It’s difficult to stand in defense of the church when there are so many examples of dysfunctional churches around us. But sometimes, as preachers, we need to remind our own congregations that the church is vitally important. We were designed for community, but also something beyond mere community — we were designed for the church.
Many people will object, and nearly everyone has gruesome tales of hypocrites, self-righteous blowhards and sexual predators. I get it. Some parts of the North American church are desperately sick, and in many cases the church hinders the spiritual growth of believers. But before we allow our people to have coffee and croissants at Starbucks and call it church, I’d like to suggest that God has given us a few clues about what He thinks makes up a church. The bottom line is this: Church is God’s idea, and we ignore it at our peril.
These points could be the start of a series, or they could be rolled into one powerful message. Perhaps you have other observations, but here is one man’s list of at least six vital parts of a real church:
1. The church meets together regularly
Sunday morning isn’t the only possibility, although the earliest followers of Jesus celebrated his resurrection by naming the first day of the week “The Lord’s Day.” Acts 2:42–47 suggests they met together far more than North Americans might find comfortable. In a variety of settings, for a multitude of reasons, followers of Jesus meet together regularly and shared their lives together. This much is sure: A regularly scheduled, habitual gathering is a mark of the church.
2. The church has a defined structure
Structure is built into God’s order of creation. Single-celled organisms reveal astonishing complexity of function; in the human body there is individualized function. Without the structure of a skeleton, the body cannot stand. These physical realities point toward spiritual truth. Amazingly, the scripture seems to endorse a variety of church structures, but every New Testament church had a recognizable structure. We can disagree on what that structure may look like, but it’s not possible to read Acts or the Epistles without recognizing its importance.
3. The church provides authority
Authority! Just mention the word and people tense up. Abuses abound, guilt is common currency, and many churches in North America differ little from the business down the street. Yet we all must personally come to terms with passages like, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” (Hebrews 13:17) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus could be considered all about authority! Nearly everyone has a horror story about abuse of authority in the church. Here’s my take: Authority without compassion and relationship makes a sham of God’s Kingdom, but compassion and relationship without authority miss God’s Kingdom entirely. That will preach!