked the people in his survey who had left the church (now in their 20’s 30’s and some 40’s), this question: “What would be three characteristics of a church you can imagine wanting to join, if any?” He also asked people who have always been in church (and never left from their youth), what has kept them there.

He breaks the responses down into 4 categories:

1. Community. 2. Open to Questions. 3. Social Concern. 4. The Style and Content of the Service.

Let me share some things that surfaced in his research:

1. Community

Community is important. Here are a few comments: 

  • “Acceptance, fulfilling, a home and family away from home.”
  • “A sense of family; offers support and help for those who need it.”
  • “A sense of belonging.”

There is a sense that people are a part of something, that they belong there, and that they have something to do. Notice that it doesn’t necessary mean ‘a bunch of programs.’

But there are also four key elements of what “community” means to them:

It means being inclusive

  • “Inclusive of all races, languages, classes and lifestyle choices.”
  • “A dedication to ALL believers where they are at.”

The second element of community is authentic friendshipsAs Bowen observes, “the need for a community where one can be honest and vulnerable and not pretend. Words like “true” and “real” crop up. “People share their true emotions and struggles instead of pretending everything is okay.” “I can be someone but not always have to be “on my game.”

[I have personally found this to be true as well, especially as more and more people think of church as a kind of faith support group as we try to be followers of Jesus in a culture which can be increasingly secular, and sometimes, hostile to us.]

The third element of community is mentors“The human relationship that rates highest for helping people keep their faith is with a mentor.” In Bowen’s research, 82% of people who have never left the church say that this is “important” or “very important.”

But what is a mentor? Most simply mentors are those who “lead us along the journey of our lives. We trust them because they have been there before.”

The fourth element of community is youthfulness. This is the most controversial.  But the word is often paired with words like “vibrant” or “stimulating” or “encouraging” or “relaxed” or “friendly and welcoming” or even “spiritual.” This is very telling: “it is not the average age of the congregation alone that is important,” Bowen writes, “but the spirit of the congregation.”

2. Open to Questions

Faith is not about being seen and not heard.

  • “My church does not openly tackle intellectual questions and relevant issues, such as pluralism, gender issues, and evangelism in a pluralistic society.”
  • “I realized that I had never been encouraged or even allowed to ask questions—not the big ones. The “answers” [I was given were] things like “You just have to trust,” or “You just don’t have enough faith.” These answers make you feel guilty for having questions and really inhibit you from growing… Today I have a church that encourages growth—encourages me to seek out the answers to seek out God.”

3. Social Concern

I love how this person said it: 

  • “A different kind of church. One that is poor because of how it uses its money. One that is grassroots, has incredibly integrity, is involved with the community, is being Jesus instead of (ironically) asking what He would do.”
  • “Churches need to become more active in the world and actually seek to make a difference regarding the environment, world peace, poverty, abuse etc.”

4. The Style and Content of the Service

Worship is big. And as you can imagine, there are a huge variety of opinions about worship style. There are many aspects to a service, but two main things jump out as being key.

The first is music.  One person said the church needs “Good music.” But to them, that meant “more Bach.” Someone else said, “Singing upbeat songs would help my attendance.”

The kind of music was not as important as the fact that it was “tolerably well” done. But music was not the most important factor.

Preaching was.

A common denominator is preaching that is ‘strong, challenging and practical.’  Here are some comments:

  • “Inspiring sermons that deal with recent issues.”
  • “Relate sermons to life’s problems today.”

The worship service is critical. I can’t help think here of Karl Barth: To glorify God, to worship, is “the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life.” Do we take that seriously?

Overall Bowen finds two conclusions about the style and content of the service:

  • For the music (of whatever kind) to be competently done, and
  • For preaching which stretches the mind and heart

1. Community. 2. Open to Questions. 3. Social Concern. 3. The Style and Content of the Service. It’s not like these are golden keys that must be present everywhere; church cannot be reduced like that. But they come from research that is both challenging and encouraging at the same time.

Plus, it highlights other trends like the frequency with which people change denominations (often), and also the sobering fact that of church-going Canadians who move, 50% will not get re-connected with a church. (And on average, Canadians make a residential move every 5 years.)

And the survey results are obviously from a certain perspective: People who went through this camp and had, from youth, an importance placed on their faith. I can only assume that the answers would be different for someone who has never been in a church.

But it’s great food for thought. I’ll leave it there. Almost.

It’s easy to get distracted when thinking about the church and what we should or shouldn’t be doing. So the final word is with Stephen Seamands:

“The most important thing the church can do, then, is simply be the church, to truly live as a distinctive, salt-and-light community (Mt 5:13-16) under the lordship of Christ, according to his purposes and design, without allowing itself to be seduced by the values of the principalities and powers. That should always be the church’s primary social strategy. Above all, the church should concentrate on being the church.”

Lighthouse photo by Letterofmarque


  1. I really enjoyed this blog. It really hits the point. I agree, the most important thing the church can do is be the church and live as the salt-and-light of the community in Christ. Thanks for this.


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