The best local churches have values that are distinct from the culture, transforming to the community, and exportable to the next generation. If you are looking for a wonderful local church, make sure it has these five characteristics.
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All roads in your local church flow from the gospel–the person and work of Jesus Christ. If the gospel is not of first importance in your church, everything else will prove ineffective (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Think about it like a house. A home has a foundation; that’s the gospel. There is a structure that sits on that foundation. In this illustration, the structure is sound theology. With the foundation set and the structure finished, you can now decorate the house with the amenities.
Perhaps you have recognized houses with weak foundations (gospel). Maybe you’ve seen poorly constructed homes (Theology). I have. If the foundation is not stable and the structure is not sound, the rest of the house will not cover those two mistakes.
The right foundation is why the gospel is the most significant value you want in a church. Because this is not an either-or proposition, sound theology is the second most critical value. If you’re satisfied with your church’s focus and implementation of a practical gospel by sound theology, you can move on to the next three essentials in an effective church.
The “worship value” in a local church is not about the music; it’s about a lifestyle. A question you never ask is, “Are you worshiping?” The reason you don’t ask is that you worship all the time. God made you for worship.
Worship is part of what it means to be image bearers. You cannot do otherwise. The better question is, “What do you worship?” You won’t have to think too deeply about this because there are only two answers:
- You are worshiping God.
- You are worshiping yourself.
The word worship communicates (1) who you are as a person (your state of being) and (2) what you do (your behaviors). Worship needs a source (heart) that motivates the worshiper’s actions. The actions reveal the heart of the worshiper (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:45).
For the Christian, the source of worship is the gospel (Christ), and the object of worship is the gospel (Christ). Jesus is the why and the what of worship. Any other source or object of worship is idolatry. Christian worship is distinctly Christ-centered.
A gospel-centered local church provides a context for God’s people to break away from earthly tethering so they can freely worship according to their identity. Local church gatherings give the Christian a place that foreshadows what Christians of all ages will do in eternity–worship Christ.
Though there is much to do to put on a church meeting and there is a lot of activity at a church meeting, there is one primary point for all this activity: create an ease-of-focus for the worshiper to adore and enjoy God.
These questions will help you examine the worship experience at your church.
- How do your friends motivate you to worship the Savior?
- How does the music lead you to engage the Savior?
- How would you rate your level of anticipation during the week to worship Christ at your local church meetings?
- Is your church meeting a God-centered worship event that refreshes your soul?
A Note on Music – Because worship is your life, the style of music in your church is a preferential, tertiary matter. The lyrics, on the other hand, are of first importance. Lyrics, like preaching, must be gospel-centered because they proclaim what is important to God.
An important part of any local church are the ministries of the local church. Pastors are exhorted by Paul to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-14). He further urges leaders to help the people under their care to become mature in their faith.
Solid well thought out ministries provide a context for Christians to grow in Christ. Ministries are one of the better things a local church can provide for its people.
Gospel-centered ministries point the people to Jesus. They are means of grace that lead people to a greater understanding and practice of Christ in their lives. The best ministries are transformative.
Three Downsides To Ministries
Ministry Substitutes – Ministries should never replace the activities in the home. Ministries are not surrogate parents. Mature parents do not give up their responsibilities as parents to any ministry, program, or local church.
Parents parent children. Parents determine the means of grace (ministries) necessary to facilitate Christian maturity. Church ministries are supplemental resources that accomplish parental goals. Ministries are not parental replacements.
Ministries do not interfere with or circumvent parental responsibilities. The local church does not do your job as a parent, and they should not interfere with your job. Gospel-centered ministries make your job as a parent easier.
Ministry Slavery – As much as I love our church building, I’m not making plans to live there. You should not either. It’s just a building; that’s all. Guard your time and your calendar against being ministry-centered.
For some Christians, there is a temptation to be ministry-centered. Their lives revolve around what they do for their local church. Ministry slavery is dangerous. Christians revolve around the gospel, while the ministries of the local church assure that gospel-centered worldview.
Ministry Preferences – Ministries are the niceties of religion, which is a plus. But if I lived in a place where it was impossible to have what we have in our local church, I’m confident God’s grace would be sufficient, and we would be okay.
Guard against elevating the importance of a church ministry as though the lives of your family are dependent on it. A biblical family with few church ministries is far better than an unbiblical family that expects the church to meet all their preferences.
- How do the ministries of your church supplement your Christian life?
- Are you ministry-centered or family- or friend-centered?
- Have you over-elevated the importance of ministries?
- How are you making the ministries of your local church more effective?
What Is “Body-to-Body” Ministry?
“I visited that church, and no one shook my hand.” Have you ever heard that complaint? Have you ever complained that way? The idea of the unfriendly church is one of the most misunderstood aspects of any local congregation.
Not being friendly or not connecting with others is expected because it’s part of the Adamic curse. People come into the world wrapped in the sense of guilt and shame, a temptation that motivates a person to resist transparency. Even friendly guys struggle with transparency.
People are not predisposed to love you the way you want to be loved. If you remember this, you won’t be disappointed when you look for transparent people to build a community in your local church.
A lack of interactive connectivity is not so much a church problem as it is an Adam problem. No matter what local church you attend, you will be challenged to find a context where people are willing to be humble, open, transparent, honest, vulnerable, and self-disclosing about their lives with you.
Fellowship or community (koinonia) is a Spirit-led, humble, transparent, reciprocal community that focuses on what God is doing in the lives of the participants. My appeal to you is not to sit around waiting for someone to engage you the way you want engagement. A gospel-centered church does not sit around waiting on a handshake or complain about not connecting with others.
Christ did not sit in heaven demanding us to come to Him. He took on the form of a servant and came to us to help us become what we are supposed to be (Philippians 2:7). Rather than sitting, soaking, and expecting others to pursue you, how about you become the pursuer.
- True community is not a passive activity.
- True community is not for the timid.
- True community requires spiritual aggression.
Sadly, some people come from backgrounds where being honest, open, and vulnerable was not valued. Honesty led to harsh judgments. They have not lived in gospel-motivated contexts and, therefore, are tempted to be distant and cynical.
These dangerous side-effects of religion are why a gospel-centered local church is essential. Milton Vincent gives the perfect antidote to get over the fear of what others may think or say about you.
If I wanted others to think highly of me, I would conceal the fact that a shameful slaughter of the perfect son of God was required that I might be saved. But when I stand at the foot of the Cross and am seen by others under the light of that Cross, I am left uncomfortably exposed before their eyes.
Indeed, the most humiliating gossip that could ever be whispered about me is blared from Golgotha’s hill; and my self-righteous reputation is left in ruins in the wake of its revelations. With the worst facts about me thus exposed to the view of others, I find myself feeling that I truly have nothing left to hide. -The Gospel Primer
If you don’t have the gospel right, your interpretative grid on the matter of fellowship (community) will be flawed. Your temptation will be self-protection, not self-disclosure.
If your church is not a self-disclosing church, be patient. It takes years for people to become comfortable enough to let you into the real world of their thought lives. Don’t make your passion for transparency a mandate for the tentative Christian.
A Process For Building Community.
- You begin by being honest with God. You reveal to him what he already knows about you (Hebrews 4:13).
- You let your spouse (or close friend) into your secret world of shame, hurt, pain, victory, praise, and grace.
- You begin to search for like-minded believers within your congregation who want to go to this level with you.
Ask God to lead you to this kind of person. Then start drawing out what is in their hearts. Your goal is to build a group of transparent friends. If you are married, your community begins with your spouse. Then your children.
When Pursuing Others
- Don’t assume others will have your vision for or your understanding of true biblical fellowship. Some Christians have not experienced “gospel-based” relationships.
- Guard your heart against self-righteously judging others who are not willing to pursue this with you. There are reasons they are unwilling. See if they will let you help them. By all means, lead by example.
- If you want this kind of community, you will have to make it happen. It will not happen on its own. Do not be that guy sitting in the back row, expecting someone to shake his hand.
A Beautiful Body
Imagine a church that understands and practically practices the (1) gospel. Their (2) theology is precise, and they communicate it with clarity. The people exemplify a lifestyle of (3) worship all day, every day. The church provides (4) ministries that supplement who the people are, and they are engaging each other in authentic, self-disclosing (5) community. That is a beautiful local body.
I suspect your church is not that yet. That’s okay. It’s more about direction than perfection. Are they heading in the right direction? You are not looking for the perfect church. You’re looking for a church that is moving in the right direction, which you measure by their ongoing and practical implementation of the gospel in their lives.
Also published on Medium.