FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 3
Which church should I join?
I live in a suburb of Chicago called Oak Park. Approximately fifty-three thousand people live here. On many street corners you can find a massive church structure. At the turn of the century, when Oak Park was the first affluent suburb on the railroad west from Chicago, the men driving the delivery wagons said it was easy to know when you entered Oak Park: “Its where the saloons end and the steeples begin.” When the drivers coined that phrase, they were saying that Oak Park was a community filled with churches. A century later that observation is still true. Today there are sixty different churches representing more than twenty denominations.
What is true of Oak Park is true of many communities. Across America there are four hundred major denominations. There are over thirty different kinds of Baptists, more than a dozen varieties of Methodists, not to mention a large handful of Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. We can add to that the many Charismatic and Pentecostal churches and the large number of independent and interdenominational churches. Although we often sing, “We are not divided, all one body we,” the many divisions within Christendom show that we don’t always mean it.
Look in the Yellow Pages under “Churches” and you are likely to discover a bewildering array of choices. How do you know which church you should join? For some people the answer is easy. They were raised Catholic or Baptist or Mennonite or Church of Christ and that’s the end of the discussion. Others opt for whichever church is closest and has the most convenient schedule of services. Many parents don’t mind which church they attend as long as their children are well cared for. And a growing number like to church shop, spending a few weeks here, a few weeks there, sometimes settling down, sometimes always moving on.
I should freely admit that I can’t answer this question for you. I can’t even tell you which denomination you should prefer above all the others. Churches are different, people are different, cultures are different, and family needs are different. What fits one person and one family may not fit another. So if you’re looking for an answer along the lines of “Find the nearest Baptist/Lutheran/ Episcopal/Assembly of God church and join it,” you might as well skip this chapter altogether. I can’t help you if that’s what you need to know.
But I am sure of this much: You need a place to belong. To borrow a phrase from a famous television show, we all need a place where everyone knows our name. And we need a place where we can know and be known, where we can find some friends who will help us on our spiritual journey. In short, we need to be part of the family of God that is called the church. And not just the “church universal” that stretches around the world. We desperately need to put down some roots in a specific local church.
We should not be surprised at that since we’ve known for a long time that God made us as social creatures. No one is an island; no one is made to live entirely alone. We were made for friendship, for family, for deep, caring relationships. And when we don’t find those, we search high and low until we do.
Deep in the Heart of Texas
It is said that home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in. A year ago my wife and I went “home” to Midlothian, Texas, a town about thirty miles south of Dallas. During my seminary days I served as assistant pastor of a church in Midlothian. In the two decades since our last visit, the church has more than tripled in size and moved to a new location. I wondered if anyone would remember us. But all fears were removed when we entered the beautiful new building and were immediately overwhelmed with hugs. We were nearly hugged to death. The people who knew us a quarter-century ago couldn’t have been nicer.
As I reflected on it later, it occurred to me that almost no one asked what we had been doing for the last twenty years. They didn’t ask how many books I had written or the size of the church I now pastor. That didn’t seem to matter. And no one asked about the mistakes I’ve made over the years. How refreshing to be with people and not feel you have to pull out your resume to prove your worth. That to me is what the body of Christ is supposed to be.
We find a similar truth in the New Testament. Acts 2:41-47 offers us a brief snapshot of the early church. In fact, this is the very earliest picture of what Christianity looked like in the beginning. I am impressed by the first and last verses of this passage. Verse 41 tells us the church began with three thousand conversions in one day. Can you imagine a church membership seminar for three thousand people? Verse 47 says that people were being saved daily and added to the church. The verses in between describe what happens when God breaks loose in a group of ordinary men and women. This is not religion or ritual but the reality of Christ at work in the midst of his people.
Five Marks of a Healthy Church
What sort of church should you join? This passage paints a picture of a vibrant, growing community of Christian believers. This is what Christianity looked like when it was a movement and not a world religion. From these verses we can discover five marks of a healthy church. Find a church with these five characteristics and you’ve found a good church to join.
Mark #1: Solid Grounding in the Word of God
Luke reports that the early believers devoted themselves to the “apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). This means they put a high priority on knowing the truth. Sometimes you see churches with names like “Apostolic Church of God in Jesus’ Name #3,” and you wonder, “What makes a church apostolic?” I answer that a church is apostolic if it follows the teaching of the apostles found in the New Testament. To the extent that any church follows the New Testament, that church is an apostolic church. This means that the Word of God must be the objective foundation of the church. A healthy church does not depend on the latest Gallup Poll or the whims of public opinion to decide what to believe or what to do. God still guides his church today through his inerrant, inspired, totally truthful Word.
Because the Bible is the Word of God, the people of God must consult it whenever they face a difficult decision. When thinking about the future of the church, the leaders must ask, “What does God say about this?” The same is true for all the members of the congregation. Christians must seek to know what God has said in his Word and then prayerfully apply it to their own situations.
Let me illustrate. Each year in January, churches across America observe Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Christians from many denominations pause to reaffirm our conviction that all human life is sacred in the eyes of God and deserving of our protection. We especially wish to say we oppose legalized abortion and pray for God to lift this scourge from our land. Where does that conviction come from? Certainly not from our politicians. We came to that truth by simply reading the Bible and discovering what God says about unborn human life (see Ps. 139:13-16).
Ditto for homosexuality, adultery, political corruption, illegal drug use, and a host of other contemporary vices that grip our nation. Churches that believe the Bible aren’t confused about any of those things because they can read the Bible. They don’t appoint task forces to decide what they believe about abortion. They simply stand on God’s Word without regard to whether or not this makes them popular with the powers-that-be.
Not long ago one of our local newspapers commented that some churches in Oak Park don’t wish to be called “progressive.” I thought to myself, Thank God. That’s the best news I’ve heard in years. We need churches that are progressive in method but biblical in theology. Sometimes it is said that the church is twenty years behind the times. What a terrible insult. We ought to be two thousand years behind the times. If we can do that, we’ll discover the same power that animated the early church.
During my sermon one Sunday a couple got up and walked out of the sanctuary, evidently upset by what I had said. One of our members had spoken to this couple before the service and learned that they were visiting a number of churches in our area. My friend commented that it is frightening in a way because it reminds us that the message of God’s truth cuts both ways—it is “life” for some and “death” for others.
As the old hymn says, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word! What more can He say than to you He hath said, To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?” God’s Word is the all-sufficient foundation for every Christian and for every local church. If this be true, then each person should ask this question: Am I learning more about what God says and how to apply it to my life?
Mark #2: Vital, Life-Transforming Worship
Vital worship played an important role in the early church. Luke makes this clear in two ways. Verses 42 and 46 of Acts 2 mention “breaking of bread"—probably a reference to a meal followed by the Lord’s Supper. Verse 47 adds that they were “praising God.” The whole passage suggests a sustained atmosphere of praise and worship that permeated the early church. They didn’t have just one stated “worship service” but evidently gathered daily to sing, praise, and share the Lord’s Supper together.
One gets the sense that this was very active worship. During a recent concert, contemporary Christian musician Babbie Mason commented that the people in her home church understood that worship is a verb. She meant that the preacher always knows how he is doing because the people in the pews talk back to the speaker. They listen and say “amen” or offer other comments on the sermon. And when they sing, the congregation throws heart, soul, and body into the effort. The result is a transforming experience where every part of the worshiper is involved in praising God.
When the Bible describes worship, it mentions things like singing, clapping, shouting, laughing, kneeling, saying “amen,” speaking, sitting in silence, chanting, praying, lifting up the hands, lying prostrate on the floor, beating the chest, crying, blessing God and others, joining hands, singing in the choir, listening to the choir, playing cymbals, horns, bells, pipes, trumpets, and even dancing. That tells us that worship is to involve the whole person in every area of life.
This is not an issue of style. After all, the worship of Acts 2 was synagogue worship brought over into the early church. If we were somehow transported back in time, we would not understand their songs or the Scripture reading or the sermon. Yet God blessed their worship and infused it with his Holy Spirit.
In my years of traveling I have raised my hands in charismatic worship in Belize, and I have worshiped in a tiny Russian church not far from the Volga River. Although the only words of Russian I knew were “good morning” and “yes” and “no,” when the believers stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer, I stood and sang along with them. During my last tour of the Holy Land, our group spent one Sunday night at the King of Kings congregation that meets in the Jerusalem YMCA. Many of the choruses were in Hebrew, yet we joined right in and worshiped God with our brothers and sisters. The same thing happened during an evangelistic crusade in Pignon, Haiti. When those dear brothers and sisters sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” in Creole, we sang along in English.
Recently I worshiped in several Nigerian churches. Sometimes we all sang in English and sometimes they sang hymns in Hausa and I sang along in English. I have sung “Just As I Am” with forty-five thousand others at a Billy Graham Crusade in Denver; listened with awe to the magnificent sound of “Holy, Holy, Holy” on a pipe organ; stood around a campfire in Schroon Lake, New York, with three hundred teenagers singing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder"; heard the beautiful chanting of the Catholic monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; and attended an Orthodox liturgy in St. Petersburg, Russia. On a trip to Paraguay, my wife and I learned to sing Hay Vida in Spanish and one or two songs in the Guarani language. I have been in churches where the music was fast, slow, and in between; in formal liturgies and informal sharing services; in churches which followed the church year, and in churches where they never heard of the church year.
The test of true worship is that it should lift us into God’s presence. Here is a simple test for worship: Does it whet your appetite for God? Biblical worship lifts you out of your own world and creates in your heart a hunger to know God better. In some ways style is almost irrelevant as long as people come into contact with the living God.
Mark #3: Caring Relationships with Other Believers
Acts 2:42 tells us that the first believers were devoted to “fellowship.” The Greek word means “to share something in common.” The rest of the passage fleshes out this concept as we learn that they were “all together” (v. 44), they met together in the temple courts (v. 46), and they ate together (v. 46).
This passage mentions three times that the people ate together. Shared meals played an important part in the life of the early church. Eating together is one mark of a united church. Sometimes ministers like to joke that if you want to get a group out, you have to have pie and coffee. If you want to get a crowd, you have to have a meal or at least you need refreshments. Sometimes people grumble about it. But it’s not just a psychological fact that people like to eat together. It is also a biblical truth. In the earliest days of the church, Christians ate together every day. I believe the church that eats together will stay together, will play together, will pray together, will grow together in every sense of the word. I call this the First Rule of Church Growth: “If you feed them, they will come.” Thousands of Wednesday night suppers have proved it to be true.
The early believers were all together all the time. That reminds me of Dr. W. A. Criswell’s statement that the church should be the social center of the congregation. Thirty years ago that was a radical concept, but “Dr. C” was a man ahead of his time. Today the largest churches in America do the same thing—and attract great crowds of people. Not long ago I happened to see a banner hanging from a local church proclaiming something about their plans for the twenty-first century. Underneath were these words: “St. Giles Community of Faith.” I like that concept—the church as a “community of faith.” That’s entirely in keeping with the spirit of Acts 2:41-47.
This idea of togetherness is so important because we live in increasing isolation from one another. Our technology has made it easier than ever to avoid human contact. Look at the average family. We have our own cars, our own rooms, our own phones, computers, beepers, pagers, and even our own fax machines. We can work at home if we want, thus avoiding the messy problem of dealing with people face to face. Our quest for more privacy has come at the cost of enormous personal loneliness.
There is nothing more important that I can say to you than this statement: God never intended that you should live the Christian life by yourself He intended that the Christian life would not be a solo, but a duet, a trio, a quartet, a quintet, a choir, and a mighty symphony. He intended that as you joined your life with other people, they would help you and you would help them. How is it with you? Do you have a few people in your life who really know you? Or do you always wear the mask, the costume, play the game, because the show must go on? Are you accountable to anybody for the way you live? Or are you doing it all by yourself?
You may be struggling right now because you don’t have a group, you’re not close to anyone, and you’re not accountable to anybody. God never intended that his children would live like hermits. He intended that they would live together, and that in living together, they would help one another along the way. It is God’s will that we live together as brothers and sisters in a family relationship so that we can love one another, encourage one another, admonish one another, hug one another, pick one another up when we fall down, rejoice together, weep together, and correct one another when we make mistakes.
Here is the question to ask as you look for the right church: Does this church help me build, relationships that encourage my spiritual growth? God never intended that you go it alone. A healthy church provides many opportunities to develop lasting personal relationships with other believers.
Mark #4: Seeing the Power of God through Prayer
The final item of verse 42 is “prayer.” The early church was devoted to prayer. But don’t skip past the next verse because there may be an important connection. “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). I think those three things should go together: prayer . . . awe . . . wonders and signs. Is it possible that miracles happened precisely because the believers prayed so fervently that an atmosphere of awe made such things possible? Matthew tells us that Jesus was not able to work many miracles in some cities because of their unbelief (Matt. 13:58). Could such a thing be true today? I know it’s possible to go off on a tangent about “signs and wonders,” but I also think it’s possible to go off on a tangent in an unbelieving direction as well.
A friend called recently with news that he had visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a church with a dynamic ministry in a very challenging urban setting. Each week the church ministers to between eight and ten thousand people. They have excellent Bible teaching, great music, and warm fellowship. My friend reported that the Tuesday night prayer meeting draws the largest crowd each week. No wonder the church is growing.
Some years ago during a visit to a mission station in Belize, God impressed on my heart that if the church I pastored was going to the next level, we would get there only through prayer. The Lord clearly said that we wouldn’t get there by preaching, programs, or publicity. Prayer must be the key. That seems elementary, doesn’t it? What pastor wouldn’t say that and what church doesn’t believe it? Let me therefore repeat it once again—prayer is the key. It is not simply one of the keys. It is the key. Acts 2:42 tells us that the early disciples “devoted themselves ... to prayer.” Is it any wonder that as a result God gave them unity, miracles, and hundreds of people coming to Christ? All things are possible when a church prays.
I will leave you to ponder the matter yourself. Just before Jesus cleansed the temple, he declared, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). Christ intended that his people would pray and that as they prayed, they would pray for the nations, and people from all the nations would come and pray with them. It is no exaggeration to say that the Christian church was conceived in a prayer meeting (see Acts 1:12-14).
A great church devotes itself to prayer. And while a church may be large and active without prayer, it cannot be truly great without prayer. The question is very simple: Am I experiencing God’s power in my life in answer to my prayers?
Mark #5: Practical Ways to Minister to Others
The final mark of a healthy church comes from Acts 2:44—45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Some writers have suggested this was an early form of communism. That’s misleading because communism was a malevolent twentieth-century ideology that enslaved millions of people. However, these verses do suggest a “commune-ism” of sorts in the early church. Evidently the believers lived together—or perhaps in close proximity to one another. Certainly they combined their resources to meet the needs of the poor in their midst.
I find it most interesting that as far as we can tells no one told them to do this. They evidently did it on their own. Such a concept seems foreign to modern Christians—especially those in the West who value their personal possessions as part of their birthright. Why give up your hard-earned dollars for the sake of the poor? In Acts 2 the answer is simple: They valued people over possessions. They must have taken Jesus seriously when he spoke about not laying up treasures on the earth. This teaching is very threatening to many people today, so it is easier to find a way around it than to deal with it. While I agree with those who say that we are not commanded to do exactly as they did, I also think we shouldn’t ignore their example either.5
There is nothing in us by nature that would cause us to do what the early church did. So why did they do it? Recall’for a moment the time when a rich young man visited our Lord and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:16-29). Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments. Being a serious young man, he asked, “Which ones?” Jesus listed several and included the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. The young man felt good about it because he had kept all those commandments from his youth. Is there anything else? Here is the answer Jesus gave in Matthew 19:21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Every time I read this passage, it seems like we have the right question (What must I do to inherit eternal life?) and the wrong answer. I doubt that any of us has ever given the answer Jesus gave to this young man. If you ask me how to inherit eternal life, I’ll say something about accepting Christ as Savior. I may quote John 3:16 or Romans 5:8. But I won’t quote Matthew 19:21.
Look at the five verbs in this verse: go . . . sell. . . give. . . come . . . follow. We’re quite happy with the last two and not at all sure what to do about the first three. We’re not comfortable with connecting following Jesus with selling all our worldly goods and giving the money to the poor. It seems a little radical.6
Luke 12:32 contains a wonderful promise: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” Among other things, this is a promise that God has committed himself to provide for all our needs all the time. As citizens of the kingdom, we can rely on our Father to put all of heaven at our disposal. Before you start celebrating too much, let’s read the next verse, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33). Ouch! There it is again—sell what you have and give your money to the poor.
What does all this mean? I suggest that Jesus is teaching us that there is an intimate connection between our possessions, the way we treat other people, and our relationship with God. That’s not a comfortable thought for many people because we prefer a compartmentalized faith where we can have our possessions, not worry about anyone else, and still be in good standing with the Lord. Jesus seems to be saying that it doesn’t work that way. I mention Matthew 19 and Luke 12 because I think those passages help us understand Acts 2. Evidently the early Christians took the words of Jesus seriously and literally. That’s why they did what they did. So the question is this: Am I learning how to use my gifts to help others in a practical way? Healthy churches make it easy for their members to be generous.
An Attractive Church without the “Stuff”
So what sort of church should you join? Should it be Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Assembly of God, or should you join an interdenominational church? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can say this. Find a church that looks a lot like Acts 2:41-47 and you’ve found a good church to join. As I stand back and look at the text, I see an attractive church. Here is a church with no building, no paid staff, no programs, no choir, no organ, no parking lots, no buses, no contemporary worship, and most amazingly, no Internet Web site. And yet they seemed to get along pretty well. In verse 41 we learn that three thousand people joined the church in one day; verse 47 adds that people were being saved by the Lord and added to their number daily. That’s not bad, is it? Wouldn’t you like to be part of a church like that?
They had none of the “stuff” most of us consider so crucial—yet they reached people by the thousands. I’m not arguing that the “stuff” is bad, only that their “stuff” (the five points I mentioned) is better than our “stuff.” Ours is external; theirs touches the realm of the spirit. When I visited Nigeria, I never saw a church with the"stuff” an average American church has, yet I saw many churches with faith and zeal that were reaching people for Christ. Perhaps this explains why the church is growing fastest in so-called “Third World” countries where they aren’t encumbered by the “stuff” we have. (I’m not arguing that these external items aren’t useful for the gospel. They are, but they don’t constitute the heart of a great church.)
What made the early church so attractive? It comes down to one thing and one thing only: They shared a common faith in Jesus Christ. On the Day of Pentecost, people gathered in Jerusalem from all points of the compass: Rome, Egypt, Crete, Cappadocia, Arabia, and many other places (Acts 2:1-11). That means the early church sprang from a “mixed multitude” of differing ethnic groups, skin colors, cultures, and languages. Their shared faith in Christ drew people to them.
Here are three key words that reveal the secret of the early church: unified. . . magnified. . . multiplied. The believers were unified, Christ was magnified, and the church was multiplied. The world has nothing like that. It can counterfeit that reality, but it can’t duplicate it.
What are the marks of a healthy church? Here is the answer from Acts 2:41-47:
• founded on the Word of God,
• practicing vital worship,
• promoting caring relationships,
• devoted to prayer, and
• ministering to those in need.
Where those things are present, these five results are sure to follow:
• healthy on the inside,
• attractive on the outside,
• filled with joy,
• continual conversions, and the
• presence of God everywhere.
Find a church where these things are happening and you’ve found the right church. What happened in Acts 2 is not unique. It is possible whenever the church is the body of Christ and not simply an institution. This is God’s plan. It still works today.
A Truth to Remember:
We all need a place where we can experience the reality of Christ with other believers who can help us in our spiritual journey.
1. Name several different ways the word church is used today. Approximately how many churches are in your own community? Why is it crucial that Christians be part of a local church?
2. A healthy church believes the Bible. Yet even among evangelical churches, there are many points of disagreement. What doctrines are essential and thus nonnegotiable for a local congregation? What happens when these doctrines are neglected or even denied?
3. Why are musical styles often controversial in many churches today? What principles should guide our discussions in this area?
4. One writer says that people choose a church with their noses: “They can smell the joy.” What does that statement mean? Do you agree?
5. What are the signs that a local congregation is truly “devoted to prayer"?
6. Name some of the outward, visible “stuff” that we consider essential for a successful church today. How many of those things were not available in the first century? How did the early believers succeed without them?
You’ve just been appointed to a church planting task force at Spruce Pine Baptist Church. Your pastor has a vision for starting a congregation in a bustling new development on the west side of town. At the first meeting the chairman asks, “What should the new church look like?” And he wasn’t talking about the building. At the next meeting each member of the task force will be asked to share their vision for the new church. When your time comes to speak, what will you say? What will your “ideal church” look like?
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