The local church is the most necessary sanctification context outside the home, which is why finding the right kind of church is essential. If you were to look for a local church, what would be the main thing?
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It happens. Whether you want it to happen or not, it will probably occur to you. It seems to be more the rule than the exception. There was a time when it was the exception. But now it is the rule.
People and churches don’t stay together as long as they used to. I certainly fall into this category. A few years ago we looked for another church to attend. Finding another church to join is on my “top ten” list of things I don’t want to do.
We did not particularly enjoy the process, but we went through it. The process challenged us to think through what we sought in a local church. If you were looking for a local church to join, what are the main things on your list? What is important to you? What are your non-negotiables?
These are huge questions, and how you answer them will affect you and your family for years and generations to come. Our criteria for settling in a healthy and sound local church boiled down to five things. In this chapter, I will speak to the first one, the gospel. It’s the main thing.
The Gospel Is Transcendent
Paul said if anyone preached another gospel, other than the gospel he preached, that person should be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9). Paul’s elevation of the gospel settled the “what’s the number one thing you look for in a church” question. He flexed on whether you should eat meat or not, but he did not flex on the gospel (1 Corinthians 8:1-13).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. – Romans 1:16
Paul saw the gospel as the power of salvation (Romans 1:16) and the power for sanctification (Ephesians 4-6). According to his theology, the authority appropriated through the gospel affects every area of your life.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his glory and excellence. – 2 Peter 1:3
As convincing as Paul was about the preeminence of the gospel, it was not his perspective on the gospel that put it at the top of my list. The gospel (Christ) is the most significant idea the Bible communicates to humanity.
- The Old Testament writers pointed to the person and work of Christ.
- The New Testament writers explained the person and work of Christ.
- Eternity is the unending place where we will worship the person and work of Christ.
Individuals in the best local churches purposely center themselves on the gospel–the person and work of Christ. He is the one who matters the most. John the Baptist was necessary for a while. Then he went away. The apostles stepped in for a season. They left too. The gospel is the only transcending, unmovable fixture. Christ is the beginning and end of all we do.
The Gospel Is the Centerpiece
Draw a circle in the middle of a piece of paper. Inside that circle, you write the word gospel (or Christ). Now draw lines from Christ to any spot on the paper. That’s the idea. Christ is the centerpiece, and everything else flows from Him.
Everything in life flows from a gospel-centered worldview. Unfortunately, some churches place other things in the circle, and that is how they are known. Whatever you focus on will become your identity. Every church has an identity.
- Some churches are ministry-centered.
- Some churches center themselves on theology.
- Some churches focus on casualness.
- Some churches focus on the down and out.
- Some churches are charismatic centered.
- Some churches make grace the main thing.
A church is similar to a Christian, in that every person has an identity. The Christian’s identity should be Jesus Christ or the gospel. We take on His alien righteousness, His characteristics. We become Christlike. The local church is full of Christlike followers, which is why a local church’s identity is Christ (or it should be).
A church without Christ as its identity will teach their people to make something else the center of their lives. And that thing pushes all other things–including Christ–to the periphery. My appeal to anyone looking for a local church is to determine if Christ is the centerpiece of all they do.
Heaven is a place with Christ in the center. Wisdom implies Christians should prep for heaven today by making Him their centerpiece.
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. – Revelation 5:11-14
The Gospel Transforms
The gospel brings you into a transformative experience with Christ. The only way to change is by having a dynamic relationship with Jesus. It’s this necessity that makes gospel-centered teaching more important than things like a principle-driven life.
Principles teach you how to relate to Christ, but principles without Christ will not transform you. Best practices may temporarily shape your life, according to the proportion and degree you use them. They provide light. They may inspire. They can direct. But principles were never meant to bring sustainable transformation.
Bible seminars and weekend retreats are inspiring; men’s meetings are terrific. Programs, initiatives, Bible nuggets, and your latest favorite book can lift you over a hurdle. There is a place for these things in Christendom.
But if the gospel is not the centerpiece of your life, you will always need these religious “tokes” like a chain smoker needs another cigarette. Without a dynamic, interactive relationship with Jesus, you’re only as strong as your latest principle, book, or conference. The secular world provides principles, books, and conferences. Our main thing is Jesus.
Principles and programs, as effective as they may be, are analogous to the parts of a car. The gospel, on the other hand, is the engine that makes it go. The issue in view here is not either this or that, but about priority and preeminence. The gospel is at the heart of the Christian life, which is why Paul was so determined to maintain gospel integrity.
Call to Action
Our search for a new church started with trying to understand the church’s view and practice of the gospel. The two most important questions were:
- Does the church have a sound view of the gospel?
- You answer that question by asking this one: How is the gospel actively and practically changing the church?
We were not looking for a church that had perfected their understanding of the gospel. Gospel transformation is always a work in progress. We were looking for evidence that the church understands how to practically implement the gospel into their lives, which is why these follow-up questions were essential.
- Is the gospel transforming the leadership? Are they transparent and open about their struggles? Are they establishing the baseline for confession? How does the gospel motivate them to live in such a way that the congregation can learn from their successes and failures?
- Are their spouses being transformed similarly? Are the marriages of the leadership something you want to export to the congregation? Would it be in the best interest of the congregation to follow the leadership because of how they follow Christ?
- How has the “exported” gospel impacted the people in the church? How has the heart of the leadership become the heart of the people? How is the gospel influencing and directing the programs and ministries of the church?