A Northwest Church Search
I learned early on in life that Christ’s reputation on earth could be marred in a moment by poor human leadership. When I was seven years old, a deacon in my church committed adultery. Then came the bearing of false witness, shifting theology, and sin covered up by church leaders. All this resulted in a church split.
Ten years later, the pastor at our next church converted to Roman Catholicism. Several years after that, the autonomous leadership of his successor led the entire congregation to disintegrate.
While attending Bible college, I joined a healthy church and thrived as I saw imperfect Christians living in harmony under the Word of God. For the first time, I felt as if I was genuinely seeing God at work among his body here on earth. My husband and I met and married at his church and then moved back to Washington State where I had grown up—fearing we would never again find a church like the ones we had left. We packed water for the proverbial desert experience.
As we walked through the doors of new churches, struck up conversations, and sat under preaching, we wrestled with the lines between preference and belief, between contented mediocrity and maturing faithfulness to the word of God. No church is perfect, and we began to ask the question, what should we even be looking for?
God has drawn the outline for his own picture of a healthy church: it is our job to recognize how faithfully a given congregation applies the colors of practice. If you are looking for a church or questioning the health of your own, I invite you to ask some of the same questions we asked and to examine a few of the principles laid out in Scripture.
Headwaters: The Gospel and Leadership
Does the gospel bring joy to the pastor of the church you are visiting, even after years of ministry? Does his love for Christ make his teaching of the truth appear so winsome to the congregation as to encourage the believer and draw in the unbeliever (Rom. 12:1)? Does he preach with fervor and a clear desire to see enemies of the cross transformed into children of God (Rom. 10:14-15; 2 Tim. 1:14; Heb. 13:17)?
Styles of music and kids’ ministry aren’t necessarily matters of orthodoxy, but the trajectory of a church becomes evident in the fabric of Sunday worship week by week as ordinary aspects of church life put corporate beliefs on display. Is the leadership of the church actively raising up the members of their church to know the Scriptures and to faithfully live out their teaching in every area of life (Eph. 4:11-15)? Does this teaching make its way into after-worship encounters and the conversations of men and women outside the four walls of the church?
Life Together: Membership, Discipline, Discipling, and Prayer
Does this gathering of believers take membership seriously? Do they treat it as a privilege and a responsibility (Eph. 4:1-6; 5)? Is it understood on a practical level that the people of the church are responsible to encourage one another, challenge one another, and bear one another’s sorrows in hope (Matt. 18:15-17; Eph. 5; Rom. 12:9-13)?
Do the programs and events of this church train people up in the understanding that every believer is accountable to certain people and for certain people? Are older men and women seeking out younger people to disciple in wisdom and discernment, and do the younger generations welcome this investment (Titus 2:3-5)? A self-contained island is a dangerous place to camp.
Is the power of the Spirit acknowledged through intentional times of prayer (1 Cor. 6:11; Phil. 2:1-13)? Does the pastor pray for the Spirit to empower him in delivering the Word and to soften the hearts of his listeners? Do the people of this church not only pray but actively challenge one another to increase in prayerfulness as a priority and a skill (1 Thess. 5:16-18)?
Outside the Bubble: Evangelism, Conversion, and Missions
Does this body of believers see itself as an outpost of the kingdom in a lost world, and does it act to bring enemies of the gospel into its fellowship as redeemed sinners (Matt. 5:13-16)? Does it welcome unbelievers, present the claims of Christ with love, and earnestly plead with them to abandon their own efforts at righteousness (Rom. 8:6; Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 2:13)?
Does it look beyond the borders of its own four walls into the local community, beyond the local community to the region, and beyond the region to other cultures and nations where the Word of God is not proclaimed and the church is not established (Matt. 28:18-20)?
The gospel itself will cause offense, but it is the responsibility of Christians to ensure that their behavior doesn’t establish additional barriers to belief for their non-believing friends (1 Cor. 8:9-13; 9:19-23; Acts 16:3; 21:17-26). One leader of a church-planting ministry put it this way: “The healthy church understands its mission and purpose in the world and organizes its life and work to be faithful and effective in its given context.”
Does a church’s worship and grasp of the gospel increase the warmth and energy of its members as ambassadors of gospel peace (2 Cor. 5:11-15)? If not, theological mastery has only served to cultivate intellectual pride (1 Cor. 4:1-7; Rom. 11:18).
The church is called to be unique in the surrounding culture not by blending stark lines of gospel truth but by delighting in them and reaching out to the surrounding world with a love that makes these claims ring true.
The Word Delivered: Expositional Preaching, Biblical Theology, Sound Doctrine
Invested with power by God himself, the Word of God is unable to return void as it convicts and lays bare our deepest thoughts (Is. 55:11). We can hardly help but feel uncomfortable by this as fallen men and women, yet the bold exposition of this piercing word does not leave us in our weakness, as it comforts us with the sufficiency of Christ.
Hearing unashamed gospel preaching helps us to recognize more forcibly than ever the power of God-commanded means of grace to preserve his people from spiritual drift. This, first and foremost, marks the church of God: the faithful delivery of the word of the living God in all its fullness (John 17:6-19). When the complete counsel of God is brought to the people of God, they’re fed and sustained in their pilgrimage home to glory (Acts 20:32; Heb. 13:20-21; Jude 1:24).
Rather than hyper-examining the “feel” of a church or filling out a checklist, we should be asking ourselves the question, Does this church give us the tools to read the word of God for ourselves and to live it out faithfully in this world?Are we consistently challenged by the sin in our own hearts as it is brought into the light of God’s revelation (Jer. 17:9; Eph. 4:11-32)? Are we consistently taken off the throne of our own hearts as we worship God, or do we worship a god of our own making in our own way (Rom. 1:16-32)? Do we leave with the voice of God or the voice of man ringing in our ears (1 Pet. 2:2; Heb. 5:2)?
One Thing Have I Asked of the Lord
My husband and I have begun to put down roots in a local church here in Washington where the word is boldly proclaimed, where fellow believers strive for holiness and pursue meaningful fellowship—studying the word together, praying with an ex-con after the rejection of his estranged wife, and developing relationships with the teenagers of the church.
We’re continually reminded that attending church, as wonderful as it may be, is not primarily a matter of “fitting in” among peers, but as David wrote so directly, of being in the Lord’s house:
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple. (Ps. 27:4)
Simona Gorton is an international operations manager for 9Marks and the author of the newly released book Better Than We Dreamed: The Story of Elaine Townsend. She writes at yes-presson.blogspot.com.
Better Than We Dreamed: The Story of Elaine Townsend by Simona Gorton
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