Q152 : What Should One Look for in a Church?

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Q152 : What Should One Look for in a Church?

My husband and I are finding ourselves more in need of joining with true believers, but we have been discouraged by the compromise of many local churches that seem to be moving more away from the representation of the biblical model assembly into more modern forms of worship. There seems to be much compromise taking place in the local assemblies and while we are are finding ourselves needing to assemble with believers of like faith for strength in these times of apostasy, we are unsure of how to proceed with joining a local assembly.

We presently have a daughter who attends a Christian academy owned by members of a Church of God assembly that seems to be very modern in their style of worship; and it seems the pastor is the leader of the flock, with assistant pastors. We understand that the pastor should not be the one that usurps authority in a congregation, that there should be elders presiding.

We also do not believe that tithing is something that believers much practice. We adhere to the biblical teaching of giving as one has purposed in his heart; being led of the Holy Spirit.

We would like some guidance in just what we should look for when seeking to join with a biblical assembly. We want to guard against apostasy and putting ourselves in the midst of a compromising situation; but we desperately need to find a group of believers where we can assemble and remain true to the Lord.

I thank you for any insight and spiritual direction you can provide to us.

A152 : by Tony Garland

The issues you are struggling with in finding a solid place of Christian fellowship are a sign of the times in which we live. As you mention, there is an ongoing spiritual battle (Eph. 6:12) and it is only natural to expect that much of it takes place at "ground zero" — God’s institution of the Church. Hence, there are strong spiritual forces continually seeking to move professing Christianity away from its Biblical moorings.

Probably the best help I can provide will be found in the your request for guidance in what to look for when seeking to join with a biblical assembly. I've attempted to summarize some of the more important things which I personally would look for when seeking a place of fellowship.

  • Belief - The fellowship should have a clear and detailed statement of doctrinal belief. It is particularly helpful if the statement of belief goes beyond the most basic elements of orthodoxy to address what the leadership believes the Scripture to teach on secondary issues over which sincere believers may disagree. If the leadership downplays the importance of clearly stating the doctrinal views of the fellowship, then I would look elsewhere because the teaching of Scripture is unlikely to be a priority at such a church.
  • Leadership - Leaders should embrace the New Testament teaching of plural male eldershipa. Sometimes, an unbiblical distinction is made between a single "pastor," who is "in charge," and multiple "elders" who function more-or-less as "yes-men." This may indicate a pastor who sees himself more in the role of a Moses or Old Testament priest — leadership models which were intended for Israel which differ from New Testament Church leadership as taught within Scripture. In other cases, the term "pastor" may be used to designate a full-time paid leader while the term "elder" is reserved for other unpaid spiritual leaders. However, the New Testament uses several equivalent terms (pastor, elder, bishop, overseer, shepherd) to describe the same role of spiritual leadership within the local fellowship (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-6,23; 20:17,28; Tit. 1:5-7; Eph. 4:11; 1Ti. 3:2; Jas. 5:14; 1Pe. 5:1-2). Ideally, the congregational focus will not be entirely on one charismatic personality, but several elders will fulfill the preaching and teaching role while the fellowship derives benefit from their different insights and gifting. There may be one or more elders who, due to experience and gifting, are recognized as "first among equals" by the other elders. Yet no one elder should have the power to overrule any other elder when making decisions. While the ideal of plural leadership may not always be immediately possible, such as during formative stages of a ministry or fellowship, it should be the ultimate goal of the church as God provides. (Recognize, however, that insecure leaders may oppose movement in this direction as the opportunity arises because they feel threatened.) Leaders should recognize that one of their primary roles is to facilitate the development of believers in their God-given roles of service within the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12).
  • Preaching - Ministry from the pulpit should give first place to exposition of the Scriptures for believers. The leadership should be focused on helping the congregation understand the meaning of the Biblical text within its original context and to apply the principles found therein to daily life and the development of a Biblical world-view. Rather than mimicking the culture, there should be a minimum of hype and worldly entertainment. A key pastoral goal is to develop a congregation steeped in Biblical truth. There should also be an emphasis on enabling the congregation to access Biblical truths for themselves rather than facilitating or even encouraging the dependency of the congregation upon the leadership for their understanding of Scripture (2Ti. 2:2). A healthy congregation will be marked by a personal familiarity and love for the Bible.
  • Finances - Open financial records should be available throughout the year by anyone who is interested and financial stewardship should follow Biblical teaching regarding debt rather than cultural practices. The blessings of giving should be taught while allowing complete individual freedom in how, when, and how much to give (Luke 6:38; 1Cor. 16:2; 2Cor. 9:7-8). Sometimes an emphasis upon tithing can be a yellow-flag indicating a problem: perhaps the leaders do not appreciate the distinction made in Scripture between the requirements imposed upon Israel as part of the Law of Moses vs. the guidelines given for giving for the New Testament Church, perhaps the leadership of the church finds it convenient to use legalism to control church members, or the church may be economically overextended and under significant pressure to raise funds.
  • Worship - Musical worship should allow for a variety of instruments and styles of expression rather than remaining frozen in a cultural era. Since worship is primarily directed to God, the congregation should be less concerned about their individual preferences, but should be flexible enough to embrace both classic hymns and newer contributions from the body of Christ. Lyrics should be Scriptural rather than fluffy or repetitive since we worship God with our minds too (Luke 10:27). The goal is to glorify and extol God rather than encourage thoughtless emotion or open the door to the potential of altered states of consciousness. Most importantly, musical worship should not be allowed to eclipse or supplant Scriptural teaching.
  • Evangelism - The primary purpose of the church meeting is the edification of believers so they, in turn, are able to do the work of the ministry outside the church (Eph. 4:11-12). When sharing with the unsaved, the difficult truths of Scripture are upheld without compromise based on the conviction that true salvation is a work of the Spirit which includes recognizing the condemned, lost condition of the unsaved as enemies of God apart from faith in Christ (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21). The desire to evangelize the lost should not lead the fellowship to embrace post-modern thinking (relative truth) or emergent practices which purposely seek to distance the church from its historical moorings in an attempt to appease or even mimic the culture in its rejection of God.
  • Grace - Avoid a church which mandates practices which exceed New Testament teaching (e.g., dress, giving, attendance, Bible translation). Where legalism flourishes so too will hidden sin and lack of forgiveness (Rom. 7:8-11; Col. 2:23).
  • Steadfast - An enduring fellowship will eschew the latest Christian fads ("prayer of Jabez," "purpose driven," "days of purpose," emphasizing sexual topics from the pulpit, etc.) in favor of Biblical priorities which do not change every 6-12 months (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 13:9; Jude 1:3).
  • Youth - Youth ministry should not be considered a dumbed-down "church within a church" and the fellowship should not redefine or customize ministry to pander to the perceived needs of younger people. While recognizing that teaching young children will necessarily differ from teaching older children and adults, their should be an emphasis on integrating older children into the activities of the larger fellowship as soon as practical (Luke 2:46-47; 2Ti. 3:15). A healthy congregation will exhibit a wide diversity of ages where each age group benefits from ongoing fellowship with others. (After decades of ministry emphasizing the special needs of youth groups as a separate ministry within the church statistics show the vast majority of youth raised in such a church environment do not remain in fellowship upon reaching adulthood. Maybe we need to treat them like adults a lot sooner.)

  • Membership - Membership is a term which should be used lightly and entail being born again and active participation in the fellowship, but nothing more. The idea that people formally apply for membership and are voted in or out by the existing congregation based on man-made criteria is foreign to Scripture and a recipe for trouble. The perceived need for official membership often comes about due to a cultural preference for congregational/democratic rule rather than the Biblical model of elder rule. In such cases, official membership becomes the determining factor of who can vote or serve communion or have an asterisk by their name in the church directory or ... you get the picture . Instead, when appropriate, elders should solicit input from regular participants in the fellowship who they judge to be born-again before making informed decisions based upon spiritual principles using their God-given wisdom (Acts 6:3-6).

Of course there are many other attributes of a fellowship one could consider as well such as available activities, programs, home groups, practical ministries, outreach, and so on. But in my mind, these are secondary factors which should not eclipse aspects which Scripture emphasizes. It may be rare to find a fellowship with all the characteristics mentioned above, but these are some of the aspects which I believe one should look for when seeking a place of fellowship with like-minded believers. It should also be born in mind that should one find a perfect place of fellowship, it would only last a short while — until our participation! Because every believer is imperfect, so too is every fellowship made up of believers. But this should not stop us from seeking a fellowship which recognizes and follows Biblical guidelines for how a church should conduct itself (Heb. 10:24-25).

May the Lord sustain and guide you to a sincere and Biblical place of fellowship.

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