Grace-based.This seems to be the hardest thing to find. Oh, churches always pay lip service to God's grace, but mostly they extend it to outsiders. Once you're inside for any length of time, it's all about performance--whether that performance is dressed up as "imitating Jesus" or "avoiding worldliness" or "evangelizing the lost" or "supporting the ministry" or "helping with the project." There seems to be very little opportunity simply to rest in the finished work of Jesus, and very little acknowledgement of the faithfulness required in simply doing your job honorably and treating your family in a godly manner. The truth is that Jesus did all the work, and the only righteousness I can have is by trusting in him.
Jesus died for all.Okay, so it's not entirely impossible to find a church that focuses on grace. The problem for me is that most of them have a Calvinistic theology: they believe that Jesus only died for a certain group of people whom God has predetermined will have eternal life, and for the rest, there is no true hope because God will never give them the grace to believe. I think this flies in the face of too much scripture, particularly in passages that focus on the character of God: he does not rejoice in the death of the wicked, but earnestly desires that the wicked would turn to him and live. God loves the whole world, and he wants us to love the whole world too.
Genuinely worshipful.This is not an issue of worship style--contemporary vs. traditional. It's an issue of what's being engaged in: worship or performance. Too few worship leaders seem to understand this distinction. Drawing people into worship is a far different thing than entertaining people with music. The congregation needs to be brought in as participants, not spectators. Too much variety, instrumental breaks, vocal solos--all these things may be great as performance, but they interfere with the congregation's ability to enter into worship. There's nothing wrong with a concert, but a worship service is something to participate in, not something to observe as a spectator.
Anti-legalisticThis goes along with being "grace based," above. Most churches let go of a few old-fashioned legalisms of a generation ago and imagine that they've made progress. That doesn't address the problem. The problem is that we make hurdles of social and personal differences, things that are not addressed in scripture, so that it becomes more difficult than necessary for unbelievers to believe and be accepted as a part of the fellowship. Do you have to act a certain way, talk a certain way, participate in certain things, to be accepted as a fellow believer in your fellowship? If so, then your church has a problem with legalism. Paul treated this issue as a "different gospel" in Galatians, and I wish more churches followed that lead.
Affirming a changed lifeThis, on the other hand, is the flip side of being grace-based. Some churches are so focused on grace that they forget that God's grace is supposed to change your life. They think that in this they are being faithful to the Apostle Paul, without realizing that Paul had a ton of practical guidance in his letters. The difference between a changed life and legalism is that legalism generally involves outward social conventions that are not affirmed in the New Testament, while the changed life that Paul advocates is a matter of heart and character issues that affect how we express love to God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Focused on discipleshipMost churches don't focus on the continued development and discipleship of their people. This is not because they don't want to disciple their people, but most churches don't have a clear idea of how to go about it or what the result should look like. By default, churches focus either on evangelism or on conserving tradition, and Christian development ends up being encouragement either in evangelizing or in performing the rituals of the tradition. True discipleship should help to develop people's individual gifts, to become the unique person and fulfill the unique role that God intended. Which leads to...
Structured around spiritual giftsChurches generally become structured around perceived needs. The congregation is divided into groups based on age, gender, marital status, or other demographic; ministries are developed to focus on these demographics; and people are recruited in order to support these ministries. It would make more sense for ministries to be developed around the gifts that people have, so that they could serve in ways that would be meaningful and fulfilling to them.
Committed to organic growthThis is by contrast to most churches that have periodic evangelism and outreach events, projects, and strategies. Organic growth recognizes that the biblical pattern doesn't work that way. Rather, ordinary people live out transformed lives in a community, and people especially gifted for evangelism and mission work are empowered to be used in extraordinary ways to reach people.
Empowered by the SpiritMost churches acknowledge the empowerment of the Spirit, and some are focused on encouraging expression of miraculous signs and wonders, but neither of these is particularly what I'm describing here. I'm rather describing a deep dependence and reliance on God's Spirit that involves the leadership spending concentrated time in prayer and seriously seeking God's guidance for wisdom and direction. This is far different from creating our own strategies and then asking God's blessing on them, or going off half-cocked in unexpected directions and claiming we're being "led by the Spirit."
Based on ScriptureMost churches claim to be based on scripture, and many actually are. More often, though, I find that scripture is used as a jumping-off point for the pastor to riff on his favorite subjects, and the scriptures chosen are often from a group of a few dozen that the pastor unconsciously revolves around. This is not intended as a harsh indictment: it's the pattern that most normal human beings will fall into if they don't choose to do something different. True exegetical preaching that not only draws out the meaning intended by the passage but also helps the congregation to understand how to do the same thing is rare, but beautiful.
Monday, October 14, 2013
If I Were to Start a Church....
My family has been on a journey to find a church for a while, and we've been toying around with the idea of starting a church in our home. I would much rather find a body that we could worship with and support, but some aspects that I think should be in a church seem to be very hard to find in practice. Not that the individual elements are hard to find, but the combination of all of them seems to be impossible. With that, these are the top ten things that I'd like to see in a church that I attend or pastor: