When new people enter our church, we encourage them from the beginning to get involved in a small group or two. The reality is, just attending church on Sunday is not sufficient for spiritual growth and relational growth among the church body. In order for a family to be healthy, two things are required in the life of the church—spiritual progress in active obedience to the gospel and relational growth among genuine friendships in the church. Small groups—both Sunday school and other avenues designed specifically for men and women are essential.
With all of the focus on small groups and how such groups are vital for healthy church growth, it would be wise to pause and consider the fact that something more than a small group is necessary. It would be wise to recognize that your small group is not your church—in fact it can’t be.
You Need Preaching Too
While small groups often focus on good teaching and group discussion, you need something more than that in your spiritual life. Each Christian needs to sit under the preaching of God’s Word on a weekly basis. While preaching and teaching certainly have their common ground and overlap in many areas, they are not exactly the same thing. That’s why we see different terms used in the Scriptures to reference teaching (διδάσκω) and preaching (κηρύσσω).
God uses the faithful preaching of the Bible to reprove, rebuke, and encourage the church in ways that may differ from teaching. It is also God’s design to use the preaching of God’s Word as the message of a herald sent from the King in ways that may not allow for immediate dialogue and discussion. This is good for the heart, the mind, and the conscience. This is God’s design for the church (Acts 15:35; Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 15:1).
You Need to Observe the Ordinances
While small groups certainly have their place, there is no place for the observance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper within those small groups to the exclusion of the whole church. Although it may seem like a popular thing for youth to be baptized in the ocean at summer camp, since this is an ordinance of the local church it would seem most appropriate for new converts to be baptized when the local church can gather for that purpose. The same thing must be stated regarding the Lord’s Supper. A Bible study group on the college campus should refrain from observing the Lord’s Supper unless the entire church comes together for that purpose.
If you think that Sunday school is enough, you’re wrong. If you think that your special group within the life of the church is all you need—you’re missing the big picture of the church. You need more than your small group—you need to gather with the whole church and observe the Lord’s Supper and witness new converts follow Christ in believer’s baptism. This is essential for your spiritual progress, and this can’t happen in your life if you’re excluded from the wider body of believers.
You Need the Whole Body—Not Just a Few Body Parts
Just as you need all of your body rather than just a small group of your body parts—so it is with the church. You need more than your Saturday morning coffee group. You need more than your Sunday school class. Yes, those groups are essential and profitable for your spiritual growth—but you still need more.
You need the wider body of believers who have been redeemed by Christ and who come together as one body from different backgrounds, diverse age ranges—encompassing male and female. This is evident as we read Titus 2 and see the exhortation for the older to invest into the lives of the younger.
Likewise, you need more than a group of people gathered to study the Bible. You need for the church’s leadership and servant roles to be employed in your life. You need elders to oversee you and deacons to serve you. The offices of the church are critical for spiritual growth—and these offices are often not fully functional in the context of your small group. You need the whole church.
You Need to Sing with the Whole Church
Finally, it’s important to consider the value and necessity of singing together as a church. Not only is singing a vital part of worship, it also serves as a means of discipleship. Singing the gospel not only praises God, but it helps people learn theology and affects their doxology.
Most small groups meet together, discuss theology, pray together (and for one another), but not many small groups sing together. Singing is crucial to true worship and sanctification. This is why the corporate gathering of believers made up of diverse ages, races, and sexes coming together to sing the gospel is so important. This goes beyond what typically happens at Starbucks on Saturday morning.
The next time you gather together with your small group—be thankful for how that group works together for your spiritual growth, but never lose sight of this reality—that group is not your church and can’t be your church on several different levels. You need the church and your small group, but don’t embrace your intimate reading group to the exclusion of the whole church. That pattern is common, but it’s also extremely dangerous. Don’t buy into the lie that you’re a special case and that you don’t need the whole church. You could do without your small group before you could do without your church.
One of the highlights of my year is teaching the membership class to prospective members. Typically we offer the class during three different months and it lasts 4-weeks each. During this time, I find great value in interacting with the new members who are pursuing membership in our church. I likewise enjoy teaching on the doctrine of the church and explaining the importance of a proper ecclesiology. Not only do I find value in it, but I believe the prospective members do as well. This class provides value to our whole church.
Guard the Front Door
In the church culture that I grew up in, joining the local church was not that difficult. It was more difficult to join a little league baseball team than it was to become a member in the local church. That was true among many Southern Baptist churches. Typically families would walk to the front of the church at the conclusion of the service when the pastor would give a formal invitation and invite people to come for counseling or membership. It was common to see families or individuals walk to the front, answer a few questions, and be presented as members immediately.
The membership class works in a different way to go beyond a casual introduction to a more formal introduction that provides a proper context of the prospect’s background, spiritual condition, testimony of conversion, and life dynamics before becoming an actual member of the church. This is not a pragmatic method and it may seem strange to guard the front door of the church, but it’s a needful practice that prevents people from joining who could be potentially dangerous to the church.
Although the church should be open to anyone, there are exceptions. For instance, unconverted people are not welcome to join our church. Church membership is reserved for Christians and you don’t become a follower of Jesus by joining the church. Secondly, prospects who are not in good standing in their local church should not be welcomed into membership. Finally, people who come from different theological and ecclesiological backgrounds may need to be evaluated more intensely before welcoming them into the life of the church. All of this is for the health and unity of the church.
Introduction to the Church’s Beliefs and Practices
During the 4-week class, we take time to teach what we believe and how our church operates. The class is broken down as follows:
- Christianity 101
- The Church 201
- Distinctive Marks 301
- Becoming Productive Members 401
We always begin with a proper explanation of the gospel and this allows unbelievers to hear the good news of Jesus Christ at the beginning. On several occasions, I’ve had people go through the class and dropout after the first or second week when they realize that they aren’t a true Christian.
The class moves on to explain very specific distinctive marks of our church’s doctrine and ecclesiology that may overlap with other Baptist churches and will likewise be distinct from other churches in our community. We want prospects to understand how our church is served by a plurality of deacons and led by a plurality of pastors and this may not be something that some people are accustomed to and it’s good for them to hear it in the beginning.
Expectations and Responsibilities
The class ends with a focus on what is expected of members who come into the life of our church. We expect members to be productive and healthy as they contribute in ministry and promote unity among the church family. During the final class, we discuss spiritual gifts and how they are to be used in the life of the local church for the glory of God.
Finally, at the end of the process, each prospective member or family will meet with one of our pastors for an interview where they talk privately on a date set aside on the calendar for that particular meeting. During the conversation, the prospective member will be asked to share his or her testimony of conversion and to provide a simple definition of the gospel. We also provide an opportunity for the prospects to ask questions to the pastors regarding anything from the class or things pertaining to the life of the church.
In the end, the membership class provides a more healthy way of entrance into the local church. It is not fail proof—as I’ve had people lie their way through the new membership class, but it does provide a much more difficult process for deceptive people who have some motivation in joining the local church. In the end, I believe the new membership class is valuable for the prospective member, the pastoral staff, and the local church as a whole. We want new members and the church to understand the shared responsibility of membership from the very beginning.
One of the greatest decisions of your life will be centered upon what church you should join. This will be where you receive the teaching of God’s Word, grow in the knowledge of truth, are blessed through the ordinary means of grace, and where your entire family will engage in worship, discipleship, and missions. This is no small decision. Often I run across people at conferences or through e-mail who stop attending church because they can’t find the perfect church. What if you don’t have the perfect church in your community—what should you do?
Nonattendance is Not an Option
If you’re not presently attending church because you have become disgruntled with your present church and due to the fact that you can’t seem to locate the perfect church in your area—you are in a very dangerous place. God has never intended His people to journey to the Celestial City alone. The journey is long and treacherous and God’s plan has always been centered on the church. We need one another for encouragement, friendship, partnership, and accountability.
Consider the words in Hebrews 10:23-25:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
How is it possible to stir up your church to love and good works if you’re not in attendance with the church? How can you encourage your church if you’re not gathering together with your church family for the purpose of worship and service in ministry? The church gathers weekly for worship and service, and regularly sits together at the Lord’s Table remembering the sacrificial death of Jesus. Nonattendance was not an option for the early church and it shouldn’t be an option for the modern church.
Work Hard to Make Your Church Better
Perhaps that’s the reason you’re unhappy is because you’re searching for the perfect church. It’s like the husband who is unhappy with his wife because he’s consistently looking at other marriages and examining them as he searches for the ideal marriage. Perhaps if you stopped shopping around and became focused on your local church things would suddenly improve.
When talking to people about what type of church they’re searching for, words that often surface in such conversations include “authentic,” “missional,” and “serious.” Before leaving your church and looking for a better church, have you considered working to improve the deficiencies within your local church? As we consider the reality that all churches will have blemishes and deficiencies, we must not become a “Statler or Waldorf” who sit on the sidelines and criticize. The church needs more and the Lord deserves much better from us all.
As the church is often described through analogies of the human body, a building, and a family—the idea of slacking off and not pulling your weight within your local church based on complaints that you have is simply not biblical. Work hard to love one another (yes, we are called to actually go beyond liking one another), to serve with one another, to promote unity, and to engage in the mission of the local church for the glory of God.
Drive, Move, or Both
There are times when it’s necessary to leave a church. As you consider leaving your church, you must honestly evaluate your desires from a biblical lens. Are your concerns based on cultural preferences or essential biblical truth? This is a heartbreaking decision and should likewise be approached carefully and biblically. Never leave a church out of emotion, anger, or petty complaints.
If sin is not addressed by the church and if unrepentant sinners are allowed to persist in their rebellion—this may be a reason to consider leaving your church. If leaders within the church do not take their responsibility to teach the Bible seriously and if they replace serious exposition with silly sermonettes and puppet shows, this may be an indicator that you can’t stay. If unbiblical doctrines are being taught, you should leave. However, in all cases, it would be wise to confirm the unbiblical doctrines by meeting with the elders of the church to avoid any misunderstanding and to hold the leaders accountable.
If you find yourself searching for a church because you’ve had to leave a church on the basis of heretical teaching or if you’ve recently moved to a new city—don’t be persuaded that your couch and YouTube will be a sufficient substitute for a healthy local church. God has not given us another option in place of the local assembly of the saints. If you need to drive to the next town to attend church—do it. If you can’t drive and be faithful—consider moving. Yes, moving to be closer to your church may prove to be the best decision for your family. It will prove to be much healthier than spotty attendance that keeps you and your family disconnected from the life of the church. It may be that such a move causes you to have a longer drive to work each day, but that too may be the most healthy option.
Whatever you do—don’t choose YouTube and podcasts as a substitute for your local church.
We are reworking our specific membership covenant that’s been largely non-existent in the life of our church for many years. It is our desire as elders to raise it back up to a state of prominence, visibility, and functionality in the life of our church. As I’ve recently been reading and considering the wording of our covenant, I’ve also been thinking about both the implicit and explicit membership covenant of the local church and its value for the church. We would be wise to take it seriously.
The Implicit Church Covenant
As individuals follow Christ by faith and identify with Him through baptism, they are brought into the life of a Christian community called a church. As individuals are added to the church, there are implicit expectations for both the church collectively and the new member specifically of the local assembly. It comes with the territory—when you have people there are needs and expectations.
Some of the implicit membership requirements in a local church include:
- Participation in corporate worship through the ordinary means of grace (preaching of the Word, observance of the ordinances, and prayer)—Acts 2:42-47.
- Spiritual accountability (Matt. 18:15-20).
- Submission to the spiritual leadership of the church (Heb. 13:17).
- Pursuing holiness (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3).
- Maintaining unity within the local church (Eph. 4:3; Rom. 12:18).
- Not forsaking the assembling of the church (Heb. 10:23-25).
- Visible and functioning member who exercising spiritual gifts in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-31; James 1:22).
- Maintaining Christian love and honor for one another (Rom. 12:10; John 15:17; John 13:34; Eph. 4:2).
- Engaging in the church’s ministry of discipleship and evangelism (Matt. 28:18-20).
Even without a written document titled, “church covenant” it’s abundantly clear from the pages of the New Testament that membership matters and certain responsibilities are inherently received as one enters the church as a follower of Jesus.
The Explicit Church Covenant
We engage in covenants at many different points in the course of our lives. For instance, marriage is a covenant between two individuals and to God (in the presence of witnesses). We enter into financial covenants when we purchase a home and sign off on a loan. We are making a pledge to pay back the loan on certain terms. This is a contractual and financial covenant—a promise made between two parties with binding agreements.
My father served for 36 years as a fireman in our community. I can recall him explaining to me as a boy the importance of his uniform he wore to work every third day. On his days off, he didn’t wear his uniform. But, on every third day, he would appear in the living room early in the morning dressed in his uniform. He explained to me that when he was dressed in the uniform, he was a direct representative of the local community. Therefore, the chief had expectations for all employees and boundaries they must submit to while in uniform. If they were caught in violation of those boundaries, it could result in a formal and professional reprimand.
As members of God’s universal Church, we represent Jesus no matter where we live and travel. However, on a local level, we represent Christ and the local body that we’re members of in our community. Many churches have a specified church covenant that outlines the big membership expectations for the entire church body. These agreements serve as pledges or promises that we’re engaging in together with the entire church to engage in ministry and life that honors Christ. A church covenant serves as promises to be kept, shared responsibility with other members, boundaries for ministry and life, and a healthy reminder of what’s expected of fellow Christians according to the Scripture.
Does your church have an explicit church covenant on display or contained in the governing documents of the church? Does your church ever read it aloud in order to remind the entire church of the promises? Do you take the church covenant seriously? Could it be that the lack of functional and binding church covenants in the local churches of our day serves as proof of the downgrade of biblical church membership?
Often people make statements such as, “Do we really want to make it more difficult to enter the local church than it is to enter heaven?” In one sense, yes we should. For instance, the condemned man on the cross next to Christ went to heaven without entering through church membership. So it is possible to go to heaven without church membership, but just not very likely. Even if your church doesn’t operate with an official explicit church covenant, it would be wise to humbly submit to the implicit church covenant expectations found in Scripture. Don’t play fast and loose with God’s church. Make it your goal to become a visible, humble, functional, submissive church member for the glory of God.
If you read and study about the health of the church for any length of time, you will run across the phrase, “ordinary means of grace.” The theologians of church history and many of our contemporary scholars, theologians, and pastors are all pressing the importance of clinging to the ordinary means of grace. What exactly does this phrase mean? In an age of cultural relativism, how can a church become extraordinary by being ordinary?
The Meaning of the Phrase
The phrase, “ordinary means of grace” is communicating something specific, and we must avoid two big misconceptions from the beginning. First of all, the phrase is not intending to mean that grace is earned in any way by participating in certain acts of worship. Secondly, grace is not ordinary in the slightest degree. Grace is God’s gift to fallen, guilty, and wretched sinners who do not deserve anything other than God’s wrath. So, with that being said, what exactly does the phrase mean?
In the Scriptures we are given an opportunity to look behind the curtain into the life of the early Christian church community. In Acts, immediately following Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the church grew from 120 in the Upper Room to over 3,000. In Acts 2:42-47, we see the church meeting together for worship and fellowship. In those meetings, we see three primary things happening (other than the fellowship) in their worship. We see the ministry of the Word, the practice of the ordinances, and prayer.
Throughout history, preachers, scholars, theologians, and groups of Christians have sought to highlight the profound simplicity of the early church’s worship. In doing so, we see statements like the following one contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q: 88):
Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
In a similar vein, we find the following statement in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (chapter 14, paragraph 1):
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. ( 2 Corinthians 4:13; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14, 17; Luke 17:5; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 20:32)
Once again, it should be noted that it’s not through the media gratiae (means of grace) that a person earns salvation in any way. It’s through the ministry of the Word that grace comes (Rom. 10:17). It must likewise be noted that once a person is converted, grace is needed on a daily basis. The grace of God is not a one time event, but a daily need from the point of conversion until we all stand in the presence of Christ. Therefore, it’s through the ministry of the Word, the ordinances, and prayer that the Christian continues to be strengthened in the grace of God.
The Purity and Health of the Local Church
Today’s local church culture has, in many ways, lost what it means to be an ordinary means of grace church. In an attempt to grow, expand, and do radical things for God, in many cases the local church employs methods and strategies that minimize the ministry of the Word, the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. You can see my recent article titled, “The Church Is Not Six Flags over Jesus” for more on that subject.
The evangelical landscape is littered with many different methods for reaching the modern culture. We see everything from the “seeker sensitive” model to the “purpose driven life (and church)” model. The evangelical church has toyed with ideas such as the emergent church methods and other relevant strategies geared to reaching a post-modern (or post-post-modern) culture. Many Christians who focus on the cultural landscape are saying that we are living in a post-Christian era and that in order to reach people today the church has to do more than preach the Word, observe the ordinances, and pray.
Before we buy into that type of thinking, it would be wise to consider the landscape of Jerusalem at the time of Peter’s confrontational sermon at Pentecost. It would also be extremely informing to explore the city of Ephesus with all of the idolatry and self exaltation and then consider the words of Paul to Timothy—”Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). If an ordinary means of grace method of ministry could reach Jerusalem in a post-resurrection era and if that same type of church could reach a sin saturated “Vanity Fair” city named Ephesus, why must we change directions and commitments in our present day?
If we’re honest, the early church was powerful and earth shaking in their mission as they were led by the Holy Spirit. However, in all honesty, they were rather ordinary, simple, and straightforward in their approach to ministry. If the early church was extraordinary by remaining ordinary in their obedience to the Lord, why would we seek to become extraordinary by abandoning the ordinary means of grace?
The extraordinary church focuses on the ministry of the Word, the ordinances, and prayer. The ordinary church is really extraordinary. When people ask you to describe your church, you may consider a long list of glowing adjectives as a description, but don’t underestimate ordinary.
My very best memories as a boy growing up are often linked to my time around the church campus and with the church family. I will never know what it’s like to grow up disconnected from the life of the church. My days as a boy were spent building friendships with people in the church. I married a girl from our local church (we don’t remember the first time we met). Basically, I grew up in the church. I’m eternally grateful for my time spent on the church’s campus playing games with friends, playing basketball in the gymnasium, and going on church related trips. However, I’m most grateful for the time spent on the church campus gathered in one room worshipping God with the church.
Today, there are various and sundry opinions on how to make the church successful and relevant to a modern culture. Sadly, many pastors and church leaders are turning their local church campus into an amusement park for Christians rather than a campus designed for discipleship and worship. Everything from a fire truck baptistry to indoor fireworks and weekly rock concerts are being used to attract people to church. As we consider the importance of God’s church — the very bride of Christ — we should likewise evaluate the methods, strategies, and techniques that are being employed in our day beneath the umbrella of gospel ministry.
Pastors Are Not Performers
As a pastor, I’ve attended many different conferences designed for pastors and church leaders. I’ve likewise attended many denominational meetings designed for the local church and pastoral ministry. What I’ve seen in those conferences have troubled me through the years. It seems that new categories for ministry have emerged onto the scene including gospel ventriloquists, gospel puppeteer, gospel comedian, gospel magician, gospel power team, gospel actors, and more. It’s almost as if today’s church has lost confidence in the simple and straightforward proclamation of the gospel.
Many of today’s pastors are quite comfortable organizing special events and engaging in various types of entertainment to grow their church. It’s not uncommon today to see pastors dressing up in costumes and acting out their sermon as opposed to preaching it. Are pastors performers? Did Paul write to the church at Corinth in order to remind them that it pleases God to save sinners by foolish entertainment? Did Paul instruct Timothy to dress up and entertain the people of Ephesus or did he charge him to preach the Word? The pastor is not called to entertain goats. His duty is to shepherd souls by faithfully feeding the flock of God.
Worship Is Not a Roller Coaster
When I go to Six Flags with my children, they often want to get me on as many roller coasters as possible. My children are thrill seekers. If you look at the design of the roller coaster, it’s built in such a way as to get immediate results. From the first drop to the final sudden stop, the track is designed with the goal of entertainment. Nobody wants to ride a boring roller coaster—right?
When it comes to the worship service, many church leaders and pastors are now designing their worship services in similar ways. The goal of entertainment from the opening of the service until the benediction is evident from the time you walk into the church’s worship center. The choice of lights, their music, the lack of dead space, the lack of silence, the length of their prayers, the method of preaching, and the use of technology all point to a foundational goal of making people satisfied with the ride. However, today’s evangelical church needs to recognize that worship is not a roller coaster. Our goal is not always to have an immediate result of happiness and success. Sometimes worship isn’t fun. Sometimes worship isn’t a thrill. Sometimes genuine worship leaves us with conviction and tears rather than the giddy laughter of a thrill ride.
The Need for Healthy Church Membership
We do live in a day where puppets are often preferred over preachers and where the worship service is expected to be designed like an exciting roller coaster ride. There is much need for spiritual growth and maturity within the evangelical church today.
Although I critique the evangelical church in these areas, I am one who believes in God’s Church. I think it would be foolish to repackage the local church or to abandon it altogether. God has ordained the church as His plan for His people, but there is a need for greater health among the children of God in the area of ecclesiology. As we consider the next 500 years of church history in light of the approaching anniversary of the Reformation this October, the area that needs the most attention in our day is biblical ecclesiology. The church is not a waste of time nor is it a broken road. The church is God’s special and unique plan for all Christians. We must not give up on the church.
As we consider the need for health in the local church today, here are some areas that need attention:
- Biblical preaching (verse-by-verse preaching).
- The need for a high view of church membership. What does it mean to be in a covenant with one another?.
- The need to guard the front door and the back door. Is it too easy to join and leave your church?
- Functional church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18.
- Healthy and biblical leadership (church government that finds its roots in the Bible rather than corporate America).
- Congregational involvement in singing.
- Congregational engagement in the preaching (expositional listening).
- Spiritual maturity that’s achieved by biblical discipleship (a church of Bereans).
- A firm reliance upon the power of the Holy Spirit for ministry.
- Evangelistic zeal undergirded by theological conviction.
- A biblical understanding of conversion (centered on God’s sovereignty resulting in man’s response).
- Central and worshipful observance of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Any method of growing the church that deviates from God’s design is foolish. When people become willing to employ gimmicks to “grow” their church — they’ve officially traded the Holy Spirit for schemes of man. No matter what plan someone thinks up in the future, the very best church growth strategy is simply this — “We preach Christ crucified and resurrected from the dead.” Can we have fun with the church? Can the church provide a wonderful atmosphere where we build lifelong memories? It absolutely can. However, we must not forget that the church is the bride of Christ—not Six Flags over Jesus. We as pastors and church members must be careful in how we treat the bride of Jesus.