[With school drawing nearer, I have found my available time for posting significantly diminishing. I know that the school year will create a challenge to my posting, but I hope to keep a respectable presence here throughout the months ahead.
Not intentionally, but perhaps in compensation, I offer this lengthy post. For a quick read, I would refer you to the Acts 2 text which offers the framework for this subject, and Begg’s own two-sentence summary at the end of the post.]
If you are sober-minded about your faith and have ever had to look for a new church, you’re well-acquainted with the enormity of the task. It begins with a general canvassing of local churches (or even some on the outer reaches of your drive zone) to root out those that are clearly not a good mix. After this, when the search is narrowed, that “good mix” only becomes evident by investing time at those remaining churches. To be honest, the investment is probably quite a lot of time. Only as one is able to participate over an extended period of time, do the intrinsic values of a church begin to show themselves; not only the obvious outward workings observed in a visit or two, but the roots that drive the church’s every decision.
My husband and I are not “church hoppers,” but after 25 years at our old church, it had ceased to have the same “intrinsic values” of the church we had first joined and we knew that we could no longer stay. Alistair Begg offered a timely blog post for us on the subject of choosing a church. The outline of his 2009 message is expounded below.
Begg used the description of the early church from Acts 2: 42-47 as his text:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, pleasing God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…”
This, of course, would refer to a church’s statement of faith which must first align with Scriptures and traditional, orthodox Christianity. It should be easily found (on their website or on printed material) and not cloaked in uncertain phraseology. But beyond this, we must observe a congregation’s use of the Word of God.
In our day, it is far too easy to find a church that uses the Bible as a reference book or for illustration, but does not teach it and certainly is not devoted to it; or worse, actively avoids it so as not to appear too “churchy.” A yearly sermon or two on the importance of reading one’s Bible takes the place of the hard work of creating a culture of devotion to the Scriptures. Doctrine is shunned as divisive and discernment of application is never modeled or guided. In adult Bible classes, congregational meetings, personal testimonies, and casual conversations far too few congregants are able to bring appropriate teaching from the Word to bear on any current issue or discussion. How refreshing to find a congregation hungry for God’s Word and devoted to its teachings, a place where both women and men know and refer to and correctly apply Scriptures even in the most casual of settings, bearing witness to the congregation’s devotion to the apostles’ teaching.
“They devoted themselves…to the breaking of bread…”
The word sacrament means a visible sign of an inward grace. Not to be confused with a means of grace, the sacraments testify before others of a grace that has been inwardly received. There are two sacraments instituted by Jesus himself while on earth: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Any church one chooses should not only recognize and participate in these sacraments, but should seek to guard that which they’ve been entrusted. The sacraments should not be experimented with and clear teaching and explanation should always accompany their administration to assure that those who participate do so with gravity and understanding.
“They devoted themselves…[to] prayer.”
Hudson Taylor once asked, “Since the days of Pentecost, has the whole church ever put aside every other work and waited upon Him for ten days that the Spirit’s power might be manifested? We give too much attention to method and machinery and resources, and too little to the source of power.”
All churches pray at times, but in choosing a church, look for a church that does not rely on their own strength and cleverness, on their programming, advertising or pragmatic brainstorming. Instead, choose a church that recognizes “apart from Christ [they] can do nothing.” Therefore, their natural instinct and public practice is to seek in prayer the very Source of their power. Creativity and self-expression should never be confused with the hard work of persistent, dependent prayer.
“Everyone was filled with awe…”
In our entertainment-oriented day, it is easy for a church to gauge its effectiveness by the emotionalism created by a carefully crafted service. But emotionalism is not the same thing as hearts brought by reflection to a place of wonder and praise. What’s more, it is not sustainable over time because the mind is not deeply engaged in the outward expression. In short, worship is not an experience to be had, but an inevitable overflow of an informed heart filled with awe.
“They devoted themselves…to the fellowship…”
Despite the popularity of the phrase, the church is not a community; it is a body. In a community one chooses the degree to which they will be involved (or not) in the lives of others in that community. One easily moves from one community to another depending on personal benefit. In a community everyone has value, but not everyone is needful for the health of the community. Ex: the mom and pop store may reside in my community, but I might choose to drive across town to shop at the big box store instead. In such a case, I will probably weigh the value of one option over another and may decide to choose a café model—buying select items locally and others from a neighboring community, depending on what will be most beneficial to myself.
A community is a human confederation, but the Body of Christ is a divinely-wrought organism, united to each other by Christ, the head. In fact, 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that all members are needful to the health of the body; and not only needful, but equipped with gifts to share with the rest. Until Christ transplants us, we are bound to the other members of the body.
We are committed to the health of each individual because as a body, if one suffers, we all suffer. We are also committed to the health of the body as a whole, which may involve church discipline when necessary for the individual’s sake as well as the sake of the larger body. We do not readily “shop elsewhere” when difficulties arise, because it would mean a painful cutting out of ourselves from the rest. Instead we work through difficulties and do what we can to fight infections until we find ourselves whole and healthy on the other side.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
This echoes Galatians 6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Generosity characterizes a good church as well as the individual lives of its members. They seek to distribute their resources to those in need “at all times and in every circumstance with sacrificial generosity” as Begg puts it.
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.”
A good church will be eager to encourage one another and build one another up according to 1 Thessalonians 5. Its people will meet often together, not only in the temple (or church service), but outside as well, in the temple courts. Here they are able to enter into the lives of the others to whom they belong; where they cry and laugh together, help each other and rejoice with one another, and where they model, mentor and pray for each other.
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
A good church knows that it is the Lord who adds to their numbers, but he most often uses means to bring people to faith. These means primarily are mere people and the Word of God, whether preached or taught or shared in intimate conversations.
Conversely, man-centered endeavors employ the trend-of-the-day and lots of marketing and money spent on promotion and tokens. They are heavy on programming and big flashy events instead of presenting sound doctrine. This approach reveals a belief that God needs our creativity or ability to surprise and wow an “audience” to gain their ear. This diminishes a belief that God and his Word presented through finite, dependent humans is altogether effective to save.
It causes God’s glory to be shared in the minds of the congregants as they rejoice in their methodology and it actually weakens the church’s ability to do evangelism. Because sound doctrine takes a back seat to programming, the members, going out into the world Monday through Saturday, are ill-prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks them for a reason for the hope that is in them.
Begg’s own words offer a good summary to his post:
“If you are seeking a church, seek one where the Word is proclaimed, where the sacraments and prayer are honored, and where worship is reverent. Seek a church where the fellowship is characterized by joy and generosity, and where the gospel is boldly proclaimed…It’s that simple.”