A (Personal) Manifesto for Church Shopping
Finding the right church can be a challenging task. It involves figuring out what you are looking for in a church and what you are willing to overlook as you enter a community of flawed human beings to worship God alongside. I have engaged with many different kinds of churches throughout my life. Sometimes, it feels overwhelming to sort through all those experiences and discern what makes me comfortable in a particular faith community. Currently, my wife and I are navigating together what makes us both feel comfortable in a church, adding another layer to the task. I want to use this blog post to explore what I expect and need in a church based on my life walking with God and reflecting on Scripture. I hope that, while it helps me think about the marks of a faithful and thriving church, it also aids you in discerning what you look for in a church. I will place my thoughts under three primary headings: orthodoxy (right belief), orthopathy (right love), and orthopraxy (right practice). We could also describe them as teaching, formation, and mission.
1. Orthodoxy (Teaching)
A good church begins with faithful teaching. It is essential that a church centers on the Gospel, fundamentally rooted in Scripture that is "inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NRSVA). The pastors teach the Gospel in a theologically robust and careful way. The Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed are the only creedal or confessional statements of belief I use to measure interpretations of the Scriptures. All Christians share this ancient statement of faith. It tells a simple story summarizing the biblical narrative. There is a good God who exists in three persons as a perfectly united communion of love and fellowship whose love overflowed into creating a good world (Gen. 1-2). Because the world, led by humanity, fell into sin (Gen. 3), one of these three persons, the Son of God, took on a full human nature and identified Himself with the people He created, lived among them, suffered death, was buried, resurrected, and ascended (Phil. 2:5-11). Through His work, He defeated the power of sin, evil, and death and accomplished the forgiveness of sins, paving the way to new life with God for humanity (John 11: 25-26; Rom. 6:1-11; Col 1:21-23). Now God is present to the world in the presence of the third person, the Holy Spirit, who indwells all Christians united to Jesus' death and resurrection through baptism (John 14:15-31; Acts 2:1-13; Rom. 8:1-17). He brings such persons into one Church that is called and entrusted to reflect the love of God to the world in word and deed (1 Cor. 12:12-31) in anticipation of when Jesus will return to separate what is good and what is evil and restore all creation so that we would live forever in the new creation as whole, resurrected people in the presence of God (1 Cor. 15; Rev. 19-22). All Scripture points to the revelation of God seen in the life of Jesus Christ (see Jesus in Luke 24:27: "Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures"). I want a church that preaches and proclaims the mere Gospel of Christianity.
Each sermon should be a faithful exposition of Scripture that connects to this broader story. I am not a fan of sermons that focus on application, what we should be doing, do's and don'ts for us, commands, and directives. Christian teaching is about what God has done for us, not morals about being a good person. When the pastor teaches application, it should flow naturally out of proclaiming what God has done and be presented as an invitation to new ways of life created and empowered by the presence of the living God. Morality can only flow out of the transformation provided by Jesus, the good news of what God has done.
2. Orthopathy (Formation)
A thriving church community is built around this story and embodies it. Good preaching should carefully expound the orthodox story of Jesus, but not in a lecture format or as mere information. It should highlight how this is good news to me. How is God's action 2,000 years ago still good news in 21st-century America? The result of such preaching should be just as the disciples on the Emmaus Road: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32). Passion for this story should spill out into conversations and Bible studies, pouring over this revelation of God's love.
Yet for the Emmaus disciples, while the Scriptures ignited a desire in their hearts, this was not the moment they recognized Jesus. "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight" (Luke 24:30-31). The early church oriented their worship around Scripture and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42), an echo of Jesus instituting communion or the Eucharist the night before His death. Faithful communities orient their worship around rehearsing the death of Jesus through words, postures, prayers, taste, touch, and song in the Eucharist. Our whole selves, bodies, minds, and hearts focus on remembering His sacrifice, experiencing His presence with us now, and anticipating when He will come and feast with us face to face (Matt. 26:26-30; John 6:22-59; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). I need to be fed by our family meal weekly.
A further aspect of formation in a thriving church is that members understand who they are. They are part of God's family and share in Jesus' death to sin and resurrection to everlasting life. This identity is marked and shaped by baptism. "For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4, see the whole Romans 6:1-11). By being baptized in water in the name of the Triune God (Matthew 28:19), God claims us as His own and initiates a relationship with Him. The church should remind people of this fact, renewing baptismal vows, providing baptismal imagery in the service, and declaring it in regular church teaching. Note that this is something that happens to us. We are the objects of baptism. God brings us into His life through baptism. It is not we who actively step into God's life through baptism. As such, baptism should be open to children and infants (note the pairing of circumcision and baptism in Col. 2:9-12 and the instructions for circumcision in Gen. 17:12). God can claim them as His own. They begin a relationship with Him by being born into a Christian family. They are already part of God's family and have a relationship with God at birth that the Holy Spirit fosters and develops through the family and the church (1 Cor. 7:14).
These components are held together in a liturgical church service. A liturgical service is a dialogue with God in which we hear Him speak in Scripture, and we respond in prayer. It expresses all areas of Christian life in a framework that narrates the story of our relationship with Jesus. It includes hearing Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel, prayers, praise, confession of sin, a profession of faith, and the celebration of the Eucharist. A church service gives a snapshot of the entire Christian life that a church community shares by walking together, confessing sin to one another, reminding each other of God's forgiveness, praying and weeping together, and wrestling with the Scriptures together, all to encounter the life of Jesus in the present and in anticipation of meeting him at our death and resurrection. It engages the mind, the body, and the heart through a combination of words, music, rituals, and the meal of the Eucharist. The liturgical prayer rhythms of the service shape congregants to be full disciples of Jesus in all areas of life by presenting the Gospel to the whole person from various angles (note this pattern already begun in Acts 2:42).
3. Orthopraxy (Mission)
The result is a community that lives out its faith together. As individuals with a common identity, congregants share their lives, regularly talking to one another, communing together, encouraging each other, and praying for one another. Congregants care for each person and are committed to walking with one another on the path to Jesus (Eph. 2:11:22). The sense of community is in churches with a small-group ministry that meets regularly in a formal relationship. But it also happens informally as congregants invite each other into their lives.
The community also shows a spirit of hospitality that works to make the church accessible to all of varying ages, needs, ethnicities, and diverse backgrounds (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28). It involves removing any barriers to participating in the church for persons of differing abilities. It makes families feel comfortable and children included in the community (Matt. 19:13-15). It also ensures women are equally valued in the community and able to fully exercise all the giftings they have equally to men (Matthew 28:1-10; John 20:18; Acts 18; Romans 16:1-16; Phil. 4:2-3). It welcomes new people into the family and invites new people. Individuals care about those not in the church meeting Jesus through formal and informal acts of evangelism (Matt. 28:19-20).
The church also shows a spirit of humble learning that loves the good news of Jesus in the Scriptures and explores it together through study, prayer, discussion, worship, and encouragement in awe and reverence. Members are not afraid of differing views but are open to learning from one another. They are receptive to having their limited perspectives challenged and offering their wisdom from walking in the Spirit to other Christians. This sense of hospitality, community, and humility is also extended to other nearby churches, finding ways to work together on a shared mission joined by a common faith in Christ (1 Cor. 1:10-17; 12:12-13).
Finally, it shows itself in tangibly caring for those in need. The church should be aware of the needs in the community and look for creative ways to utilize their resources to assist their neighbors, just as Jesus did. Jesus was known for seeking those on the margins of society. His followers should be known for the same attitude and, just as Jesus did, seek to care for their tangible needs and fully include them in the life of the church (Matt. 25:31-46; James 2:1-13; 5:1-6).
This is all done in a community of flawed human beings (for some examples, see 1 Cor. or Gal. 2:11-14). We will need to be gracious with one another, forgive one another, and willing to repent to one another (Eph. 4:32; Matt. 18:21-22; Matt. 5:23-24). God is continuing to reshape us into the people He has called us to be. Along the journey, that will require bearing with one another.
In the comments below, what are the things that drew you to your current church? For those looking for a new faith community, what are you looking for in a church?