5 Things to Look for in a Church
First, that it be a church. The Reformers argued that there are three distinguishing marks of the church—the Word, sacraments, and discipline. That means your campus ministry isn’t the church; your podcasts are not the church; your family sitting around the table is not the church. But it also means that those institutions claiming to be the church that lack these things are not the church. If a church refuses to exercise discipline, excommunicating the unrepentant of gross and heinous sins, it’s not a church.
Second, that it be a body marked by repentance. If the marks of the church define its structure, repentance defines its heart. We are a people in need of God’s grace in Christ. We are not those who successfully found our way to God, but rather, those whom He has rescued, those He continues to rescue. If sin is seen as something behind us, not a continuing struggle, we’re missing it. A local church should be a group of men, women, and children acutely aware of their failures and weaknesses.
Third, that it be a body marked by joy. Given the above, the joy we speak of is the joy of our redemption, adoption, and the surety of the promises of God. Our joy isn’t in how good we’ve become, but in our being fully forgiven, how infinitely and immutably we are loved. While there is certainly a place in the church for careful theological parsing, that parsing should never be a mere intellectual exercise. Instead it should be the font of our joy. Zeal without knowledge is dangerous indeed. But knowledge without zeal is a sure sign that pride is gumming up the works.
Fourth, that it be a body with a passion for those yet outside the kingdom. Too often when we are rescued, when the gates of paradise open for us, we are content to close the door. The world is seen merely as either danger or wood, hay and stubble. Such once, however, were we. Insofar as we remember our rescue we ought be eager to see others rescued. If we aren’t telling other beggars where to find food, we show that we think ourselves the master of the feast rather than undeserving guests. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we design our worship services for those outside. Worship could rightly be understood as the family meal, where He feeds His children.
Finally, that it be a body. Too many churches resemble more a movie theater than a family meal. We’re together, and are having something of the same experience, but we aren’t truly together. Our eyes, our attention is fixed up front, and those around us do the same. A family meal, however, is something we all do together. We engage one another, indeed we delight in one another. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the first time you visit a given church you will feel immediately at home. But you should feel welcome, and you should be able to see the body sharing life together.
If you find this list disheartening, if you feel there is no such body near you, get to work. A good church is less something you find, more something you build. The work of the ministry, the call of the elders, is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. It’s not meant to be all on their shoulders.