Know What To Look For in a Church

Dear new believer,

One morning, after worshipping at Bedside Baptist (the largest mega-church in the western world), Emily and I went for a walk, our toddler in tow, enjoying the sunshine and the crispness of the air. While we waited at a crosswalk, for some reason I said, “We’re not going to be at our church forever. I’m not sure when, but we’re going to leave eventually.” Emily wasn’t shocked, or concerned. She just said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

Despite it having been the only church I’d attended, it wasn’t long before I felt like a square peg in a round hole there. A key issue was my emerging doctrinal convictions. Our church was Pentecostal in denomination and doctrine. I was not. While they didn’t push speaking in tongues too much on Sunday mornings, the response to any suggestion that perhaps not all are gifted in such a manner (1 Corinthians 12:30) was usually met with, “Well, why wouldn’t you want all God has for you?” They tended to be unsure how to respond when I told them I prayed and God emphatically said no. (True story.)

The church’s methodology was firmly in what many now call the “attractional” camp, with a slick praise band and “seeker” friendly messages featuring seven alliterated steps to improve your money, marriage, or motorcycle maintenance, even as the leaders proclaimed they were desperate for people to read their Bibles. More and more, I was becoming convinced that the best way to encourage this was to preach the Bible itself. They were sure that, while no one can snatch you out of the Father’s hand, you could climb out any time you please. I was convinced that if you could do anything to lose your salvation, you would.*

As time went on, I was increasingly convinced that we needed to consider not simply whether or not to leave, but what we expected of church. I don’t mean whether or not we wanted to be part of a seeker church, a missional church, a vintage church, or a vertical church. Those are just descriptors (and, frankly, kind of silly ones). No, before we could go we had to understand what the church is, according to the Scriptures. This is something that I believe every believer needs to do, carefully and prayerfully. And so, as we studied and prayed, we found a few common themes:

Jesus is at the center. “It’s all about Jesus” shouldn’t be a tagline—it should be a way of life for the local church. So when we preach the Bible, no matter what the passage, it’s with an eye toward the cross. When we celebrate communion, it’s done in remembrance of Jesus’ death for our sins, and in confident expectation of his return. When we celebrate baptisms, it’s not to do something for God, but to identify ourselves as having died with Christ and been given new life in him. If Jesus isn’t proclaimed and praised and pointed to as the answer to every problem (understanding all the nuances that go along with that), then while the gathering may be many things, it may not be a church. (Luke 24:27; John 5:39, 17:3, 20:30-31)

The Bible is the authority. I don’t mean in the “ask the Bible what to have for lunch today” sense; I simply mean it is the norming norm for Christians, the standard by which we evaluate our words, thoughts and deeds. We are taught by it, encouraged by it, and corrected by it. If we don’t have this book, all we’re left with is opinions—and that is terrifying! (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The leaders are men of character. I’m not talking about a form of government, specifically. As important as church polity is, it is secondary to the character of the people leading. Character is where Paul starts and ends in 1 Timothy 3:2-7. And what he says is an “overseer”—that is, a pastor or elder—must be one thing: a man of integrity. That means he’s going to have a good reputation with people outside the church, and he’ll be a man with some level of humility. He should be someone welcoming of others, who loves people enough to teach the Bible clearly, does not pursue notoriety or fame, and isn’t interested in foolish controversies—especially starting them! How do you know if a pastor is a man of character? Here’s a tip: if your kids are coloring a picture of your pastor in Sunday school, run like the fires of hell are licking your heels. (Because they probably are.)

Sin is taken seriously. There are lots of things we can agree to disagree on, but living holy lives is not one of them. Jesus doesn’t save us so we can go and do whatever we want, but saves us to live according to his commands through the power of his Spirit. The culture of a healthy church is one in which accountability and discipline are consistently exercised, and often with many tears. It’s a recognition that the purpose of discipline is not to cast those caught up in sin out, but to draw them back—to mercifully “snatch them out of the fire,” and see their repentance bring glory to Jesus. (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Jude 22)

Unbelievers are shown extravagant love. What I don’t mean by this is being a church where unbelievers feel welcome—of course we should be that! No, what I mean is protecting them from engaging in that which is not for them. Simply, we need to recognize that not every area in the life of the church is open to those who do not (or do not yet) believe, and that allowing them to participate in areas that should be closed is irresponsible and demonstrates a lack of love for them. Some of these are obvious: a non-Christian shouldn’t be given a leadership or teaching role in a local church. But others that should be obvious are less so. For example, I’ve been in a church where non-Christians were allowed to participate in communion, to join the praise band, and serve in children’s ministry. But should they? No! These are all acts of worship. No matter how desperate our church may be for warm bodies to serve, no matter how talented a person may be, no matter the place they’re at in their “spiritual journey”—if they have not repented and believed, then they cannot take part in these aspects of church life. (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38)

But notice what’s not a theme: there’s nothing about the style of music, Bible translations, dress codes, or being “culturally relevant” (which Christians should really stop trying to be since we’re so bad at it). What matters are the things that make the culture of the church—the leaders, the authority, the relationship with sin, and that in which they put their greatest hope. A KJV-only, never singing a song written after 1837 church might be just as far off the mark as one that manufactures baptisms, plays “Highway to Hell” during the worship service, or gives away a brand-new car at Easter.

While I’ll share the details of how we finally knew it was time to leave another time, it didn’t take us long before we found a church that—imperfectly to be sure–embodied these characteristics. In fact, we knew it during our first visit. As we listened to the man who would become our pastor preach, Emily and I had one of those weird husband-and-wife telepathic conversations:

“Is this the place?”

“I think so.”

So, after the service, we asked one of the elders, “Does this happen every Sunday?”

“Ummm… what do you mean?”

“You open the Bible, and you preach a text and you tell people about Jesus.”

Wondering if he was about to be accosted, he replied, “Yep, that’s pretty much what we do every week.”

We came back the next week, and have continued to be actively involved for more than six years. We’ve got our problems, sure, but when I look around, I see these themes I’ve been talking about at work. I hope you see them in your church, too. I hope it is a place where Jesus really is at the front and center, where the Bible is truly the authority, and the leaders are men of exemplary character. I hope it is a place where sinners are shown extravagant love and that Jesus is glorified as they come to repentance and faith.

But…what if you don’t?

Let’s talk about that next time.

* Apologies to John MacArthur for stealing his line.