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‘What Exactly Should We Be Looking For?’: Reflections on My Recent Search for a Church

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I learned early on in life that Christ’s reputation on earth could be marred in a moment by sinful human leadership. When I was seven, a deacon in my church committed adultery. Then came the bearing of false witness, shifting theology, and still more sin covered up by church leaders. All this resulted in a church split.

Ten years later, my pastor converted to Catholicism. Several years after that, the autonomous leadership of his successor led the entire congregation to disintegrate.

While attending Bible college, I joined a healthy church and I thrived as I saw imperfect Christians living in harmony under the Word of God. For the first time, I felt as if I was genuinely seeing God at work among his body here on earth. My husband and I met and married, then moved back to Washington State where I’d grown up—fearing we’d never again find a church like the ones we’d loved and left. We packed water for the proverbial desert experience.

As we walked through the doors of various new churches, struck up conversations with believers, and sat under preaching from different teachers, we wrestled with the line between preference and belief, between well-meaning mediocrity and maturing faithfulness to the Word of God. No church is perfect, so we began to ask the question: What exactly should we be looking for?

God has drawn the borders for his own picture of a healthy church: it’s our job to recognize how faithfully a given congregation applies the colors of practice. If you’re looking for a church, I invite you to ask some of the same questions we asked and to examine a few of the principles laid out in Scripture.

HEADWATERS: THE GOSPEL & LEADERSHIP

The first and most important question we asked of a church was this: Is the gospel communicated clearly by qualified leaders?

Related questions included: Does the gospel bring joy to the pastors even after years of ministry? Does their love for Christ make their teaching of the truth appear so winsome to the congregation as to encourage the believer and draw in the unbeliever (Rom. 12:1)? Do they preach with fervor and a clear desire to see enemies of the cross transformed into children of God (Rom. 10:14–15; 2 Tim. 1:14; Heb. 13:17)?

Styles of music and kids’ ministry aren’t inherently matters of orthodoxy, but the trajectory of a church becomes evident in the fabric of Sunday worship week by week as ordinary aspects of church life put corporate beliefs on display. Is the leadership of the church actively raising up church members to know the scriptures and to faithfully live out their teaching in every area of life (Eph. 4:11–15)? Does this teaching make its way into after-worship encounters and the conversations of men and women outside the four walls of the church? Speaking of teaching . . .

THE WORD DELIVERED: EXPOSITIONAL PREACHING, BIBLICAL THEOLOGY, SOUND DOCTRINE

Invested with power by God Himself, the Word is unable to return void. It convicts and lays bare our deepest thoughts (Is. 55:11). This is sometimes uncomfortable to us fallen men and women, yet the bold exposition of God’s piercing Word doesn’t leave us in our weakness; instead, it comforts us with the sufficiency of Christ.

Sitting under unashamed gospel preaching helps us to recognize the power of the God-commanded means of grace to preserve his people from spiritual drift. First and foremost, this marks the church of God: the faithful delivery of his Word in all its fullness (Jn. 17:6–19). When the complete counsel of God is brought to the people of God, they’re fed and sustained in their pilgrimage home to glory (Acts 20:32; Heb. 13:20–21; Jude 1:24).

So when looking for a church, rather than hyper-examining its “feel” or filling out a checklist, we should be asking ourselves these questions: Does this church give us the tools to read God’s Word for ourselves and to live it out faithfully in this world? Are we consistently challenged by our sin as it is brought into the light of God’s revelation (Jer. 17:9; Eph. 4:11–32)? Are we consistently taken off the throne of our own hearts as we worship God, or do we worship a god of our own making in our own way (Rom. 1:16–32)? Do we leave with the voice of God or the voice of man ringing in our ears (1 Pet. 2:2; Heb. 5:2)?

We found these questions and considerations to be most important—questions about gospel teaching and gospel leadership. But that was not all. . .

LIFE TOGETHER: MEMBERSHIP, DISCIPLINE, DISCIPLING, PRAYER

We also wanted to know about the church’s life together.

Does this gathering of believers take membership seriously? Do they treat it as a privilege and a responsibility (Eph. 4:1–6)? Is it understood on a practical level that the people of the church are responsible to encourage one another, challenge one another, and bear one another’s sorrows in hope (Matt. 18:15–17; Eph. 5; Rom. 12:9–13)?

Do the programs and events of this church train people up in the understanding that every believer is accountable to certain people and for certain people? Are older men and women seeking out younger people to disciple in wisdom and discernment, and do the younger generations welcome this investment (Titus 2:3–5)? A self-contained island is a dangerous place to camp.

Is the power of the Spirit acknowledged through intentional times of prayer (1 Cor. 6:11; Phil. 2:1–13)? Does the pastor pray for the Spirit to empower him in delivering the Word and to soften the hearts of his listeners? Do the people of this church not only pray but actively challenge one another to increase in prayerfulness as a priority and a skill (1 Thess. 5:16–18)?

Learning the answers to these questions will likely take some time, but they’re vital. But there’s still more . . .

OUTSIDE THE BUBBLE: EVANGELISM, CONVERSION, MISSIONS

We also wanted to know how the church cared for the watching world.

Does this body of believers see itself as an outpost of the kingdom in a lost world, and does it act to bring enemies of the gospel into its fellowship as redeemed sinners (Matt. 5:13–16)? Does it welcome unbelievers, present the claims of Christ with love, and earnestly plead with them to abandon their own efforts at righteousness (Rom. 8:6; Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 2:13)? Does it minister to the local community, and beyond the local community to the region, and beyond the region to other cultures and nations where the Word of God is not proclaimed and the church is not established (Matt. 28:18–20)?

The gospel itself will cause offense, but it’s our responsibility to ensure that our behavior as believers doesn’t create additional barriers to belief for our non-believing friends (1Cor. 8:9–13; 9:19–23; Acts 16:3; 21:17–26). One leader of a church-planting ministry put it this way: “The healthy church understands its mission and purpose in the world and organizes its life and work to be faithful and effective in its given context.”[1]

Does a church’s worship and grasp of the gospel increase the warmth and energy of its members as ambassadors of gospel peace (2 Cor. 5:11–15)? If not, theological mastery has only served to cultivate intellectual pride (1 Cor. 4:1–7; Rom. 11:18).

The church is called to be unique in the surrounding culture by delighting in the gospel and reaching out to the surrounding world with a love that makes the gospel’s claims ring true.

ONE THING I’VE ASKED

My husband and I have put down roots in a local church here in Washington where the Word is boldly proclaimed, where fellow believers strive for holiness and pursue meaningful fellowship. We study Jonah together, we pray with an ex-con after the rejection of his estranged wife, and we develop relationships over chicken pot pie and conversations on rainy Tuesday nights.

We’re thankful our church search is over. We’re thankful to have found water in a desert place.

Along the way, we’ve been continually reminded that attending church is not primarily a matter of “fitting in” among peers, but, as David wrote so directly, of being in the Lord’s house:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.

— Psalm 27:4

* * * * *

FOOTNOTE:

[1] Take Your Church’s Pulse, Koster and Wagenveld, 2014

This article originally appeared here.

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Simona Gorton oversees 9Marks' international projects from Seattle, Washington where she lives with her husband and daughter. She has pursued photojournalism around the world for various ministries and authored a biography of Elaine Townsend.