Yesterday was ‘Back to Church Sunday’. God brought us a thrilling number of visitors, especially in the evening. I love my job when that happens! And it’s not because I’m fed up of the old crowd, just in case any of them are reading this! But we seem to be on our inviting game at the moment!
In the evening a did a ‘thinking about an issue’ slot, as per usual. And as per usual I had insufficient time to think about what to say and do anything more than an adequate job! But, for what it’s worth, here are my four questions to ask of any church.
1. Is this a church which honours and exalts Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? In other words, is it a church that’s infatuated with the incarnate, crucified, exalted and returning Christ? Does it point me to him and encourage me to grow in faith in him? If not, it’s a bad church and I wouldn’t go there.
2. Is this a church that shapes its life and doctrine by the Bible and encourages me to do the same? Every church claims to teach the Bible but when it comes to the reality of what we believe, what we do and what we say is the church actually biblical? If not, it’s a bad church and I wouldn’t go there.
3. Is this a church in whch I can exercise the gifts God has given me for the encouragement of others? In other words, is this a church in which my name will appear on a rota so that I don’t sit around enjoying great music, entertaining preaching and an exciting social life without actually serving anyone? If not, it’s a bad church and I wouldn’t go there.
4. Is this a church to which I can invite my friends so that they can come and hear the gospel without unnecessary barriers? If not, it’s a bad church and I wouldn’t go there.
But if you find a church that fulfils all those criteria then go for your life and get involved.
And then I had an e-mail from John Lumgair this morning who reminded that I’d blogged on the same issue a while ago. It was back in 2007. Get that! I wasn’t sure that John remembered what happened last week! But here it is, word for word. It’s the blog equivalent of listening to an oldie!
I received an interesting response from a handful of people at a recent evening meeting when, as an aside, I said the following, ‘you could always come to church, it doesn’t have to be ours, but make sure it’s a good one’.
There were some for whom it was a revelation that there were bad churches. The idea that some churches don’t do what they’re supposed to do was clearly a new idea.
But it dawned on me how essential it is to point this out. The theological breadth within our own denomination is so vast that it must be utterly bewildering to the casual observer. Presumably it completely escapes them what churches at different ends of the theological spectrum have in common. The truth is, very little. But in using the term Anglican [and allowing others who’ve departed from its theological foundations to use it] we allow people to think that we’re all the same. We’re not. People need to know that there are very serious doctrinal differences between a liberal catholic church and an evangelical church. Visitors don’t need to know what all those differences are immediately. But they need to know that what you’re offered in each will be very different. The politicians among the denomination may try and paper over the cracks. But we’re not politicians, we’re pastors and either side of those deep fissures are life giving truth and poisonous false teaching. We wouldn’t let a parent inadvertently give a child poison to drink when they thought it was milk. Why do we think it’s unwise or unwelcome to do the same with doctrine? No one likes drawing attention to division, any more than we enjoy the fact of division. But in light of the fact that those church leaders guilty of reinventing the faith seem unwilling to repent and teach the Bible we have to warn those who are yet to describe themselves as followers of Jesus Christ.
But what surprised me most was that there were some who were delighted to hear a church leader describe churches as bad. Their experience of church had been awful. But they assumed that this was normal and that Christians hadn’t noticed just how bad it was! Perhaps they’d thought that when we become Christians our powers of differentiation are removed along with our brains! They assumed that we could no longer tell the difference between a good church and a bad church. They hadn’t figured out what the differences were but they knew they were there alright. So, for the sake of the confused visitor I’ve resolved to keep on using that phrase for a while.
It begs the question, ‘what is a good church?’ Here’s what I suggest.
1. Find a church that’ll teach you the Bible
The first priority in choosing a church is to find one that will help you mature in the Christian faith. God matures disciples of Jesus Christ by teaching them from His word. And so we’re looking for a church not only that models Bible teaching from the pulpit but a church that handles the Bible well in small groups and equips its members to read and study the Bible for themselves.
If a church doesn’t teach the Bible we’ll remain undernourished and stunted in our growth. The church has far too many spiritual pygmies and we don’t need any more. So do the kingdom a favour and find somewhere that’ll equip you to live faithfully for Christ.
2. Find a church that’ll encourage you to use your gifts
Secondly, find a church that will help identify the gifts that God has given you and nurture them in serving others. God equips us differently so that in combination with the other members of his body we can get to work and build the church. So we’re looking for a church that won’t allow you to pew sit for too long. Even those churches with a training remit ought not to just fill you with knowledge but encourage you to do some actual ministry.
If a church doesn’t encourage you to use your gifts you’ll become spiritually obese! We need to exercise and participate in church life. Every church has jobs that need doing. Find out what they are and volunteer!
3. Find a church that’ll help your evangelism
Thirdly, find a church that will help you reach your friends, family and colleagues with the gospel. You need to find a church that talks about evangelism and one that does evangelism. Take a look at the term card and preaching programme. Find out what events the church provides to help you in reaching others. So we’re looking for a church that won’t let you off the hook and encourage our evangelistic complacency.
If a church doesn’t encourage you to engage in evangelism our concern for the lost won’t mirror that of Jesus Christ. The world is full of people who’ve never heard the gospel expressed in language that they can understand. Jesus never neglected them, neither should we.
So this is what I advise people who are ‘church shopping’. It may well be the case that you have to compromise on one of those things. But i’m not convinced that in London we have to. It ought to be obvious that Christ Church Balham [www.christchurchbalham.org.uk] matches up fairly well under all the categories. But you’d have to pay us a visit to see whether that’s true or not!