Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What to Look For in a Church

My wife and I just moved from Kansas City, Missouri to New Hampshire. One of the things involved in every long distance move is church shopping. Kristal and I have been scoping out Church websites on the internet since we decided to move. I have been faced with the challenge of finding the right church 4 times in the last 6 years or so. This is my fifth. This series will most likely have many parts to it (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 etc.). There are so many very important things to consider when looking for a church.

The most important thing to consider when looking for a church is Sola Scriptura! What does Scripture lay forth as the most important and fundamental elements of a healthy church? There is a time to get picky when looking for a church, but this has very little to do with that. I am asking, "What is most important? What should I be most concerned about?" When most people look for a church they are looking for all of the wrong things. Why? Because they are not basing their idea of what is most important on the Scriptures. Their main concerns are not the main concerns of the Scriptures.

I will give two illustrations. Have you ever heard someone say something similar to this, "What can this church offer to my kids? Do they have a good children's program, youth group, young adult ministry?" This may be important to some folk, but one must remember that children's ministries and youth groups are not even mentioned in Scripture. I am not saying that youth and children are not important, but I am saying that Scripture never puts an emphasis on classes for each and every age group.

Here is another aspect of church that many are most concerned about. "Well, we really like Church X, but I just don't get much out of their worship. I want a church where the worship is alive!" Once again, this can be a very important aspect in church life, but should this be of utmost importance when it comes to looking for a church? Of course not! How much emphasis does the Bible put on the style of music? Does the Bible even lay out the specifics of worship? Not really! You will find in the Psalms some talk about praising God with all sorts of instruments. Jesus tells us that His true worshippers will worship in Spirit and in truth. But this verse has very little to do with corporate worship. Frankly, the style of worship is never laid out as a test of the health of a church. Why then are people so concerned about it? Because something other than the Bible is shaping their idea of what is most important to look for in a church. This really is sad. Because nearly the entire New Testament is geared toward informing us of what is most important in church life.

It may seem that I am leaving the discussion here for a moment, but hold on, I will come back. At this point it must be asked, "Ok Jimmy, when I am looking for a church I must look to the Bible. But how do I know what is most important in the Bible? You tell me to look for those things that the Bible emphasizes, but how do I know what the Bible emphasizes? I mean, common, it is a big book." This is an excellent question. How does one know what the Bible emphasizes? The answer to this question is very easy, but it is hard to put it to practice.

The simple answer to this question is, "Well, what does the Bible talk most about?" The greatest way of discovering what is emphasized most in the Bible is by doing a study on the themes of the Bible. What was it that Paul saw as so important that he wrote a whole letter about it? Remember that the majority of the books of the New Testament are letters. Yes, when you read the New Testament you are reading someone else's mail. For instance, the Book of Galatians is a letter that Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia. Why did he write this letter? Because there were certain problems and situations going on in Galatia that Paul deemed important enough to address before his next visit. Isn't that interesting. We go to the Bible looking for what we think is most important. We read and read and read until we find something that appeals to us. This is completely wrong. We are to go to the Bible to be told what is most important. What did Paul deem most important? What did Jesus deem most important? We must adopt their view of what is most important if we want to be Biblical.

What we American Christian's usually do when we read the Bible is we sit down and read a chapter here and a chapter there. Many do not even do this. Rather they do topical studies (they study different topics that are in the Bible. You know, things like marriage, relationships, giving etc.). The nature of a topical study is to look at a whole bunch of verses that refer to the same topic. The majority of the time these verses are pulled straight out of context for the sake of bolstering the author's point.

Do you want to know the themes of the Bible? It isn't going to happen through topical studies (as helpful as they may be). You see, when the author of one of the books of the Bible sees something as so important that he writes a whole letter about it, we should lean in close. We should have our eyes and ears glued to him hanging on his every word. Why? Because the Apostle of the Lord is speaking. He is informing us on what we should deem as most important.

We often forget that the letters of the New Testament were written by real people, to real people, about real life situations. When Paul sat down to write the book of Galatians he did not say, "I want the Galatians to know where I stand on theological issues." When Paul wrote Galatians he said, "Oh poop! The church I planted in Galatia is being attacked by false teachers that are promoting disunity in the church. I need to warn them. I need to give them a heads up." The letters of the New Testament are not theology journals. The letters of the New Testament are dealing with real cutting-edge church life.

Let me illustrate what the Apostles were doing when they wrote their letters. I just moved from Kansas City. I sat under two of the most able Bible teachers I know of. I moved half-way across the country to New Hampshire to start a church. I stay in contact with the elders of my previous church. They see me as one of their brethren. They see me as one of their students (because I did an internship under them). I end up starting a church in New Hampshire. Well, the two elders I was under at Kansas City hear that there are some very influential men who have come into the church and start causing discord. They start teaching all sorts of strange things. How would (or should) the two elders in Kansas City respond? Lets pretend that we are in 1st Century Palestine before they have phones and email. The two elders in Kansas City are concerned about the well being of the church. They are concerned about their former student. So they get out a piece of paper and pencil and begin to write me a letter instructing me what to do. The letter may look similar to this.

"Dear Jimmy and the Church in New Hampshire,
Greetings from Kansas City. Christ Fellowship Greets you.
We have heard that many terrible things are happening in your church. We know how wonderfully you started out and are terribly grieved to see what is happening. There are a few things that we suggest you do... (so they give us some ideas on how to stop the false teaching), and here are some scriptures that might help you.
Please! Oh please do not let this discord continue in your church. You must love one another from the heart. Do not look down on one another. Kick that false teacher out of your assembly. Kick him out of the service before he does anything worse.
We are praying for you. Oh and greet the saints there. Last time we visited we had such a good time. Tell Sara that we are praying for her lost family still.

Christ Fellowship"

Does this at all look familiar? Does this not have the same form and feeling of the letters of the New Testament? Of course this would look a bit different today. We would probably just call each other up on the phone to save on postage. But this essentially is what the New Testament is. The letters of the New Testament are written to churches about church life. They are not written to individuals about their personal relationship with God. Even those letters written to individuals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon) are still about corporate life. It could even be argued that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus contain the most foundational church life material in the Bible. This is what the Bible is. The Bible is not a theology book. Surely the Bible lays forth theological truth, but it is always for the sake of church life in some way or another.

What should we look for in a church? Well, what did the Apostles so vehemently push for? What were those things that the Apostles could not keep silent about in their letters addressed to, get ready, Churches!

Also, it is not enough to just hold to things that Bible holds to do. We must know why the authors of the Bible see these things as so important. This is why context driven interpretation is so important. For example, the book of Hebrews speaks more about the cross than almost any other New Testament book. WONDERFUL! But why? It is just as important that we know why Hebrews talks about the cross so much as it is that we just simply know that Hebrews talks about the cross. This is how we get to the themes of the books of the Bible. It is an asking, "Why would this specific author talk about this specific doctrine to this specific church that has this specific problem?"

We have a hard time in American Christianity seeing this corporate emphasis because we live in a culture that prizes individuality. But we must see that even those scriptures which are directed to individuals have as their main thrust some sort of corporate application.

I hope to, in a later post, do a study on the themes of the New Testament letters. In short however, what are the major themes of the New Testament letters? I believe there to be three main themes. Notice that some books have more than one theme. FYI: I am not putting these in the order of importance--They are all equally important.

1. Unity (love). This really is the major or minor theme in the books of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, James, and 1 John. It is a sub theme in Hebrews, 2 John, 3 John, Jude.

2. Enduring Persecution, and usually in the context of evangelism. This is the major or minor theme of the book of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Revelation. One of the main sub themes in these books are a hope for heaven based on the finished and effective work of Jesus Christ.

3. Doctrinal Purity- This is the major or minor theme of 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude. The emphasis in these books is being able to discern false teaching.

These are the three things that the author's of the New Testament were most concerned about. If you are considering a chuch that cannot be characterized by all three of these things then you need to look elsewhere. I am not saying that you should be looking for a perfect church. I am saying that you should be looking for a church that emphasizes what the Bible emphasizes. These are the three main criteria I use when I am searching for a church. Why do I use this as my criteria? Because these are the things that the New Testament authors pushed for with utmost importance in their letters to churches about church issues.

In the next few posts I will be discussing each of these three areas (Unity, evangelism, and Doctrinal Purity) in greater detail.

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