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Month: July 2018

6 Things to Look for in a Church

One Sunday. It’s not like I was gone for weeks, and yet I sorely missed not being able to join my family as they left me at home sick that Sunday morning. Perhaps that’s strange to you, or maybe it seems a bit extreme to experience sadness from missing church just one time. The body of Christ isn’t an added extra for me though; it’s not another club I’m part of that gives me something to do or keeps me entertained for a few hours on Sunday. I need to go to church. I have an ache inside for the presence of God, the radiance of the saints, the authority of the gospel. I don’t go to church out of inertia or custom. I go because I need God, you, song, prayer, gospel, freedom from self, and more. As I think about the beauty of the body of Christ and what she means to me, here are six things I want to encourage you to look for in a church.

1. Gospel-soaked Prayer

When Karyn and I first took our family to check out our current church, something that captured me immediately was the congregational prayer. I don’t remember who spoke the words, but I remember feeling my mind called to attention and my heart filled with thanks as I was reminded of the gracious God and all that he has done. The theological depth of this carefully crafted prayer reflected the heart of the church to lovingly, deliberately invest good doctrine into those who listened. The prayer included a clear articulation of sin and our need to repent, Jesus as our only hope and redeemer, the obedience of faith as our response, and our mutual commitment to the pursuit of holiness as the body of Christ. Prayers like this consistently came from every person who shared a role in the liturgy; the gospel-soaked vocabulary of prayers rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ. Notably absent from these prayers were me-focused subjective declarations; these prayers pointed people with precision to the beauty of God in the gospel.

2. Christ-exalting Worship

We all know that music can stay with us long after the words of the sermon are over. Songs have a habit of popping into your head whenever they please, and we are influenced by what we sing. As a parent with kids in the service, I feel an extra responsibility to pay close attention to what is sung as well as what is said. This is a service to my own spiritual well-being as well because we are all called to worship God with our minds. With my ears up during worship, listening to what we are learning through song, I find with delight that every song minimised human-centric language making much of Christ and his infinite worth. I still remember songs I sung in church growing up, and I’m grateful for the good theology instilled in me from a young age. Rather than “we have overcome”, make sure your church is singing “Who is like the Lord our God?” because when we sing songs that are deeply rooted in Scripture, we sing to exalt Christ—an act in which the Holy Spirit is eager to join with us.

3. Scripture-driven Sermons

No one would disagree that a lead Pastor’s main role is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God to the people under his care. Further, part of this responsibility is discerning the needs of his congregation, by answering the questions that are burning in their hearts. For this reason, I don’t assert that topical sermons are wrong-headed, but perhaps (like me) you’ve sat under topical sermons that are helpful in doing life better, but you realise you’re at the end of the sermon and your Bible is still sitting closed on your lap. I would simply seek to encourage those who adopt this style (when they feel the need arise) to work equally hard on these sermons as their regular exegetical walk through books of the Bible. The danger lies in approaching the Biblical text with an idea or a theme and reading that topic into the text before plucking that verse out of its context and attempting to extract three points of application for the hearers. It’s too common for pastors to either (a) serve their congregation pre-packaged content prepared by someone else or (b) sever parts of Scripture from their Biblical-historical context for a need that it was never intended to address. The former can be the theological equivalent of serving your children take-away food five nights in a row, the latter short-changes people in their growth and simply won’t develop mature disciples.

4. Family-minded Community

The church is called, gathered, and held together in fellowship by the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit. For this reason we should place a high value on church membership because we know that it is primarily for the benefit of other church members that we have been given various gifts. It’s the people in the church community with whom we have been adopted and made into one loving family. John writes

Behold what manner of love the Father has given to us,
that we would be called children of God (1 John 3:1)

The church should never be thought of as purely a gathering of like-minded people who then disperse back to their lives without much outside contact with those they warmly shook hands with on Sunday. Be part of a church that embraces the messy, noisy mix of chaos and love that family is, and that in every way communicates the importance of commitment to a local body of believers as a vital step of obedience in the Christian life.

5. God-pursuing Leadership

When it comes to making decisions, there are churches that adhere to wise business principles, and then there are those who adhere to a faithful application of the principles of Scripture. These two sets of values are not always at odds with each other (in fact, quite often they can align) but the primacy and ultimate authority of Scripture alone must prevail when tough decisions need to be made. Too often damage has been done to whole groups of people when church boards make “the better business decision” in the face of clear (counter-cultural) gospel imperatives. The qualities of God-pursuing leadership are outlined for us in two places in the New Testament (in addition to qualities that mark Christians in general), and as such no church member should ever feel uncomfortable about approaching leaders—Bible in hand—about decisions that have been tabled for comment, and leaders should always be able to provide answers consistent with the gospel for decisions, and not simply a good business case.

6. Intentional Discipleship

It’s one thing to take time before, during, and after the Sunday service to chat about our week and the weather. But no one has ever become a more mature disciple of Christ without intentionally coming together with other believers and carving out time to work out our salvation. We need each other; we see in our very design as image-bearers of God that we are deeply designed for community. When we join with other believers to search Scripture for answers to our circumstances, confess and root out sin, and in prayer seek the ongoing help of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, we truly grow in grace and bring glory to God as those who better reflect him on earth. A church that promotes deep, personal relationships as well as offers classes and groups for the deeper exploration in and application of God’s living Word in our lives is a church that is fulfilling the Great Commission to

19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
(Matthew 28:19–20a, ESV)

This is why I love the church.

Recent years continue to see Christians abandon the institutional church in favor of expressions of the faith that are supposedly more ‘pure’. Christians meeting together at McDonald’s in twos or threes, Christians meeting together in homes or in local parks. This, say some, is a true, pure, biblical expression of Christian community. But I love the historical, institutional church, and believe that she is central to all that God is doing in the world. My prayer is that every Christian would find for themselves a place in which each of these Six Things (and more) is preached, practiced, and promoted for their good and God’s glory.

What I Read in June

Growing Down

I enjoyed this latest work from Michael Kelley, and would absolutely recommend adding it to your library when it comes to thinking about discipleship, as well as your own posture towards walking in the obedience of faith. I took some quality highlights away but at the same time it felt like The Curious Christian and Do More Better (which are both excellent) got together and had a baby; it had its own personality and new things to offer but it seemed quite obvious who the parents were. The central idea is that in order to become more Christlike, we need to become more childlike—that is, dependent. The book is thoughtful, engaging, easy-to-follow, and definitely unpacks a necessary change in thinking when it comes to what it looks like to grow in grace.

How to Ruin Your Life

David was called a man after God’s own heart, and he gave us wonderful, timeless Psalms like Psalm 23. But David wasn’t perfect and sometimes the lessons we learn from his life are those of what not to do. When it comes to his tragic downfall through the taking of Bathsheba, Geiger points to three lessons; three traits that David failed to handle correctly that led to his ruin, and could just as easily lead to mine too.

Read my full review.

The Warden and the Wolf King (Wingfeather Saga, Book 4)

The ending brought tears to my eyes. Here Andrew Peterson brings a wonderfully well-rounded conclusion to the great story of the Throne Warden, Song Maiden, and High King of the Shining Isle. In what could very likely be my current favourite fiction book to date, the rich, immersive world and the deep, engaging characters constantly filled my imagination while I made my way through the largest book of the saga. To be honest, while I love Peterson’s songs and lyrics, I love his books much more. Five stars.

The Pastor as Scholar & the Scholar as Pastor

Since well before I graduated from seminary, I’ve known that the path God put me on would lead me to be either a scholar or a pastor. But are these roles really to be thought of with this binary distinction? With over 30 years in their fields, Pastor Piper demonstrates that his head has never truly left the academy, and Professor Carson shows that his heart has never truly left the church.
This book is important, and personally very helpful as I think about where God is calling me and shape that should take.

What are you reading?

See what else I read in 2018:

Parenting: an Example of Grace

If there’s one surefire way to bring sin to the surface and show me who I really am, it’s being a parent. Nothing shines a huge spotlight on my selfishness like a kid crying in the night. I always thought I was a fairly patient person—up until the time when none of my kids are doing the right thing, and all of my kids are refusing to listen. It’s been said that kids are like mirrors: they show you who you truly are by reflecting your less desirable mannerisms back at you, but also by revealing what’s being drawn out of your heart in your reactions. My behaviour in those moments is also an indictment of just how nonchalant I can be towards sin because every instance of being sent to time-out is a chance to share the gospel—to discuss how we all do things that don’t please God and how we all need repentance and grace—and too often tiredness or forgetfulness just maks sure they say a quick apology to their hurt sibling before we all move on. Discipleship opportunity, gone.

We often pray (or, we should) for God to forgive us our sins, keep us from sin, and even to reveal our sins so that we can repent of them and be made clean. The truth is that that last one is a killer, and we all wish God would find a kinder, gentler way to bring our sin to the surface. Why? Because sanctification is H-A-R-D, sin is ugly, and dealing with it is painful. At the same time, we know that if we don’t kill it, then it will kill us. It sounds hopeless, if not for the gracious work of God on our behalf. At the end of the book of Romans, Paul concludes his letter about overcoming sin and walking in ‘the obedience of faith’ by reminding the church in Rome that while sin is a great enemy, God has secured the final victory for us through the death and resurrection of Christ. We know that it is through the power of Christ’s victory that we can resist temptation, put sin to death, and be steadily changed away from sin’s corruption and into Christ’s sanctification.

So, how do I respond to that news today?

First, it drives me to worship

When I spend any time at all thinking on everything that Christ has done in order to save a broken, corrupted person like me my heart overflows with thanks and worship. But as necessary as worship is in our response—and as worthy as Christ is of every millisecond of it—Paul tells me that there’s more to worship than singing or whispering prayers of gratitude. Romans 12 exhorts me to offer my entire life as an act of worship; every thought, word, and deed. So when I find a thought, word, or deed that doesn’t worship him, I need to kill it first and ask questions later. Worship includes working out my salvation—Paul’s ‘obedience of faith’—by actively removing those attitudes and behaviours that don’t demonstrate Christlikeness. Worship isn’t passive, it includes work too.

Second, it calls me to community

John contrasts God and sin by using the imagery of light and darkness. God is light, and sin hates the light. Here’s how John puts it:

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
(1 John 1:5-10, ESV)

God isn’t simply saving individuals, then in isolation preparing them for heaven. Rather the natural result of being brought ‘into the light’ is that we now live in the community of the body of Christ. The New Testament has at least 40 passages that contain the words “one another” like this one in James 5:16 “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed”. A big part of sin keeping us in darkness is the lie that tells us we can deal with sin on our own. But the Bible teaches us that having fellowship (read mutual accountability against sin) with one another is a critical means of killing sin. There is a deeper love to be found in the Christian community.

Third, it demands genuine example

If there is one thing we all know about kids, it’s that they are quick to call us out when our walk doesn’t match our talk. In those moments when daddy loses his cool and responds in a way which is disproportionately harsh; or he lets things slide for too long before stepping in with discipline, these are the times to better model everything we’ve just mentioned. Dealing with sin begins with me, and if I’ve got anything to improve it’s being quicker to admit sin, ask forgiveness, and celebrate grace. These are the opportunities for deliberate discipleship where I not only have the responsibility to share with my kids the gospel of grace, but I have the equally great responsibility to model for them the gracious God.