Look for a Church That’s More Than a Preaching Station
I love expositional preaching. It re-centered my ideological world, exploded my love for Jesus, and opened my mind to the wonders of the Scriptures. But expositional preaching has never loved me back.
Do you know what has loved me back? Burritos. I’m just kidding! People have loved me back.
Just yesterday, my wife and I moved for the tenth time in nine years. Do you know who showed up? Lots of people who loved me: my dad, my step-mom, my best friend of twenty years, and a girl from youth group who kept an eye on the little ones. But the vast majority of folks who showed up were members from my church. They love me too, even though some don’t know me well. There was Bill, a fifty-something truck driver who offered to drive the rental truck and save me from committing vehicular manslaughter. There was Joseph, a carpenter (no, not that Joseph the carpenter) who stayed until after dark to fix a few rickety cabinets. There was Ethan, a college student and new Christian who brought along a few guys he’s discipling. There was Trent, an aggie with a pickup and who probably sleeps in his cowboy boots. Some of these folks I know quite well, but many I didn’t know at all. I even had to ask a few folks their names!
What should you look for in a church? You should look for a church full of people who love you not because they’re related to you and not because of your decades-long shared history and not because of your kindred political preferences. Look for a church full of people who love you because of course they do. Because of course a hand loves a foot, and an eye loves an ear. As members of the same church, any precondition for love has already been met simply by being a part of the same body.
In this addition to the Church Questions series, Alex Duke provides criteria on what to look for in a healthy local church. Using personal experiences and biblical principles, Duke identifies elements—the gospel, the Bible, and the community—that are the most important when choosing a church.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1–6)
Okay, so what? What do we actually do to “walk in a worthy manner”? In other words, what do humility and gentleness and patience and love and unity look like? Great questions. Maybe something like this.
You speak truthfully to one another—even when it’s hard. After all, you’re members of the same family. You’re as close as close can get. When a fellow Christian sins against you, you resist sinful anger. And when anger bubbles up, you work hard to confess it and move forward because you know unconfessed anger is an opportunity for the devil to wreak havoc and wreck unity. You use your job as a platform not for self-promotion, but for generosity, to look out for those in need so that you might help them.
You use your words carefully, not like acid but like aloe vera. They don’t corrode and condemn; they soothe and heal. You remember how the Holy Spirit has worked identically in every fellow Christian, and so you await an identical future. You’re more alike than you realize, so you work hard to assume the best and to see other saints how Christ sees them—even when you want to respond in bitterness, frustration, and even malice. After all, you once faced a debt you could never repay, even if you had all the resources and all the time in the universe. But God in Christ forgave you. On your best days, his generosity and kindness motivate yours. On your worst days, his generosity and kindness are shared with you anyway. Hallelujah, what a Savior.
What you just read is how the Bible describes holiness with its boots on the ground (Eph. 4:25–31). It’s how the Bible describes a church. I don’t mean the ideal church, you know, like one that could only exist in make-believe lands like Narnia. I mean the biblical church, like one that exists in normal places like Nebraska.
What You’re Committing To
Let’s remember what we’re doing. We’re talking about what you should look for in a church. I’m trying to tell you that you should look for a church that’s not just a preaching station. What do I mean? I mean that when you’re committing to a church, you’re not committing to your favorite Sunday-morning preacher. You’re not committing to whatever music or mission or vibe you appreciate most. You’re not even most fundamentally committing to a theological persuasion, though theology is certainly important. No, when you commit to a church, you’re most fundamentally committing to people, people like Bill and Joseph and Atito and Chelsea and Jonathan and Jason and Morgan. They love you. You love them. They help you move. You help them move. They make you mad. You make them mad. They forgive. You forgive. And on and on and on it goes.
When you commit to a church, you’re most fundamentally committing to people.
A church isn’t a crowd of Christians who show up at the same time every week for some music and a message. A church is a people who have committed themselves to help each other get to heaven.1
Every church, of course, promises “authentic” or “deep” relationships. But these stated goals often run against the grain of what they actually do and the kinds of relationships they prioritize. So let me be clear: you should look for a church that practices meaningful membership and discipline. In a church where “community” is highlighted but there’s no meaningful practice of membership, it’s easy to slip in and out unnoticed and therefore hard to know who’s following Christ and who’s just there out of convenience. In a church where “community” is highlighted but there’s no meaningful practice of discipline, it’s easy to lead a double life and therefore hard to believe that anyone is taking this whole thing that seriously. Don’t get me wrong: some relationships may be genuine and even genuinely deep, but they are at the end of the day functionally opt-in and self-determined.2
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with someone who was leaving her church. The church hadn’t met her expectations. Friendships weren’t forming, and so she and her husband were out. Their church had become a preaching station to them. “All we have is the preaching,” she said.3
I’m glad she knew that preaching doesn’t make a church. While it should facilitate the relationships in the church, it can never become a substitute for them. Why? Because preaching doesn’t love you back. It can’t. But people will. And if you commit yourself to them—and allow them to commit themselves to you, even to the point of inconvenience and sacrifice—then over time those relationships will flourish.
- Hat-tip to Mark Dever for this phrase.
- For more on this topic, you could check out my previous installment in this series: What Should We Do about Members Who Won’t Attend? (Crossway, 2021). I make the case for membership and discipline in that booklet. Here, I’m more-or-less assuming it.
- Side-note: Someone could say, “All we have is the preaching” and mean, “All we have is the preaching and not the various programs and subgroups that we need to ‘feel’ connected.” If that’s the case, then I’d be less sympathetic. Faithful preaching should be at the center of a church’s life, and the relationships will likely be downstream from it.
This article is adapted from What Should I Look for in a Church? by Alex Duke.
Be amazed at the power of Christ to transform a helpless man; but also, marvel at the love of Christ that claims rebels like this as his own.
Ultimately, the local church makes visible what is invisible, and reflects in words and deeds the kingdom life that is to come.
Have you given up on the church? Shift your gaze from your hurt and disappointment and behold the church through the eyes of Christ.
Love for the church ought to be a fundamental characteristic of our lives. You have a people. They are your local church. And our love ought to mirror God’s love in three important ways.