Last week I spoke what amounted to an extended introduction about answering the question, “What is ‘A Good Church’?” (We also did a Carnivore Theology episode on it!) We talked a lot about the huge variety of options and opinions that we have access to in our churches, and how that can give us a sort of consumer mentality when it comes to deciding what a “good church” is.
Our conclusion was to change the question from “What do I (or culture, or other people) think is a ‘good church’?” to “What does God think is a ‘good church’?” That little change, which seems obvious, makes all the difference. It takes the decision out of our hands, and removes our feelings from the equation, allowing us to evaluate our church (or any other church) from God’s perspective and by His standards.
I told you that I did some digging into scripture and came up with four universal characteristics – that is characteristics that can be used to evaluate any church, at any time in history, any place in the world – of a “good church”, by God’s standards. Those four things again are, Discipleship, Fellowship, Worship and Outreach.
I briefly explored these four areas from Acts 2:42-47, but what I want to do today is dig a little deeper into these four areas so that we can all, hopefully, understand what God expects from our church – or any church.
Why is This Important?
You might be wondering why this is important to talk about. That goes back to what I was talking about last week when it comes to “consumer Christianity”. People make two important mistakes when it comes to planting, choosing, serving or ministering in their church.
Mistake 1: Using Human Standards for God’s Church
Mistake number one is to define a “good church” by human standards. How the services make them feel, how many people attend, whether the ministries fit their lifestyle and interests, the quality of the musicians, or how interesting the preaching is. These are all human – not biblical – qualifications and cause people a lot of grief and trouble when they are made too high a priority.
Consider that if you evaluate a church by human standards, then it could be teaching you falsehood and heresy, and you’d still “like it”. It could be closed off to the world and not serving anyone, but because you feel “loved”, you would call it a “good church”. It could be accepting of any manner of sin and error, but since it is full and people like it, we might think that it has God’s blessing.
As an example of what I mean, look at Revelation 2:1-5. This is Jesus writing a letter to the leading church in the area. This was a big, important church. They had lots of people, great teachers, and a missionary seminary that sent out lots of people. Look what Jesus says to them:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
By our human standards we would call that a good church. They work hard, “toil”, and endure persecution for Jesus name. They have good teachers who work church discipline and get rid of false apostles. They support one another in crisis and bear up under persecution. That sounds like a good church, right? Strong teaching, supportive people, and tireless missions. But look what Jesus says next:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Jesus was about to shut down this church because they had lots their love. They were so busy, busy, busy with ministries that they had abandoned the worship of God, their love for Jesus, and possible, their love for one another. This church was a machine, cranking out missionaries who knew their bibles and could defend the word of God… but they also acted like machines – without love, without humble repentance and thanksgiving to Jesus for their salvation. All head, no heart.
Using our four terms, we would say they were amazing at “Discipleship”, and “Outreach”, but they woefully lacked in the “Worship” and “Fellowship” department – and it was about to cost them their connection to God. Jesus would “remove their lampstand”, meaning they would lose their status as a “church of Jesus Christ” and would be treated just like unbelievers.
Do you see the danger of using human standards and feelings to evaluate a “good church?” We end up accepting huge errors and practicing disobedience – to the point where God is very unhappy – because we are using our standards instead of His.
Mistake 2: Crafting a Church in Our Image
Mistake number two is to try to craft the church into our own image. If we decide that we know what a “good church” looks like, outside of biblical standards, then we are likely to try to create a church in our image, rather than in the image of Jesus.
We get this a lot from church planters and believers who get frustrated that their denomination or church isn’t doing what they want – so they decide to go start a new one that does it “right”. So they go plant a church, or decide to start a “home church”, or something that fits their own personality – not because God called them to, but because they want the church to be more like them.
We’re not talking about the Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox who were “protesting” against massive errors in church doctrine. Luther never even wanted to start a new church. He wanted to “Reform” the Catholic church to go back to what scripture says. And when they didn’t he was forced to start a new church. That’s not what we’re talking about. These people aren’t seeing biblical error, but are driven by their feelings and preferences.
They don’t like the music and preaching style, the community isn’t enough like them, the ministries don’t cater to their wants and needs, so they plant a church that fits their preferences. Instead of seeking to help their church become more like what God wants it to be, they try to make the church into what they want it to be – and when that doesn’t work, they plant their own church in their own image.
I hope you can see the danger in that, because I’ve seen that a lot too. Young guys who think they know better than all the old, dead guys, out planting churches in their own image. Believers wandering from church to church looking for one that has all the same idols they have, and when they can’t find it, giving up on church and choosing to quit the church so they can “worship at home” by themselves — something unheard of in the Bible.
It’s all just idols and pride mixed around with religious language and it leads to all manner of temptation and error.
Adding some Adjectives
We don’t want to fall into either of those errors, so let’s take a look at the four areas that God has given us to understand what a “good church” looks like to Him – and to help out, I’m going to add an adjective, or describing word, to each. What God desires from His church is “Biblical Discipleship”, “Loving Fellowship”, “Inspired Worship”, and “Spirit-Led Evangelism”.
Open up to Acts 2:42-47 and let’s talk about them individually.
We said last week that one of the key markers of the first church we read about in the New Testament is that (looking at verse 42) they “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching… the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” That is some very specific language to describe the very basics of what makes a church a church.
The historic definition of a church, held universally for almost 2000 years, is that a church has Four Marks: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” We see this in the creeds, dating back all the way to the Nicene Creed from the year 381. This is the standard definition, and we see it in Acts 2. The words “one” and “catholic” are tied together. That doesn’t mean “the Roman Catholic Church, but comes from a Greek word simply meaning “universal”, or including everyone. There is one, universal church of Jesus Christ, seen everywhere in the world and beyond for all time – those who are still on earth and those who have gone into heaven. Jesus didn’t commission many churches to be built, but only one.
The church is also “holy”, meaning that it contains those who are full of the Holy Spirit, set apart by Jesus for salvation, and called to be saints (1 Cor 1:2, Rom 1:7). The church isn’t like any other organization, but is like Jesus – different, set apart, unique, holy.
The church is one, holy, universal and the word I want to emphasize right now is “apostolic”, meaning it is built on the apostolic pattern. Think of verses like Ephesians 2:19-20 which says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…” or Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says to Peter after his declaration that Jesus is “the Christ the Son of the Living God”, “on this rock I will build my church”, meaning the apostolic declaration that Jesus is God and Saviour. Even in Revelation we read the description of the shining city, the New Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God, the dwelling place of all God’s people forever… “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:14)
In 1 Corinthians 3, when Paul was writing to the Corinthian church about them not fighting about their favourite preacher and teacher – “I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos”, “I follow Peter” – he says,
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-11)
There is only one foundation, Jesus Christ, and that foundation is built upon by the teaching of the Apostles. And that teaching is found in scripture. A church cannot be a church of Jesus Christ if it is not built upon Jesus Christ as the foundation, and the teachings of the Apostles as found in scripture.
This was the problem during the Reformation. The Catholic Church was saying they were the only church – just as many do today. But is the Catholic church, or the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, or any other of these groups that claim to be Christians, actually a Christian church? No! Why? They do not qualify because they do not follow the teachings of the apostles in scripture. They’ve made things up and added or subtracted things from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles about how to be saved and be the church. They disqualify themselves because they don’t follow the Bible.
So, at the very end of Matthew, after Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus looks at His Apostles and gives them what we call The Great Commission. He says – and I want you to listen to all the Apostolic, Discipleship, Scriptural, Authoritative language here:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
That’s exactly what is happening in Acts 2. The Apostles have gone out and taught the scriptures and people have been convicted by the Holy Spirit and desire to be saved and baptized. Then God gets hold of their hearts and they start to become the Church. They are under the direct authority of the Apostles – who are still alive and have yet to write the New Testament yet – and the first thing it says they did was to “devote themselves to the apostles teaching… the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”
They obeyed the Apostles, they “broke bread” – which here means they obeyed Jesus’ command to participate in the Lord’s Supper, and said “the prayers”, which meant they practiced personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. In other words – they made biblical disciples.
That’s the first question we must ask ourselves when evaluating our church or any church: Is it making Biblical disciples? I don’t care how boring or entertaining the preaching is – is it biblical? I don’t care how many people come to Sunday School – or even if you are doing Sunday School – the question is, does this church teach people of all ages to fully obey the Jesus of the Bible? I don’t care how wonderful the music is – is it biblical music that draws people into prayer and devotion to the Jesus of the Bible?
I could talk about this all day, but we need to move on to the next one.
In order to be a God-pleasing church, we don’t just need to follow the Bible, but we need to be in Loving Fellowship with one another. In the Acts 2 church we saw that they “had all things in common, attended the temple together, met in homes, and distributed to the needy among them.” This was a group that showed love and care for each other in practical ways. They lived out the 54 “one another’s” that we find in the New Testament (Rom 12:16; 1 Cor 1:10; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:2; Col 3:16, etc.) and obey Jesus’ command from John 13:34-35 where He says,
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Not only does the church have to read, teach, know and love the Bible – they actually have to live out what it says! Jesus says “go, make disciples and teach” them the bible, but also teach them to “love one another.”
This is the most attractive thing that we have to offer one another and the hurting world beyond our doors. It isn’t our doctrine, but our love. God didn’t just “so love the world that he sent” down the Bible, but “He sent His only begotton Son” as an ultimate act of love. (Jn 3:16)
I have a hockey jersey at home with my favourite team and my favourite player’s name on it. When I walk into a room with it, there is no doubt which team and player I will be cheering for (or did before he retired) because it’s literally written on my front and back. But without the jersey on, no one can tell, right?
This is where we get confused. We think that a “good church” has a certain look. It has a pointy roof, wooden pews, blue hymn books, a centre aisle, and an organ. Or it has a big sign out front, a nice webpage, a gymnasium, screens on the wall and a coffee bar. Some say that it’s not a church unless there is a cross on top and inside. But is that what makes a church a church?
The Anglican Church in England is going through this right now. They have over a thousand churches that are dying or empty and they don’t know what to do with them. The country likes the beauty and heritage of these buildings and wants to “save the churches”, so they’ve made a plan to sell them and have them host community things like pubs, yoga classes, concerts, etc. They figure that if they can repurpose these buildings, then they will have saved the Anglican churches.
But they’re not saving the “churches” – they’re repurposing a pointy-topped building. The church is the people. A church is made up of Christians – whether they have a building with a cross on top and stained glass windows, or are meeting secretly in a basement in China, the church is the people.
Jesus says they will know we are His people, Christians, the Church, by “our love for one another.” So that’s our second question: Is this church characterized by having a Loving Fellowship?
That’s what our Deacon of Fellowship is trying to do. She’s not a hostess, nor is she an event planner. She’s not trying merely to attract people to an experience or give them something to do on a Saturday night. Her job is to invite the people of the church to do something where they can show love to one another. Maybe that’s a fun event or maybe that’s visiting a sick person. Maybe that’s a potluck after church or maybe it’s gathering funds and gifts to support someone in the church who is hurting. The Deacon of Fellowship is the “love coordinator”!
And we the church are meant to respond to what the God is asking us to do. We are to consistently, sacrificially, humbly, love one another. We are to put ourselves last so others can be first. We are to give our time, talents, and treasure for one another, “attending the church together, meeting in each other’s homes, and distributed to the needy among us.”
So when you evaluate your church or any church, make that your second question: “Is this church a Loving Fellowship?” Do these people show the love of Jesus to one another, or do they all merely attend the same church? That’s completely different!
Do they live in harmony together, accept one another, greet one another when they see each other, agree with one another so there might be no divisions, serve one another, are patient with one another, are kind and compassionate to one another, do they forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave them? Do they submit to one another, teach and admonish one another, spur one another on towards love and good deeds, offer hospitality to one another, and cloth themselves with humility towards one another? (Romans 12:16, 15:17, 16:16; 1 Cor 1:10; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:2, 32, 5:21; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:11; Heb 10:24; James 4:11; 1 Peter 4:9, 5:5…)
Let’s Personalize It
I’ll stop there for today and we’ll come back to the other qualifications next week, but let me challenge you to personalize this. It’s much easier to evaluate others than it is to evaluate ourselves. So I’m going to ask you this week to take all those questions and personalize them. If you are a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – as it is represented locally, here – then ask yourself:
Am I obeying God’s word when it comes to why I attend church? Am I obeying Jesus in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism? Do I honour the reading and teaching of His Word? Am I doing what I can to develop myself spiritually? Do I desire biblical teaching and correction, or merely entertainment?
And, Do I love the people in my church in practical, sacrificial ways, or do I not care about them one way or another? Am I part of a church clique or do I greet everyone the same way? Is there anyone that is hurting that I need to serve? How am I living out the Biblical One Anothers with the people around me? Is there anyone I need to forgive? Anyone I’m not bearing with? Am I showing hospitality to the people in my church?
These are the questions that God is asking of us, and by which we as Christians and we as a church will be judged.