The past September marked a full seven years of attending Grace Presbyterian Church (a.k.a. Grace Pres). A good friend of mine had been extolling its virtues years before I attended my first service there, and as graduation drew near, my excitement grew at the prospect of a new place, a new start. (While I sought robust preaching, I was also looking for ways to meet new people, à la Abraham’s servant, but that’s another story…) Recently, I finished Christless Christianity by Michael Horton, which, by the way, is excellent. (I recommend everyone to read it before settling on a church.1) Coincidentally, some friends of mine have recently been looking, so I decided to commemorate this anniversary of, erm, biblical proportions by sharing my thoughts about what to look for before committing to a church.
This piece is dedicated to Grace Pres, which has been a blessing to me these short years and is in many ways my model of a solid church. However, my writing here is not endorsed by them; if there are any inaccuracies, errors, or omissions, I am at fault. Hundreds of books have been written about ecclesiology; this essay is not meant to take on such a monumental topic and is bound to leave out important considerations. If you want a more comprehensive treatment of the modern church, I have been told Center Church by Tim Keller is a gem.
I wrote this piece for three main reasons: 1) to help the many Christians who sooner or later wrestle with the topic of church selection, 2) to clarify my own thoughts on the topic in a systematic way, and 3) to express my appreciation for a church that’s in need of encouragement. Juggling these three purposes has been difficult, but even more so in the current climate of sociopolitical discourse—religion, being one of the topics people advise never to bring up on a first date or in the workplace, most definitely participates in said discourse. Therefore, at the outset, I want to make it clear that this is an opinionated work, but with an edge of objectivity. There are principles in it that I don’t want readers to relativize and dismiss as “simply his opinion,” but I also recognize the limitations of my own experience and background and disposition. When you encounter the inevitable shortcomings, I humbly ask for your grace. In the words of C. S. Lewis then, “I labour these deprecations because, in what follows, my efforts to be clear (and not intolerably lengthy) may suggest a confidence which I by no means feel. I should be mad if I did. Take it as one man’s reverie, almost one man’s myth. If anything in it is useful to you, use it; if anything is not, never give it a second thought.”2
When speaking of “church,” Christians typically mean two things: the universal body of believers (henceforth “Church”), and the local body of believers who gather for worship (“church”). When deciding on a church, it helps to briefly explore the broader concept of the Church. If we can understand the Church’s destination, perhaps we can more easily evaluate a church’s trajectory.
There are multiple ways one can analyze the ultimate purpose of the Church. Some say it is worship. Some say it is communion. I think the two are inseparable, for when our communion with God is fully realized, we will worship Him because of who we are in Him. If our telos is to be the perfected people of God, then worship is the corresponding state of heart and action, of love and submission. We need only to turn to the last two chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22, to see this: “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. […] The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. […] No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.”
When we examine the numerous analogies the Bible uses to describe the Church in relation to God—the Bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the family/children of God, His workmanship, His temple, His kingdom subjects, His people—we cannot escape the purpose of worship and communion. (The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question, “What is the chief end of man?” with, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” One could interpret “glorify God” as worship, and “enjoy him forever” as communion, although more pedantically, one could argue that enjoying Him is part of glorifying Him.)
If we accept that worship and communion are the end state of God’s people, it is natural to conclude that the present-day Church is expected to practice these things, even if imperfectly. It is worth clarifying that worship doesn’t just mean singing and praising. It is an attitude of reverence and adoration manifested in obedience. It encompasses conformity to the holiness and righteousness of God. There is a standard of thought and deed (“law”) that Christians are called to, not because we can merit salvation through it (rather, it points us to our inability to keep it and therefore our need for a savior), but because we are made in the image of God. Therefore, even in this broken world in which neither worship nor communion is perfect, we are charged to live by that standard to reflect who God is and what life in His kingdom is like.
This raises a crucial question, if it hasn’t already occurred to the reader: how does a perfect God abide imperfection, or more bluntly, sinful people? Our communion with God cannot exist and our worship of God is not counted acceptable until we are reconciled to Him and our blemishes are dealt with in some way. Clearly, we fall short of God’s law (Romans 3:23). If we are honest with ourselves, we sense an insurmountable gap between our best intentions and the requirements of the law as revealed in the Scriptures. In fact, before we were gathered into the Church, we were enemies of God (Romans 5:10), rebelling against His decrees.
God solves this problem of sin by His redemptive plan, the essential metanarrative of the Bible. Ever since the Fall of Man (though planned long before that), He has repeatedly gathered his wayward people toward the fulfillment of His promises to bless the world through the seed of Adam, and then of Abraham, and then of David, ultimately enacting the New Covenant by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for sinners, all for love’s sake (Romans 5:8).3
In this gospel (lit. “good news” or “good story”), God’s relentless pursuit to turn people’s hearts back to Him culminated in what Christians view as the centerpiece of history: the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.
The incarnation of Jesus was the physical intrusion of an eternal God into the finite history of mankind, to fully sympathize with our plight, to faithfully represent us before God, and to fulfill the law for us (Hebrews 2:17-18).
The crucifixion of Jesus was the execution of God’s perfect justice, by which the debt of sin was paid once for all by the blood of his perfect sacrifice, and by which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us through his perfect obedience, so that God’s people can be fully reconciled to Himself (Romans 3:23-26).
The resurrection of Christ validated his divine identity and the effectiveness of His atoning work, which now serves as a sign (Matthew 12:39), a receipt (1 Corinthians 15:17), a promise (1 Corinthians 15:23), and a source of hope (1 Peter 1:3) for those who believe.
Therefore, on this side of eternity, the Church has an additional role to play, summed up by the Great Commission that Jesus gave the eleven apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). Before his ascension, Jesus spoke to them again, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). In short, the Church is charged with making God known to all nations, and more specifically, to proclaim as witnesses the reconciling work of Christ.
The call for faith and obedience can only be effective because of what Christ has accomplished; not only does his blood enable us to enter the holy places with confidence (Hebrews 10:19), but the ramifications of his reconciling work gives us the motivation to obey (Hebrews 12:28). Without evangelism (derived from the Greek word for “good news”), there is no saving knowledge, and without saving knowledge, there is no acceptable worship or communion, for “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11), and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). The gospel thus forms a central part of the Great Commission, and is crucial in the gathering of God’s people for worship and communion.
Elements of the Local Church
The local church is the universal Church realized in a localized physical instance. In line with the purpose of the Church, a church is a place of worship, communion, and mission through its preaching, prayer, praise, practice of the sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper), and fellowship (community life). Operationally, it has elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3) and its members participate in teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42).
It is hard to say there’s a “wrong” church to belong to (assuming adherence to Scriptural doctrine and principles), since a church is a part of the Church, and the Church belongs to Christ. Its exists because God loves it. To condemn a particular subset of it is risky business, for even when churches err, God provides a way for them to return, as the letters to the seven churches in Revelation show.
That said, “Which church should I join?” is not purely a question of personal preference (or else it wouldn’t need asking). People ask this question because they want to be changed, whether that means growing in faith or experiencing more love. While choosing a church is in many ways subjective, it would be wise to consider the things that can profoundly affect one’s spiritual health and growth,4 the most important of which I consider to be: 1) the teaching and leadership, 2) the liturgy and music, and 3) the culture and community.5
Teaching and Leadership
Primacy of Teaching
Preaching (and teaching in general) is important for several reasons.
Firstly, biblical teaching literally is executing the Great Commission, the prime mission of the church. In Romans 10:13-14, Paul writes, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Preaching draws new believers to Christ and grows his body.
Secondly, it is the means by which the congregation is fed and guarded.6 Paul wrote to Timothy, his protégé in the ministry, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
Thirdly, it teaches us about the One whom we worship. One cannot worship God without knowing who He is or what He has done. To say in one breath, “I love my wife,” and in the next, “What she likes is not important,” would sound silly in any human marriage. The desire to learn more about a person is a mark of loving that person. How much more should churches be interested in learning about their bridegroom?
Fourthly, it reminds us of the gospel, which we are prone to forget in our busy lives. When our emotions are tossed by the winds and waves of our circumstances, we need to be grounded in the truth that God’s faithfulness and love don’t change. When we stray from his precepts and sin, we need to be jolted awake, but then know that the kindness of God leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). The gospel motivates us to true worship.
Good preaching comes from good leaders. The expectation here is not of perfection, but of a godly character and of competence in handling the word (1 Timothy 3:2-5, 2 Timothy 2:15).
To be able to regularly preach the gospel takes one who is not swayed by what itching ears want to hear, but who is wholly convicted that God’s word is truth even when it is hard to hear. On one side, he has to stand firm against the buffets of “every wind of doctrine.” On the other, he has to counter those who presume to cast judgment on themselves and others. He has to tell the strong that they are powerless to save themselves and require another to take on their debt. Yet he has to refute the notion that the sin of the weak has negated their worth beyond God’s reach and power of forgiveness. He knows when to rebuke and when to console.
Such leaders are humble, for they know their Master and they know the grace to which they are indebted: not only does the congregation need it, but so does “the person up here preaching.” They know that those who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1), so they need grace all the more. They’re able to say, “They don’t need to hear from me, but from You.”
At Grace Pres, where I regularly hear these words from the pulpit, the pastors’ consistent appeal to grace in their preaching and personal lives, even in their vast and deep knowledge, is a testament to their humility. That the leaders don’t “[lord] it over those entrusted to [them]” (1 Peter 5:3) humbles me. Their wisdom and earnestness in focusing on Christ, not just for those “in the church,” assure me that they will remain faithful to the feeding of the sheep to which God has called them to shepherd. I’ve been greatly blessed by their ministry, and hope that those seeking a church can find one with such leaders.
Good preaching must be truthful and based on Scripture. Paul literally told Timothy to “preach the word.” He warned him of the tendency for people to turn away from the truth, and exhorted in both of his letters to Timothy, “Guard the (good) deposit entrusted to you” (1 Tim 6:20a, 2 Timothy 1:14). It is not uncommon to hear preachers read into the text, ignoring its context and using its language to say something that the text doesn’t intend. But the Bible has always been strict when it comes to conveying God’s Word accurately: “Thus says the Lord,” not “thus says the preacher,” is the refrain. (Expository preaching attempts to guard against unsubstantiated interpretations by sticking closely to the text and the context, and is something to look for in a church.)
Good preaching also needs to be Christ-centered and gospel-centered. Christ is the central figure of the story of Scripture, and everything else in Scripture points to him (Luke 24:27). When Paul gives imperatives to readers and listeners in his letters, he precedes them with indicatives: the testimonies of who God is and what He has done through Christ on the cross. He recalls in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
It’s not that good works are not worth talking about. In fact, the Bible talks about them a lot. The reason the indicative context is so important is that without it, it is too easy to cross from a grace-based mentality to a grace-plus-works-based one. By nature and by upbringing, we learn that we reap what we sow, that in general, good effort leads to good outcomes. While there is Biblical truth to this (e.g., Proverbs), when it comes to the law and our salvation, nobody is good enough to earn their way to heaven.7 The gospel is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, going against the grain of our pride, our sense of fairness, and our inclination toward self-justification. Little do we know that our self-righteousness is unmerited because we don’t see the truth about ourselves that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), and our “righteous” deeds are like “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). The only way out, the only way to escape the eternal wrath of God, is to be forgiven, and forgiveness always comes at a cost.
At the same time, in our obedience to the imperatives, the gospel gives us a different lens to interpret them: we no longer follow commands as a burdensome precondition to being saved, which we cannot do on our own anyway, but as a response to the gospel that frees us to do so in joy when we’re not so preoccupied by what we think we’re lacking, whether it be acceptance, riches, freedom, or glory. We have all these things in Christ.
To believe this is the main challenge in our day-to-day lives, and paradoxically, the shift in mindset leading to obedience is not achieved (in my humble opinion) by the constant hammering of legalistic notes, but by hearing the good news in fresh ways over and over again.
In summary, two aspects of preaching are non-negotiable. If preaching is not Scriptural, it is by definition not proclaiming God’s Word, which is what preachers are called to do. And if preaching is not gospel-centered, it possesses no power to save.
There is one more aspect of preaching that says a lot about a church that I think is worth pointing out and wise to consider. Good preaching is deep and rigorous. The author of Hebrew writes, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). In other words, a proper preaching of the word ought to dig into our souls and convict us, not just of sin, but of the truth of God’s salvation in Jesus.
Deep preaching requires delving into the text and mining it. The Bible is a unit, and so one part of it informs another. There is much beauty in the consistency of God’s word and His character through thousands of years of biblical history, much richness in all the hidden pointers to Christ, and much profit in seeing how the gospel elegantly addresses the selfish tendency of our hearts in all its forms.
What I appreciate about the preaching at Grace Pres is that it is both expository and accessible. It is one of the few churches whose services I have no qualms about bringing a seeking family member or friend to, because its leaders have consistently set a pattern of preaching that is clear and faithful to the text, that explains the high-level view without sacrificing depth, that is comprehensible by the average layperson, and that is believable and relevant—not in the sense that the message might be watered down to make it more palatable, but rather the opposite: there is intellectual honesty and simplicity in the preaching—it doesn’t over-extrapolate the application of the text, but does draw deep connections between millennia-old text to the human condition of today, and it gives little room for the skeptic to think of Christianity merely as a crutch for coping, or that the pastors are pandering to parishioners for profit or some other ulterior motive.
When evaluating a church’s preaching, see if the text is preached in context and applied responsibly. See if the gospel is clearly and consistently preached, or if it is diluted. Ask yourself if it proclaims message that the Kingdom of God has come through Christ’s substitutionary atonement for even the most despised, and especially the most desperate of sinners; that all we like sheep have gone astray, but Christ is the Good Shepherd who calls us, pursues us, and rescues us; that he is the perfect Lamb and sacrifice that ransoms our souls; that his life and death completed the work required of us for salvation, and by his resurrection, we have an everlasting hope of being raised from death ourselves.
Or is Christ merely a parenthetical figure intended to motivate the congregation to behave well on a superficial level? To serve another cause, however benevolent? To give us what we want in this life? Is the gospel assumed to be already heard and already known, and merely used as a stepping stone to “more advanced” topics and practices?
The weekly proclamation of the message of grace can feel repetitive to some, even if the context, the stories, and the applications are different each week. There is an innate itch, an urge, to ask, “But what should we do?”, to which the answer Jesus gives is simple: “Believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29). Given our propensity to forget and to follow our own wills, repetition is a necessary good. Paul says in Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). This is a very strong pronouncement. At the end of the day, if a church is not preaching the gospel, it is failing in its duty, to the peril of both its shepherds and the sheep entrusted to them for spiritual oversight (1 Peter 5:1-3).8
There are many ways preaching can go wrong, ranging from misplaced emphasis to outright heresy. Most relevant to the state of present-day American Christianity are:
- The Prosperity Gospel. With its self-indulgent message of worldly blessings as a barometer of God’s favor, its heretical message is generally easy to spot and avoid. It has substituted gifts for the Giver, and placed “self” at the center of worship. While not something I foresee my friends succumbing to, it nevertheless exerts a wide influence, especially around the world, prompting many to condemn it for the heresy that it is.
- New Age spirituality. It appeals to the “inner spirit” as the arbiter of truth and is at best logically contradictory in its worldview. Adherents generally believe in a feel-good version of love, and some even believe that Christ is just one path among many in an effort to erase the offense of the cross. Their spirituality runs counter to all of Jesus’ own claims of deity and exclusivity.9 Their authority is “self,” whereas true Christianity is about an objective yet personal God with a holy standard that people cannot live up to, who rescues us from His own just judgment via His own propitiating work, who declares peace between Him and us, His enemies, and who promises the restoration of a broken world. Christianity is a story that begins and ends with God, whose words and deeds are external to us.
- “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.” Termed by sociologist Christian Smith, whom Horton cites in the second chapter of Christless Christianity, this brand of spirituality can be summarized by four words: Be good, be happy. The Bible is viewed as a book of inspirational stories, instructions, and advice on how to deal with our daily problems by self-effort and self-reliance, by positivity and pragmatism, with the ultimate goal of fulfilling our own happiness. Jesus is relegated to being our example and cheerleader. This gross misinterpretation of Christianity commits the same errors as the two above, putting people on a pedestal and relativizing faith.
- Politicization. Churches with a political bent conflate a certain set of values core to their party with the will of God. Their message and attitudes inevitably veer from the truth and toward works-based justification. They consider anything aligned to their own set of values, whether “traditional” or “progressive,” to be godly, judging others based on their stance on a limited set of pet issues. Those on the other side are demonized even as they themselves violate the most basic of commandments. It is true that some values will align, but one cannot pick and choose, and keeping and enforcing these values via the State isn’t the fundamental thing defining us as Christians, for not one person can live up to their biblical referents. As James writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). Jesus also said that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t participate in bringing our social, legal, and political systems into line with righteousness, but that’s a topic for another time.)
- The Deeds, not Creeds movement. This trend of thought emphasizes service for the sake of “visible unity,” on the altar of which doctrinal purity and the gospel itself are sacrificed. To its adherents, according to Johnson (author of the linked article), “the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, and, particularly, the distasteful notion of endless punishment and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone are an encumbrance to establishing visible Christian unity.” By denying God’s greatest work, they deny Christ and his Lordship. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
Lack of Gospel Centrality
The lack of gospel centrality is a pitfall that needs more space to unpack because in addition to the ways outlined above, it crops up in other ways, most subtly in the context of good works, especially of the social justice and personal piety varieties.
In both of these cases, leaders don’t reject the gospel, but “merely” shift the focus. They tend to say things like, “You already know the gospel. Now you need to live it out.” This tendency to assume the gospel has been coined “assumed evangelicalism” (David Gibson, as cited in Horton 120).10
Justice (not just what we call “social”) and piety are important and biblical topics, but problems occur when their necessity becomes confused with their sufficiency. That is, God commands us to be just and pious, but merely striving for these has no salvific value. Secular society finds value in these things as well. Our perception of them as good things can make us complacent in our failure to understand that they are a part of a bigger story.
In case it seems like I’m dismissing them as unnecessary or secondary, let me make a few statements on their importance and say outright that justice and piety are necessary fruits of salvation, that if we are truly part of God’s people, then we are also being shaped by Him to exhibit qualities of His character.
Justice and Jesus
God is a just God. Without this aspect of His character, the whole redemptive story falls apart, because without the need for justice, there would be no need for penalty and no need for forgiveness. However, God is not just a just God. He is a generous God who didn’t smite His people on the first sign of rebellion. He is described as “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” multiple times in the Old Testament, no less. As His people, we Christians are expected, as much as it was expected of the Israelites, to show generosity to those who have no resource or recourse, such as widows, orphans, the disabled, and the oppressed.
God’s call for justice is echoed in the indictments against Israel regarding injustice and oppression in Old Testament prophecy (Amos 3:10, Micah 6:8, just to name a couple), as well as in the New Testament letters, not to mention by Jesus himself (Matthew 23:23). Jesus’ charge to the disciples in Matthew 28:16-20 to disciple all nations “to observe all that I have commanded you,” encompasses, along with the message about who he is and what he came to earth to do, instruction on the Kingdom ethic. Paul’s letters contain situational rebukes and applications of the gospel.
Justice is an integral part of God’s character, and cannot be separated from the redemptive narrative. Therefore, a robust preaching of the gospel should explain how it affects the way we live our lives, how we treat our neighbors, and how it influences the way we think about social issues of our day. Sin needs to be recognized before it can be repented of.
But a church can at once feed the hungry and withhold the life-saving word of Christ, and thus fail to share the Bread of Life, the Living Water, which is ultimately what we need. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). It is thus of utmost importance not just to represent Jesus as a teacher who is concerned about the poor (which he is), or as a motivational example for us to follow (which he is), but as the Lord and Savior who liberates us from our bondage to sin and its wage of death (Romans 6:23), and not only us but all of creation from decay, “into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
When a church focuses on its fruits rather than its source of life, when it adopts charitable works as its main mission and identity while downplaying the necessity of the Cross, when it is established for the primary purpose of providing secular service or advancing social reform, its Christian identity is weakened if not lost. There are many worthwhile organizations in the world with humanitarian missions and good causes that are not called “church,” but only the preaching of the word, of Jesus, can feed people in a way that a food bank cannot.
Again, I don’t want to trivialize the Bible’s concern with justice here. God is deeply concerned about injustice and oppression (Micah 6:8), and uses visible good works to draw people to Him (Matthew 5:16). However, a church that focuses on mere political or social reform is problematic in a few ways, which I’ll only briefly mention here. Firstly, agreeing upon what social injustice is in our present time can be difficult and subjective, even among faithful Christians. Secondly, it ignores the fact that our sin is as much a justice issue as any social matter. In fact, it is the seed and the foundation of unjust systems, and attempting to reform systems without transforming hearts is an exercise in futility; the sin will just reappear in the new system in a new way. Thirdly, it downplays Jesus’ claim that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36)—Jesus did not overthrow Roman rule during his time on earth, nor did he mobilize a movement to abolish any of the oppressive institutions of his day. Rather, when confronted with the very question of paying taxes, he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17). I’m not making an excuse to ignore social issues, but rather urging readers to examine them in depth and with a biblical lens.
It is important to remember that preaching justice without also preaching the redemptive context makes an inaccurate representation of God’s heart and plan, for the way justice looks with and without Jesus is very different. Without grace, justice is retributive: those who have wronged us must suffer an eye for an eye for justice to feel complete (and even then, it cannot restore what has been lost). With grace, justice is reformative: we seek reformation and bear the cost of forgiveness as former transgressors change and become conformed to the image of Christ. In Christ, there is hope of a complete restoration, albeit beyond this life.
I have heard people express disappointment about a church’s lack of top-down support for (outside) service opportunities, as if they need institutional backing to enable them to do good works. Besides being a limited view on what constitutes “good works” (what about presence ministry at work and in the course of common relationships?), managing specific ministries and social activism aren’t part of the biblical role of the pastors and preachers, but the responsibility of the laity (for the purposes of this discussion, I include the diaconal office here, because the deacons of the early church were selected from its membership), many of whom have been gifted for this:11
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:4-8)
In the midst of injustice (with which God was intimately concerned) within the early church, the apostles set a pattern to appoint other godly people, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to resolve the situation rather than to take on the burden themselves (Acts 6:1-3). They were not being dismissive, but rather, their singular mission was to “be [his] witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Even Jesus went from a place and “moved on,” because his message needed to spread (Mark 1:35-39).
The role of preachers is to preach the word, and insofar as they do tackle the topic of justice, it is not a justice divorced from the redemptive work of Christ. The call for justice begins with the work being done in our own unjust hearts and is rooted in grace, reflective of the grace we received from God, rather than in condemnation and quarreling. Preachers that sacrifice the Christ-centeredness of the gospel, clear-cut biblical doctrine, and the God-centered grand narrative to focus on the virtues of social transformation risk crowding out, perhaps even confusing, the message of grace with a message of works, and in the process, distract from the fact that without Christ’s saving work, sin is a mortal threat to both those who do good works and those who receive good works. When a church loses sight of the depth and reality of sin, evil out in the world can seem more problematic than that in the hearts of its membership, leading either to self-righteousness or dismissiveness altogether of the necessity of Christ.
In a parallel vein, there are churches that focus on the personal aspects of the spiritual life in a way that downplays the gospel. The preaching will disproportionately tend toward what we ought to do rather than what God has done. There is a stifling atmosphere resulting from a shame- and guilt-driven approach toward works, rather than a grace-driven one. One potential source of this is the cultural heritage of the church. (Asian churches often exhibit these characteristics to some degree, but it is by no means exclusive to them.)
This disposition to focus on works may hide itself underneath a veneer of intellectual sermons, perhaps with a dash of Greek grammar thrown in, and concern for accountability (more personal than social, generally). It is quite easy to become enamored by a church like this, because it’s tempting to think, “Wow, these people are very committed!” or, “This church goes deep!” And that is not false. But there, disciplines become benchmarks for evaluating worthiness to be called Christian; they are used to compare holiness, and result in tacit hierarchies based on who is more “deserving” to take on leadership roles. Silent (or maybe not so silent) judgment surrounds those who come from a different background or have differing opinions. The leaders enforce a “right” way of doing things, and anyone who differs from their interpretation becomes an outcast. Fruits of grace like worship and obedience become yokes of burden in a culture that promotes a “work more, try harder” mentality in the face of failure. That is not to say some don’t thrive in such an environment, or that these aren’t sincere believers; after all, it accords with many people’s upbringings, and is reflective of the seriousness with which they take their faith.
The effect is more subtle: new and young believers, who are often the targets of their evangelism, learn to behave like “good Christians” and inherit a limited view about who is invited to enter the Kingdom of God. The constant emphasis on works shapes their view of God such that He is not so much a Father as He is a disciplinarian or a judge, and often leads to insensitivity to where other people are at and what they need, emotionally and spiritually. In worse cases, it leads to ostracism, overt and otherwise, of Christians who do not live up to the “standard” to which this particular church subscribes.
Imperatives are good, but they are not the gospel. As “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), so spiritual disciplines are made for believers, and not believers for spiritual disciplines. If we view transformation as a set of concentric rings with change in outcomes in the outermost ring, followed by change in processes, and finally change in identity at the center (see Atomic Habits by James Clear, p. 30), these churches harp more on the outcomes (praying more, tithing more, trusting more) or processes (accountability groups, Bible studies) than the basking in the change in identity that engenders the desire to obey.
Works are a response to grace and a fruit of repentance (Luke 3:8), not a precondition of it. God certainly does not need anything from anyone to establish His purposes: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25).
Shall we then avoid or look down on piety? Absolutely not. We are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Preaching should at some point include exhortations about the way we live. Paul says in Ephesians that we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). When writing to Titus, he gives instructions outlining how believers should live their lives, and reasoned, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14). In Colossians 1:10, Paul prays that they would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” The concern with a godly life both in relation to others (outside the church and inside the church), and in the discipline of our minds and bodies, is biblical. Even shame is occasionally used to rebuke a church for its behavior, associations, or doctrine (1 Corinthians 6:5, 1 Corinthians 15:34). But as mentioned earlier, Apostle Paul precedes imperatives with indicatives of who we are in Christ, motivating his listeners with the reality of their change in identity (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The legalistic tendency among churches usually comes from a misguided desire to accelerate the growth of fruit by forcing a behavioral mold on churchgoers. More perniciously, it comes from a misunderstanding of the gospel (namely, that after we’re saved, it’s now up to us to maintain our salvation) or from twisting the word for self-promotion.
The gospel is not meant to be used as a weapon with which to beat believers over the head. It is meant to be an announcement of relief and victory, a reflection of the character of God whose mercy for undeserving human beings is enacted by the outpouring of wrath against His Son, so that “[God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). This is why the good news is good: apart from Christ, no act of devotion adds one iota of righteousness to our credit; in Christ, no failure of devotion negates one iota of his righteousness credited to us. We are thereby freed from our self-flagellation, our posturing, and our despair.
Horton has this to say about churches with a work-based culture:
The people assume that they come to church primarily to do something. The emphasis is on their work for God. The preaching concentrates on principles and steps to living a better life, with a constant stream of exhortations: Be more committed. Read your Bible more. Pray more. Witness more. Give more. Get involved in this cause or that movement to save the world. Their calling by God to secular vocations is made secondary to finding their ministry in the church. Often malnourished because of a ministry defined by personal charisma and motivational skills rather than by knowledge and godliness, these same sheep are expected to be shepherds themselves. Always serving, they are rarely served. Ill-informed about the grand narrative of God’s work in redemptive history, they do not really know what to say to a non-Christian except to talk about their own experiences and perhaps repeat some slogans or formulas that they might be hard-pressed to explain. Furthermore, because they are expected to be so heavily involved in church-related activities (often considered more important even than the public services on Sunday), they do not have the time, energy, or opportunity to develop significant relationships outside the church. And if they were to bring a friend to church they could not be sure that he or she would hear the gospel. (Horton 190-191)12
When the gospel is assumed, it is easy for a church to go astray. Gibson does an excellent job tackling the generational repercussions of this. (He also does a much better job than I in detailing the signs that a church is headed down a legalistic or licentious slope. Please go read his article.) One would do well to beware of churches that are overly eager to move from the gospel to applications, as it might signal a weak grasp of what the gospel means. I am reminded of this quote by Lance Lewis: “Beauty is that which captivates the eye and moves the heart. We don’t look at something beautiful and think, ‘Now how can I apply this to my life?’ Rather, we behold something beautiful for the simple sake of enjoying its beauty.”13
The teaching and leadership of a church are, in my humble opinion, the most important consideration for choosing one. The raison d’être of a church isn’t to advance noble ideologies, or to impose a moral order on a secular government, or solely to satisfy people’s craving for social support. It is to be a worshipping body of Christ, living in light of the gospel, testifying to the world about Jesus. And the preaching of the word directly influences its direction, health, and growth. I’m convinced that a church that understands what the gospel really entails and preaches it faithfully is ultimately able to cope with whatever might come its way.
Liturgy and Music
My second major consideration when choosing a church is its practice of liturgy and music.
Liturgy and music are often considered as stylistic preferences, rather than as anything spiritually formative. But there is something to be said about the regular practice of liturgy that plays an integral role in one’s spiritual maintenance. Liturgy contributes to the mission of the church viscerally, complementing the verbal nature of preaching; the repetition of the physical experience roots in our bodies God’s story of creation and redemption in a way that just listening to sermons on the Internet cannot do.
At Grace, the liturgy generally follows this format: Call, Approach, Confession, Assurance, Sermon, Offering, Sacraments, Benediction, and Charge, with accompanying songs interspersed.
This order is not arbitrary. James Smith writes in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit,
Historic Christian worship reflects a basic plot or narrative arc that centers on God’s gracious reconciliation of all things to himself (Col. 1:20). Many have noted that historic Christian worship invites a congregation into a story with four chapters: Gathering → Listening → Communing → Sending. This narrative arc of Christian worship, passed down through the centuries, is a kind of macroreenactment of God’s relationship to creation.
He then describes how each stage comprises multiple parts (I recommend reading the book to gain a fuller perspective of the nature of worship and its role as a countercultural force in spiritual formation). Smith continues:
The opening “chapter”—gathering—unfolds with a call to worship, reminding us that God is the gracious initiator here, echoing our being called into existence by the Creator. In contrast to a worship service that vaguely begins when the music starts playing and parishioners slowly saunter in to join the crowd, a worship service that begins with the Call to Worship has already received a word from the God who is active in worship and who wants us there. […] So the Call to Worship is a weekly reenactment of the primacy and sovereignty of the Creator in our lives: just as we are called into being by the God who creates, so we are called into new life by that same God, who redeems us in Christ by the power of his Spirit. […]
Having been called into God’s holy presence and greeted by his grace, we become aware of his holiness and our sinfulness and thus are led into a time of confession—a communal practice whereby we come face-to-face with our sins of both commission and omission, with our disordered desires and our complicity in unjust systems. To be called to confession week after week is to be reminded of a crucial chapter of the gospel story. […]
But the Christian practice of confession is not a groveling mire of “worm theology,” a kind of spiritual masochism, because there is never a moment of confession that isn’t immediately met with the announcement of the good news of forgiveness and absolution. […]
Having been graciously called into the presence of a holy but forgiving God, we now enter into the listening chapter of worship. This includes hearing the announcement of his law or will for our lives, which is not a burdensome yoke we try to “keep” in order to earn our salvation—we’ve already been reminded that we are forgiven in (and only because of) Christ. Rather, the law is now received as that gift whereby God graciously channels us into ways of life that are for our good, that lead to flourishing. […] We listen as we hear God’s Word proclaimed, another opportunity for us to make the biblical story our story, to see ourselves as characters in the drama of redemption.
This culminates in our communing with God and with one another. We are invited to sit down for supper with the Creator of the universe, to dine with the King. But we are all invited to do so, which means we need to be reconciled to one another as well. Our communion with Christ spills over into communion as his body. […] The Lord’s Supper isn’t just a way to remember something that was accomplished in the past; it is a feast that nourishes our hearts. Here is an existential meal that retrains our deepest, most human hungers.
Having been invited into the very life of the Triune God—having been re-created in Christ, counseled by His Word, and nourished by the bread of life—we are then sent into the world to tend and till God’s good creation and to make disciples of every nation. The sending at the end of the worship service is a replay of the original commissioning of humanity as God’s image bearers because in Christ—and in the practices of Christian worship—we can finally be the humans we were made to be. (Smith 93-98)
The various aspects of the liturgy are explained at Grace every service, which I’ve much appreciated. Those new to the faith get an explanation for why we do the things we do. And over time, the regular order of worship becomes ingrained like the seasons, each a reflection of a step in the grand redemptive narrative. In immersing ourselves in the greater story, we experience the truth of our salvation rather than just hear it.
In particular, when Grace administers communion, the manner in which it is introduced doesn’t ostracize anyone who belongs to Christ, and even those who are not yet there on their spiritual journey are made to feel invited (to witness and to reflect, that is, not to partake), without being pressured to “make a decision for Christ today.” In some churches, one practically has to earn the privilege of taking communion, with 1 Corinthians 11:27 often being cited as the prooftext: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord,” where “worthy” is often interpreted to mean the lack of blatant sins of commission during the week. In context, Paul is referring to the lack of awareness of the rest of the body—namely, depriving the poor of the ability to partake in the meal. When the pastors at Grace introduce the Lord’s Supper, they will without fail mention the premise that we eat and drink because we’re people who need God’s grace; the sacrament is a means of grace, after all, and is meant to strengthen God’s people.
When the various parts of the liturgy are regularly explained in the backdrop of the character of God, visitors can observe and learn about God and the Christian story without feeling lost in the rituals, making the church a veritable light to the Gentiles.
Worship music, an essential part of most liturgical traditions, is a controversial topic because of its emotional impact and how much of it is based on preference and what people grew up with. I’m not here to disparage particular artists or songs, but to outline some broad principles that make some worship music more appropriate to sing at church than others. Music plays a significant role in liturgy, so it is important to consider the lyrics and styles of the songs that we regularly sing.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with singing to God as long as it’s done “in spirit and in truth,” per John 4:24. Scripture commands us to give praise. But in a corporate setting, beyond the regulative principle of worship, there are certain points we ought to consider, in wisdom.14
Worship music is both expressive and formative. On the one hand, we express our pain and peace, remorse and reverence, doubt and devotion to God, as a response both to our circumstances and to who He is and what He has done. On the other, the words we sing prepare us and train our devotion through godly teaching.
Contemporary Christian music (CCM) has often been belittled (not entirely undeserved) for lacking depth, focusing on the self, being emotionally driven, and being theologically ambiguous. (You have to watch this, hehe.)
I used to struggle with singing about worship rather than about the object of worship, about falling on my knees, or lifting up my hands, or bowing down to worship, when I was just standing there trying not to clap off-beat among congregants showing no sign of kneeling or prostrating themselves. Lyrics on how we feel, how we commit ourselves, can feel contrived, especially for those who are not in that place emotionally. How many of us can truly say we have surrendered everything when life’s so often a mess?15
Contrary to common misconception, we aren’t called to leave our problems at the door of the sanctuary when we come to service. We bring our problems before God, because He is sovereign, and personal, and loving. He loves us on the basis of Christ’s work, not because of our own feeble attempts at presenting a cleaned-up version of ourselves. Observe the psalmists who pour out their insecurities, their fears, their joys, and yes, even their imprecations, to God. For all their emphasis on feelings, many modern worship songs don’t measure up to the emotional depth of the Psalms, especially when it comes to addressing the darker emotions: frustration, pain, and even existential dread. The cries for deliverance in the Psalms are raw and real, in contrast to the often saccharine and vague nature of many CCM love songs, the words of which often ring hollow because there is little lyrical substance to dictate our affections.
That is not to say that we must only sing how we actually feel. Like good preaching, good music teaches us to respond by pointing us to God rather than to ourselves. This is the formative aspect of worship. When we sing about what we don’t feel at that moment, we are trusting God to seek us, to speak to us, and to change us. This is done through His telling us to look at Him, rather than to ourselves (cf. the Songs of Ascents from Psalm 120 to 134; even in the Psalms in which David’s intimate prayers to God express his dismay or joy, God’s character and works anchor him). We sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” to “let the message of Christ dwell among [us] richly” (Colossians 3:15-16).
Many have pointed out the prevalence of theological shallowness, nebulousness, and inaccuracy of some popular worship songs. Their lyrics don’t always present a clear depiction of who God actually is and what He has done, relying on the listener’s imagination to fill in the gaps left by abstract religious language, and reducing God’s love to vague statements of sentimentality. This, along with the Semi-Pelagian bent of popular Christianity, leads to lyrics that can confuse and mislead believers concerning the nature of our redemption. The repetitive nature of music then embeds erroneous notions in believers’ hearts. With music playing such a formative role, it is critical for church leaders to examine the lyrics they sing and compare them to Scripture.
Finally, a song that one sings in private is not always a good piece for the congregation. Many worship songs sound great when performed by a talented band or played on the radio (speaking of which, some say Christian radio stations may be contributing to the problem of shallow worship), but are not always appropriate in the context of congregational worship. Not all church-goers are as musically proficient as the songwriters or worship leaders. If the goal of service is to gather God’s people in worship, what does it say when a song is led in such a way that half the people cannot follow due to multi-octave ranges, difficult intervals, rhythmic complexity, or melodic embellishments? It is reminiscent of Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians’ insensitivity when it came to serving the Lord’s supper, wherein they did not recognize the body (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). (To be clear, I think it is wonderful that high musical talent is used in the service of worship, but the context for performing such songs does not have to be Sunday service.)
Since congregational worship is a form of teaching, James 3:1 applies. Just as in preaching, the character of a leader is reflected in the way worship is led, and like the role of the preacher, the role of the worship leader is to serve and lead the congregation, not to perform for them. Behavior that appears self-serving, even if it doesn’t come from a place of pride, can be distracting. Good leaders are able to read the congregation, lead them to worship in unity, and avoid attention to themselves. In this regard, I have been grateful for Grace’s worship team.16
Music plays an important part in one’s spiritual formation. It helps us remember great truths about God, even if we forget two of the points in last week’s three-point sermon. When looking for a church, seek one whose worship songs have their basis in God and His wondrous works. Rather than prioritizing a fit in style (e.g., modern vs. traditional hymns), prioritize the orientation of the worship team and the accuracy and depth of lyrics. Richer lyrics teach us with better clarity God’s deeds, character, and promises. The gospel does not magically make our sadness disappear, but by singing about our vulnerability in the context of God’s greater story, we may find lasting peace and healing.
Community and Culture
As Christians, we are called to be part of a community; most of the commands in the New Testament only make sense in that context. While there is only one Church to join, here in 21st century America, most of us have access to multiple local churches.
Many people evaluate the community before joining a church, and for good reason.17 If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are innately and incurably social creatures. Relationships are important to us. Whether a community is supportive or not often means the difference between looking forward to fellowship and avoiding it. What is more desirable than finding a group that we enjoy sharing faith and fun with?
However, I would urge caution against letting relatability be your first guide. As you get to know a community better, you will find people you like and people with whom you don’t connect as well. You don’t need to be close friends with everyone at church. Oftentimes, affinity is based on shared culture or interests. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but it can also be limiting for spiritual growth. A young working professional might feel at home with people of similar age who all like to play board games after Bible study, but what happens to his community if his friends move away? Chemistry is no substitute for being fed, though it can encourage growth in other ways.
We naturally tend to seek people like us, and even in multi-ethnic and multi-generational churches, it’s easy to self-segregate by race, age, or economic status. Knowing then our tendency to form cliques, it is important to keep an open mind when considering the demographics of a potential church home. There is much to learn from people of different age groups, life experiences, church traditions, ethnicities, or intellectual backgrounds.
That said, proximity does play an important role in one’s feeling of connectedness to a church. Lower friction helps habits stick, such as that of regularly attending worship service, and as much as we’d like to think that we’re in charge of our decisions and commitment, long commutes take a toll, raising the activation barrier to greater involvement at church outside of Sunday service. Physical proximity definitely feeds into one’s sense of community and should be considered.
The Possibility of Change
Now there are some churches that are strong in teaching, but “weak” in community. What I mean is that the community doesn’t always feel “homey,” even if individual members can be kind and hospitable. In such cases, I would still consider the church.
The gospel has the power to change people, and where the gospel is preached faithfully, those called by Him will bear fruit. That’s not to say people are always going to be faithful, but one must trust that God is working to build up the body of Christ by the giving of ministers of the Word (Ephesians 4:11-12). God loves his Church more than we do, and if the Church is Jesus’ Bride, God is surely sanctifying her and washing her with His word (Ephesians 5:26-27).
In that regard, trajectory is more important than position. For example, diversity and inclusion have been a topic of discussion for several years now at Grace. As a PCA church, it unfortunately bears the “frozen chosen” stereotype, and our predominantly White, Asian, educated, and somewhat reserved demographic doesn’t help how others perceive us.
As much as we desire diversity, community formation is often self-selecting and self-propagating; people who don’t feel like they fit in with the majority will feel like outsiders and leave, and people from the majority find its own gravitational attraction difficult to escape. But the fact that our elders have been trying to address this issue through panels and discussions gives me hope for the fruit Grace will eventually bear, because its culture is continually forged by a weekly declaration of our common need for grace, a message bolstered in no small part by the frequent mention on the part of the leadership that the person at the pulpit is no less in need of it than the people to whom he is preaching. In this spirit, Grace welcomes people of all types to a journey to learn about the God of the universe, His directives, and His love in light of our sinful brokenness and human frailty.
On a personal level, this relentless focus on grace has helped me shed a lot of the judgmentalism, self-righteousness, and burden of work that I carried when I joined Grace seven years ago. Grace felt like a place where volunteers aren’t driven by performance or guilted into helping out, and being in this environment has helped tremendously. Furthermore, I learned much about the meaning of grace from people whose backgrounds were much different from mine, who have experienced various trials and degrees of brokenness.
What to Look For
Placing relatability above gospel direction (which includes leadership, teaching, and ministry philosophy) is like putting the cart before the horse, and leaves us susceptible to exclusively seeking out people whom we enjoy and relate to, and could give us a skewed view of what church unity actually means. How many of us would find appealing being in the company of the people described in 1 Corinthians 1:26, or 1 Corinthians 6:9-10? Yet as believers, we are called to one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). True gospel community occurs because of the shared Christian identity and pursuit of a common faith. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
If this identity is misplaced, if a church tries to solely rely on mutual compatibility or enjoyment, it would fall apart as easily as it came together: “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It would be no different from the world. And in fact, the early Corinthian church was chastised for its worldly divisions because they had taken their eyes off Christ (1 Corinthians 1, 3, 6).
It is important to remember that there is no perfect community. Every church is a collection of sinners, just like any other organization. The difference is that the Church is specifically sanctified by God. The New Testament is chock full of dysfunctions within churches, and the apostles spilled much ink addressing them.
But a healthy community is one in which, by the work of the Spirit, love for God and truth plays out in mutual vulnerability and a shared desire to know God more. It is one in which love for other people manifests itself in hospitality, forgiveness, generosity, and grace. The community should demonstrate a pattern of spurring one another on to love and good deeds as a reflection of its collective understanding of the gospel (Hebrews 10:23-24). If you want to grow in these things, find a community where the gospel is central, where church members are not just kind and welcoming, but also knowledgeable and wise.
Before I end, I do want to mention a few notes related to community, service, and good works in general. The concern when choosing a church primarily based on these criteria is that good works can originate from any of a number of motivations: shame, interest, novelty, social acceptance, a sense of fulfillment, a strong sense of morality, a desire for increased ecumenism, and so on. All these can exist with or without the gospel, and without a robust preaching of the gospel, these works can become divorced from worship.
According to Horton, the reason Christians often feel burnt out is because church has become a means of service rather than a means of grace (Horton 227). When the gospel is relegated to the background, focus falls on performance, and when you feel like you have to perform to earn standing, whether before God or before man, you slide down a slippery slope of a works-based mindset: pride when you achieve, shame when you don’t.
All Christians ought to participate in good works. But works are the fruit of faith rather than the foundation of faith. The church’s role is to prepare and encourage its members to do these things in light of salvation and not apart from it, and the prescribed institutional way is through faithful preaching of Christ’s work on the cross.
Don’t discount a church just because they don’t have Friday night homeless outreach or a missionary presence in the 10/40 Window. Churches are in different stages of growth and have different strengths and limitations. If a church is faithfully preaching the word though, maturity will come. I have to trust that God will use His word to bring about fruit and renewal:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Good works and community engagement don’t necessarily come in the form of formal programs. Grace Pres, for example, partners with a number of organizations, such as Street Life Ministries and Help One Child. Some may be a bit thrown off by the “lack of direction” when it comes to community service, but I’ve always appreciated that the church didn’t dictate what opportunities its members ought to participate in. The members of the body are vast and varied, and their callings as Christians in the world are too. It helps to have the flexibility to serve where each member feels best suits their interests and skills. Indeed, Hebrews 10:24 frames this as the responsibility of every believer. In this respect, Grace Pres’s charge at the end of every service to “go forth to serve the world as those who love our Lord and risen Savior, Jesus Christ” feels especially fitting.
The seven years at Grace Pres have passed quickly—a little too quickly, reflective of my life at large. By God’s grace, I have grown under its grace- and Christ-centered teachings, music, sacraments, and culture. I have been in fellowship with people who are unlike me, who have taught me a greater vision of what faith and love look like in the Kingdom of God by how they pray and how they treat others. While it has room to improve in some areas, I am confident of where its compass is pointed, where its rudder is turned, where its sails are facing.18 It is one of the most solid churches I know and I am not ashamed to call it home.
I pray that the blessings that have found me at this church and the ministry that is continuously softening my heart, would be poured on others who come. Through this church, may they taste and see that the LORD is good, that He is loving, and that He is trustworthy.
I pray that Grace would not tire of preaching Christ every week. We as people are easily distracted, burdened, and ensnared by all kinds of worldly concerns—news, worries, sins, addictions, conflicts, finances, politics, statuses… We need to be regularly reminded and renewed, and receive the word of God to refresh our parched souls. May its pastors continue to fight the good fight of the faith to guard what has been entrusted to their care.
And in the nurture of their teaching and wise and faithful leadership—by God’s grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit, of course—along with that of the elders, I pray that the church would grow in number, as well as in maturity, building itself up in love as each part does its work.
Special thanks to M. Sheu, M. Bocanegra, D. Lee, T. Zhou, K. Pluckter, and E. Li for sharpening my thoughts on this topic.
1 This was a book that I purchased almost nine years prior but had left on the shelf until this year because, well, it was a bit dense. Not being a fast reader, it was difficult to pick it up again after I made it through a few pages. But with the extra time afforded me by shelter-in-place, I finally got it done, and by that same token, it seems to me the time is ripe that I finally address this topic about which I had wanted to write for a long time.
2 Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. Chapter VI.
3 To be clear, this love and the desire to have communion with us is, as John Piper says, an “overflow of his fullness, not the compensation of his emptiness.” (Piper, John. “When Worship Lyrics Miss the Mark.” Accessed November 29, 2020. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/when-worship-lyrics-miss-the-mark.) C. S. Lewis mentions this as well in The Four Loves: “In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential” (Chapter VI).
4 It is appropriate, even advisable, to do this at the start. Once you’re relationally invested in a church, it’s hard to leave, and the decision to change churches should be done in prayer and wisdom and godly counsel. Like a school, a church is not just any community; it is a place of learning that profoundly shapes a person, so I recommend a commensurate level of due diligence.
5 I specifically omit the “mission” of a church from this list, because I believe there really is just one overarching mission of local churches, which is to preach Jesus. Anything else can be delegated to smaller units or extramural organizations, and need not be driven at the church level.
6 Horton takes the stance that “self-feeding” is not the model God has instituted for the church. By the giving of shepherds (pastors) and gifts of teaching, it is His plan to have certain individuals be the catalysts by which people grow in knowledge. Horton uses Jesus’ command to Peter in John 21:17 as the basis for this view: “This is the task God has given his ministers: not to make the sheep self-feeders but to give them everything necessary for their pilgrimage to the Holy City” (Horton 224). This doesn’t negate the importance of study God’s word on one’s own, but under normal circumstances, pastoral teaching forms a God-ordained and necessary component of one’s spiritual instruction.
7 Galatians 6:7 has been brought up as an objection to this statement. Taking the context into consideration, Galatians 6:7-9 actually comes at the end of an entire section on the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. Good fruit only grows from good seed, and “sowing to the Spirit” (6:8) can only occur in people who “live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). Those who “live by the Spirit” are those whom “Christ has set free” (Galatians 5:1, Romans 7:6), which means it is not of our own doing. The ones who are “released from the law” are the ones Christ has saved and whom God has forgiven. Romans 7:4-6 sums up all of this rather nicely.
8 I think it is important to address the question of “milk” and “solid food” raised by Hebrews 5:12-14. One might falsely assume “milk” as the gospel, and “solid food” as perhaps topics outside of the gospel. But just because the gospel is simple doesn’t mean that its preaching has to be simplistic. Hebrews 5:11-6:12 and the rebuke on the listeners of the letter is an interjection right in the middle of talking about Christ’s priesthood, which surely is a gospel topic. So “solid food” isn’t referring to advanced topics or works beyond the purview of the gospel, but rather, a deeper knowledge of the person of Christ. The people were called out for their laziness and lack of attention to even the gospel basics.
9 By “exclusivity,” I don’t mean that he excluded classes of people, even though he did condemn the religious elite as a whole (but he did have a few faithful followers even from that class). “Exclusivity” here means that Jesus claimed to be the only way to access God: “‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
10 The original link provided by Horton is no longer accessible. I have substituted the citation with an up-to-date link.
11 Horton covers this in Christless Christianity, pp. 249-250.
12 Hart, Shane Vander. “What Is The Purpose of the Church?” Accessed October 31, 2020. https://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2009/05/what-is-the-purpose-of-the-church/
13 Grace Pres Service Bulletin for Sunday, October 11, 2020.
14 See https://www.all-of-grace.org/pub/pribble/hymnsing.html for a more detailed treatment of the Regulative Principle.
15 I wonder if the focus on the subjective experience can in part be attributed to the individualism of American evangelical culture, where one often hears about conversion as a “personal decision” and relationship with God as a private affair. I suspect Bridal Theology only exacerbates the issue. Further, the word “love” in the English language is itself much broader than the Greek terminology for love, leading to confusion between the type of love we may feel for a romantic partner and the type of love we ought to feel for God. There is no shortage of songs (and debates about songs) containing romantic imagery between the Savior and the saved individual—never mind that the Bride of Christ is the Church in aggregate and each of us are not brides of Christ. (Some hymns share a similar problem.) This trend is probably exacerbated by the commercialization of CCM; mushy lyrics make people feel good about themselves, which tend to sell better. This is all just my speculation, however.
16 When I first joined Grace, the fact that the praise team was not center-stage during worship left a deep impression. Instead, they were set up on the two sides of the communion table. The musicians led the congregation without showiness, even though they were talented. There were no extended guitar solos, no attempts to manipulate the energy of the congregation through overly loud percussion, no random jumps in the songs because the lead singer or guitarist “felt led.” It was a testament to their understanding of the corporate aspect of worship—that is, worship as one body, rather than as a collection of individuals—and its thoughtfulness and orderliness was deeply appreciated.
17 The extent to which church culture affects a person in their living out their faith in the context of the community varies from person to person. I admit that I’m more intellectually biased than relationally biased, so my view may be a little skewed.
18 Though I have a better sense now of Grace’s weaknesses, I am confident in its direction and its leadership. In fact, I happily became a member some years ago. From a guy who is as selective about his church as he is about his wife, that’s saying something. Let’s just say there’s a reason he’s still single…