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5 Keys to Building a Healthier Church

Researchers at Harvard University recently completed a study of the factors that lead to a healthier, longer life.

Using lifestyle questionnaires and medical records of 123,000 volunteers, they determined that the presence of five healthy habits in a person’s life will significantly increase the number of years that a person will live.

Men who follow these habits will live an average of 12 years longer than men who do not practice these habits, and for women that number is 14 years.

Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the co-author of the study, wrote, “When we embarked on this study, I thought, of course, that people who adopted these habits would live longer. But the surprising thing was how huge the effect was.”

Their report, titled “Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the U.S. Population,” is published in Circulation.

What are these five healthy habits?

It should be no surprise to learn that they were defined as not smoking; having a body mass index between 18.5 and 25; taking at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day; having no more than one 150-milliliter glass of wine a day for women, or two for men; and having a diet rich in items such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains and low in red meat, saturated fats and sugar.

A regular practice of these healthy habits led to much longer average lifespans than those who did not practice these habits.

What are five healthy habits for a church?

My colleague at Center for Healthy Churches (CHC), Jim Kitchens, wrote an article about this back in October 2017.

He was writing for everyone in our consulting group who had just been on a retreat and discussed the characteristics of a healthy church.

We came up with this statement: “A healthy church is a community of Jesus followers with shared vision, thriving ministry and trusted leadership.”

His article gave excellent descriptions of the phrases in that statement. Let me now build on his writing and ask us to take the next step.

Our CHC statement is a definition, but behind that definition are habits that lead to this kind of healthy church.

What are those habits?

Let me suggest that you use this question as an exercise for a leadership group in your church.

It does not matter whether this is the church staff, deacons, elders or a leadership team. Think of some group in your church and then have a discussion.

Start with the definition that our CHC group wrote. I realize that there can be many definitions like this. If you have found a better definition, use it. The point of the exercise is to get to the habits that lie behind the qualities in the healthy church.

Just as the Harvard researchers found five habits that shaped physical health in the human body, ask your group to talk about the habits that may lead to a church fully realizing the definition of a healthy church.

As you have this discussion, break apart the definition when you talk about habits. Look at the key words in the definition for a starting place:

  • Community – What habits in our church foster community among us? What do we do on a regular basis that brings us together to live as a family of faith? What habits strengthen our relational connections? What are we doing that keeps us from experiencing this kind of fellowship?
  • Jesus followers – What habits, when done on a regular basis, demonstrate that we are followers of Jesus? What did Jesus himself tell us to do as we follow him?
  • Shared vision – If one person simply declares a vision for a church, then habits may not be necessary. But if a vision is to be shared, then what habits are needed to ensure that a collective vision represents the entire congregation?
  • Thriving ministry – Start with the basic question. What is a “thriving ministry?” Then move on to wonder, “What habits are needed for a ministry of the church to really thrive?” Are we engaging in those habits as a church?
  • Trusted leadership – Trust does not happen overnight. Habits are in place that build trust in any organization. What habits do we have in our church that have fostered trust in our leaders? What are we doing now that seems to destroy trust?

Will Durant said it well. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

That is true for human bodies who are healthy. It is also true for churches.

How healthy are the habits of your church? It might help to talk about it.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches blog and is used with permission.

David Hull

David Hull is the southeast coordinator for the Center for Healthy Churches and lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. He was previously the pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama