A while back, before it was interrupted by Thanksgiving, Children’s and Friendship Sunday, we were going through a “Burning Questions” series that was based on questions submitted by people here in the congregation. We’ve already covered a bunch of questions and I want to get back into it and finish it off over the past weeks. We’ve talked things like: what kind of superhero suit God would wear, how to be in the world but not of it, and ways to deal with discouragement and depression.
We’re continuing today with another question that has been popping up, and one that I believe is an important one to cover, “If you were looking for a church to attend, what kind of things would you look for – and how does our church look to visitors who are seeking?” I appreciate that question, but I’m going to rejig it a bit to simply be: “What makes a good church?” because I think that answers both sides of that. If I were looking for a church, I’d want a “good church”, and I certainly want the church I’m currently serving to be a “good church” – so the question is: “What is a Good Church?”
A “Good Church”
That’s what people want, right? Christians search for a “good church” until they find one and then stay there until they move – or their “good church” becomes a “bad church”. Small churches believe that in order to become large churches they simply need to become a “good church”, and then people will flock through the doors. But what is a “good church”?
- Outreach minded people define a “good church” as one that is sharing the gospel with people in practical and obvious ways.
- Service minded people define a “good church” as one that has lots of ministries to help people.
- Discipleship minded people say that being a “good church” is all about the sermons.
- For musically minded people, a “good church”, is the one that has meaningful, excellent music.
- Some people think that a “good church” is a big church, others think the only “good churches” are small ones.
- For new believers, a “good church” is one that makes it easy to understand what is going on and helps them to grow step-by-step in their faith.
- For a hurting person, a “good church” is one where they feel loved.
- For a family oriented person, a “good church” is one that is full of children.
- For a single, college student, a “good church” is one that has people their age and speaks meaningfully to their heads and hearts.
- Traditionally minded people want liturgy, robes, incense and art.
- Modern people want a sound system, a projector and stage lighting.
- To an intellectual a “good church” has messages that challenges their minds and drives them to further study.
- To a practically minded person, a “good church” has messages that challenges their lifestyle and drives them to action.
- To someone who has been through divorce or abuse, a “good church” is one where nothing bad ever happens, no one gets offended, and people are nice all the time.
- To a man looking for a strong mentor and a challenge, “a good church” is one with no nonsense, tough talk, some yelling, and a willingness to offend people.
- Some people would define a “good church” by looking at its ministry list. A good church has counselling, small groups, children’s programs, multi-ethnic ministries, is politically active, has a dynamic preacher, plays the right kind of music, supports local and global missions, develops leaders and missionaries, etc. ect. For them, a “good church” has lots of diverse ministries – usually ones that fit their lifestyle and interests.
And the list goes on and on and on. Is it any wonder that churches and church leaders have such a hard time trying to design ministries and Sunday services that are meaningful, helpful, and attractive to such a diverse group of people? It’s a tall order. Actually, that’s an impossible order. We can’t please everyone all the time – especially a church our size. But, is our job to create a church that pleases as many people as possible? Is that how we are to define a “good church”; by how many people like it? No way.
A Bible From the Sky
So, lets go back to our question: “What is a good church?”. I want to look at Acts 2:42-47 today, but before we read it, I want you to do something: clear your mind of all your preconceptions about church. Pretend you’ve never been to a church service. You are like many Canadians today, and have never even set foot inside a church building, and have no idea what goes on in there.
And then, one day, an airplane flies over your head, hits some turbulence, and a bible falls out of the luggage compartment and lands right in front of you. The pages explode away from the cover as it hits the sidewalk and they are blowing all over the place. You reach out your hand and grab one of the pages and start to read it. You look down and find that you have the whole of Acts chapter 2.
You start to read Peter’s first recorded sermon, preached at Pentecost, and have been introduced to the person of Jesus Christ. He’s presented as the Crucified Lord, the Chosen Messiah, come to make possible the forgiveness of sins. You read that after the sermon was given, a multitude of people feel terrible convicted, repent of their sins, give their lives over to following this Jesus, are baptized in His name, and start to meet together regularly.
As you continue to read Acts 2, you read about the change that starts happening to these people. You figure out that these were the same people that crucified Jesus in the first place and were his enemies. They were once people destined to be destroyed, but are now “saved” because of Jesus. This good news changes their hearts so radically that they decided to meet together all the time to celebrate what Jesus has done for them. This is AMAZING and you start running around, gathering as many pages as you can, and start to sort them together until you have a good portion of the New Testament. You read it, believe it, and give your life to Jesus. You are now one of the people who are “saved”!
Later that week your boss comes and tells you that you are about to be transferred to another city. He’s sending you to Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, Ontario. You’re going to be working there for a while, and they’ve already set you up a home just outside the city in a nice, little place called Beckwith.
You pack all your things and move into your new home, and as you drive around your new neighbourhood, you see an adorable, little building with a white cross on top and a sign that says, “Beckwith Baptist Church.” Your heart starts to race as you pull your make-shift Bible out of your pocket and start to flip through the pages. It dawns on you that this is a building dedicated to housing a group of Christians – just like you read about.
Your excitement is almost palpable. You bang on the door, but no one is there. You race out to the sign to see that you have to wait until Sunday at 10am until service starts. You can’t wait! You finally get to see all that you have been reading about come to life. You get to meet a whole group of people that know Jesus, love Jesus, teach about Jesus, pray to Jesus, sing about Jesus, and who have the very Holy Spirit of God living in them. You get to meet a group unlike any you have ever met in the world – a group of people that call themselves brothers and sisters in Christ.
And as you stand out in the parking lot, you open up to your favourite passage. The first that landed at your feet, the very first chapter that you ever read in Acts 2. You read aloud Acts 2:42-47:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
You can’t wait to meet these people! You can’t wait to come to this church. You can’t wait to be a part of this body of believers and be “added to their number”!
This text is one of the primary verses in scripture that drives me to do what I do and say what I say. I love these verses, not because it is a prescription of what we are supposed to be doing – but because it is a description of what happens when we get it right. This is a description of a “Good church” . This is what it looks like when we stop trying to please people, be clever with our ministries, and find some kind of secret code that causes more people to come through the door. This is what it looks like when a church allows God to take over and lets the Holy Spirit reign in their hearts.
These verses are not prescriptive – they’re not telling us what to do. They are descriptive – they are telling us what happens when God gets a hold of a group of people that love Him. People get this confused. They think if we can do the things described in these verses, then God will bless the church. No, it’s the opposite. If we allow God to work in our hearts, then this is what will happen to us.
Bill Hybels’ “Reveal”
When we get this backwards and believing that a “good church” is about the ministries it does instead of the God it worships, we fall into a “consumer” model of Christianity. We become people pleasers who try to design our church to primarily “meet people’s needs”, “make people happy”, “feed people”, “attract people”, etc. Whenever you hear the term, “feed”/”fed”, it’s consumer-minded. It means, “I’ve come to your church and you’re not giving me what I want.” It’s just like going to a restaurant and saying, “I don’t like what’s on the menu, so I’m not happy, and I’m going to find a new restaurant”. That’s consumer minded Christianity, and that kind of church and Christian doesn’t please God.
Let me give you an example. Willowcreek Church in Chicago, Illinois, headed by Pastor Bill Hybles, is one of the largest churches in North America, with over 23,000 people attending weekly. They were the uncontested champion of the “seeker-sensitive”, “consumer-driven” church movement. They’ve generated a huge amount of ministry ideas, content, songs, and are modeled all over the world.
In 2007, they released some internal survey results (in a book called “Reveal”) where they made an amazing confession that rocked the Christian world. Let me quote from an article that describes what they learned:
“Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, you can see why Hybels called this research “the wake-up call” of his adult life. Hybels confesses:
‘We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.’
In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.”
In other, other words, the consumer model – where a “good church” is defined by how many programs we have, how great our music is, how winsome the pastor is, the attendance, the vision casting, the constitution, the ethnicities, the small groups, or anything else that is defined by human standards – doesn’t work! It doesn’t please God or fulfil our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Only One Opinion Matters
All of those things that I described are going to change. The programs of today’s church are far different from those a hundred or a thousand years ago. The preaching styles will change. The music has changed and will change again. The attendance of church will fluctuate from time to time and place to place. The constitution and bylaws do not define a church. Nor can the ethnicities within it. Culture will change. Technology will change. All of these things are going to change due to geography and time. None of these things cannot define what a “good church” is.
Therefore, a “good church”, cannot and must not be something that is decided by any individual or group of people. If the church is as important as we think it is – as important as God declares it is in scripture, then there must be a more universal list of attributes that describes a “good church” in standards that apply to all people, for all time, everywhere.
As a pastor, that question bothered me for a long time. I read a lot books and articles about how to grow a church and make a church “effective for the culture”, and they all sounded good – but they were almost contradictory in their advice and conclusions.
Some said the church needed to do more activities, others said we needed to gather together more. Some said the church needed more prayers services, others said it needed to be out in the community. Some said the church needed short sermons with video clips, others said the sermons needed to be deeply theological. Some said small groups were the answer, others said to give up the church building altogether and just meet in people’s houses, while others said the best thing to do is start a building program and open up more services. It was frustrating and confusing, and made it really hard to know what to do.
Four Universal Characteristics
Then I changed the question instead of asking myself “What do I think is a ‘good church’?” or “What do the experts think is a ‘good church’?” or “What does today’s culture think is a ‘good church’?, I asked, “What does God think is a ‘good church’?” That change, while it may seem obvious now, was somewhat revolutionary for me – and perhaps it is to you too. Instead of asking, “What is a good church for me, or my family, or my culture, or my country?” let’s ask, “What is a Good Church by God’s standards?”
And so, to find out what God’s standards are, I went to God’s word and came up with four universal characteristics that make up a good, godly, Christ honouring, effective church. And you’ll notice that they are all found in our passage in Acts 2. These four universal characteristics are:
- A good church is a “disciple-making church”.
- A good church is a “fellowshipping church”.
- A good church is a “worshipping church”.
- A good church is an “outreaching church”.
I’m going to take next week to go through these four in detail, but I want you to just notice quickly what I’m seeing. Remember, this isn’t just a recipe of ministries for a “good church”, but instead is what God says a good church looks like. They aren’t a list of ministries, but more a list of attitudes and priorities.
One of them isn’t more important than the other – all four must be present in the church for it to be a “good church” by God’s standards. A “good church” can’t focus on having good worship, but not good at outreach and fellowship. Likewise, a “good church” can’t be a disciplemaking church, but not care about worshipping God or fellowshipping together. All four must be held as the most important areas of our church life. Look again at Acts 2:42-47 and you’ll see them all there.
This Christian Church, maybe called the first in existence, was devoted to “the apostles teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” – that’s areas of discipleship. That’s committing to biblical sermons, practicing the ordinances of the church, and the development of a private the spiritual life.
They were also devoted to “the fellowship, having all things in common, attending the temple together, breaking bread in homes, distributing to the needy among them” – that’s fellowship. They showed love and care for one another in practical ways.
See how “awe came upon every soul, they attended the temple, and praised God” – that’s worship. They saw, heard, felt and experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives and gave awe-inspired worship to Him as a result.
And, they saw “many wonders and signs, distributed proceeds to all who had need, had favor with all the people, and the Lord added to their number.” That’s outreach. That’s evangelism. That’s caring for people outside the church, building the reputation of being godly community members, and seeing people turn to Jesus and be saved.
I want to talk about that more next week, but that’s what I want you to chew on this week. How have you been defining a “good church”? Has it been by how you feel about it? By how many people attend? By what ministries it has? By how “fed” you feel afterward? Let me encourage you to repent of those attitudes and ask yourself if you want a church patterned after your preferences, or God’s.
And for all of us here, when we think of Beckwith Baptist Church, and what we want it to be, are we seeking to craft it into our own image – with our type of music, our favourite style of preaching, ministries that cater to us – or are we seeking to be the kind of church that God favours. A church that practices discipleship, fellowship, worship and outreach – no matter what that looks like.
I would ask you to think about that for the next week, and then we’ll come back (Lord willing) and dig more deeply into these four areas.