I’ve been thinking a lot about the characteristics of a good church lately, now that we have left our old church and withdrawn our membership. We’ve been trying out several of the churches in our area and have noticed a few trends.
First, let me say that I have attended many different churches. As an Army brat and the son of a Chaplain, I accompanied my parents to chapel and church throughout my childhood and, except for a brief hiatus during my freshman year in college, I have been a faithful church attender all of my life. I’ve sat under teaching from pastors of nearly every denomination and stripe; I’ve worshipped with those who dance in the aisles and those who sit up straight with their hands folded in their laps. I’ve come to one definite conclusion: there are no perfect churches.
So, setting our sights a little lower, what do we look for in a good church?
These are two of my favorite Army Main Post Chapels — on the left, Fort Lewis, and on the right, Fort Bragg.
First and perhaps foremost is the quality of the teaching or preaching. If a pastor has a high reverence for the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, and is willing to lead the congregation in dynamic study and personal application, a lot of the other problems that can plague a church are nipped in the bud.
Sadly, this quality in pastors is fairly rare. Many lack the ability to effectively communicate, while others shy away from applying their teaching to themselves (or revealing that to their congregations, which amounts to the same thing). Some have shipwrecked their faith by turning away from (or never holding) a firm conviction with regard to the inerrancy of scripture. Many, like politicians, have fallen prey to the relentless attrition of compromise and have nullified the scriptures to keep peace or avoid offending their congregations.
Second in my list of criteria is the quality of worship … that unique and precious combination of music, prayer, enthusiasm, restraint and charisma on the part of the worship leaders. The tone of the worship experience is largely set by the congregation, although leadership is critical here, as well. Some churches err on the conservative side, barely moving their lips and groaning out praise songs in a somber monotone. Others worship God with commendable abandon but err in an excess of emotion without engaging the mind.
This seems largely to be a matter of preference. Personally, I look for a church that can sing out a lively praise chorus with enthusiasm, yet keeps a tight rein on the selection of songs to ensure that the lyrics are Biblically accurate and “theologically correct”. I tend to dislike excessive repetition in choruses, and I resent being manipulated or coerced by the worship leaders. I’m uncomfortable with an appeal solely to my emotions … I mistrust worship that does not engage my mind.
Thirdly we consider the conduct of the congregation itself; do they behave in a loving manner to each other, to visitors? After the service, do they huddle into tight cliques, or are they open to receiving strangers? Are the majority of the members actively using their gifts to serve the church, or are a few doing the work of the many?
Before I go any further, I think it is important to explore why we go to church at all. Each Sunday I ask my children why we go to church … it is a little ritual we have to while away part of the drive. They shout out a bunch of the conventional answers:
- “To learn about God!”
- “To worship!”
- “To sing!”
- “To see our friends!”
- “Because the Bible tells us to!”
But Daniel has learned the answer that really sums up all of the other reasons. He waits until a quiet moment, and then (whether someone has already said it or not) he shouts out, loud and clearly: “Because we love God!”
There are those who go to church out of duty and those who go because they have the chance to serve (pastors and teachers often fall into this category). There are those who attend for the social opportunities, or out of fear of social consequences (although not so much these days). There are those who thrive on the joy that comes from a good worship service, and others who count on the challenge of a thoughtful sermon. These are all good reasons to gather together as a local part of the body of Christ.
But I have found that sometimes the teaching or the fellowship or the worship experience fails. Sometimes the opportunity to use your gift is denied to you in a particular church. Sometimes people hurt you or fail you. In such cases, should you stop going to church? No. You go to church because the depth of your relationship with God requires it … whether your experience at that particular church on that particular Sunday is rewarding or not. Ultimately, if you’re not going to church, you are faced with this passage:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another … and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” — Hebrews 10:25
… and this passage:
“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” — John 14:15
If you persist in disobeying the clear command to continue in fellowship, then you are forced to re-evaluate your love of God, which is displayed by your obedience.
I must sound pretty glib for a guy who has recently left a church. But let me defend myself in two ways:
- 1. After I parted ways with the church leadership, I remained at that church for another full year, during which time I was not permitted to use my spiritual gift. Due to relational issues, I experienced diminished enjoyment in the preaching, fellowship and worship experience.
- 2. Since I left, I have not missed a Sunday but am actively seeking a new church home, attending various churches in the area.
Fourth (and this may be primary for some) is the question of what programs the church offers. As a husband and a father, I am the spiritual leader in my family. This doesn’t mean that I am holier-than-thou (or even holier-than-them) but simply means that God holds me responsible for the spiritual growth and well-being of my family. I need to find a church that offers programs for my wife and children that will promote their growth. A church can have great preaching, fellowship and worship, but if it doesn’t reach my child at some critical stage, then I’m not doing my job. It is for this reason that you will sometimes see a family suddenly pull up stakes and move to a new church when their children become teenagers … finding a church with a vibrant youth program is, in my opinion, a necessity for most parents of teens.
One element that has recently elevated itself in my thinking is that of church government. While some would argue that this, too, is a matter of preference, I am mindful of some errors I have seen in this area.
The scriptural model for church government seems clearly to require the plurality of ruling elders. Beginning with the Church in Jerusalem and extending throughout the New Testament churches, there is no Biblically recorded case where a church was governed by any other arrangement than elders, bishops or overseers (always more than one). Generally these elders were initially appointed by someone with apostolic authority, but provision for the ongoing selection of elders was made in Paul’s writings to Timothy and Titus.
At the same time, there seems to be some level at which the congregation as a whole can govern, as demonstrated in the election of Deacons in Acts 7.
Some churches err by placing all of their trust in a single leader, often a pastor, without protecting him or themselves through tight accountability. Others retain all authority at the congregational level, wrangling for hours in monthly meetings that fail to achieve any consistent purpose.
Each model is prone to abuse in different ways; none will always be perfect. But it seems to me that a church ought to stay as close to the scriptural model as possible, if only for the following practical reasons:
1)A church governed entirely by the congregation seems likely to suffer from a lack of consistent vision. It will often spend a large amount of time making the simplest of administrative decisions. It runs the risk of embroiling its members in political disputes and maneuvering for power; sadly the aggressive and self-important will tend to rise to the top under such a system, if only by attrition. It seems unlikely that this kind of church will be able to attract good spiritual leaders or even teachers. I once attended a congregational church that spent more than six weeks in nightly meetings debating a minor change to the name of the church … even after they had already agreed to change the name.
2)A church governed by a single ‘elder’ or pastor seems likely to fall into doctrinal error. Rather than losing its vision in the babble of many voices, it can become dependent upon a single person for whatever guidance it receives. In the event that the leader falls into a public sin, the church is particularly vulnerable to being badly damaged or even destroyed. If the pastor is deficient in a particular area (and all pastors are), that arm of the church is likely to be sadly neglected unless vigorous steps are taken to compensate for that weakness.
3)A church that is run by a board of elders seems inherently better prepared to meet several challenges. It will possess sufficient plurality of views to protect against doctrinal error and narrow vision. It is well-equipped to correct public (and even private) sin on the part of one of its members, including the pastor. It is small and agile enough to represent the needs of the congregation without becoming administratively ineffective. Most of all, it lines up with scriptural teaching.
I should note at this point that the scripture is clear with regard to elders being male, and of high character and maturity. I Timothy 2:11-12 spells this out clearly, if the all-male precedent in the book of Acts and the other Epistles doesn’t convince you. Once you start to pick and choose within the scriptures, saying, “Well, but THIS doesn’t apply to me”, there is no reasonable place to stop. Any difficult teaching can be dismissed as being intended only for its immediate recipients … much to the surprise of those responsible for establishing the Canon of scripture. This particular doctrine has been accepted by church leaders for more than 1900 years and only recently has come under fire, due, in part, to the spread of feminist teachings in the church. Please excuse the tirade, but I assure you, this is very mild compared to how I feel on this topic. I take it very personally when people try to elevate social opinion above what the scriptures literally say.
I was very impressed with the Liberty Bay Presbyterian Church in Poulsbo, WA. As a PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) church, they are governed by a small group of elders, among whom the pastor serves as a ‘teaching elder’. When we visited them several weeks ago, we slipped into the back, having underestimated the time required to get to the church, and arriving more than 10 minutes late. Afterwards, I was immediately approached by a man who identified himself as a Deacon. He engaged me in conversation until another Deacon appeared, to whom he smoothly handed me off. Within a minute, the first man was back with the pastor in tow … it was all done with the ease of much practice and communicated very clearly to me that I was welcome and honored as a visitor.
We have twice attended the Crossroads Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) Church, a large, bustling congregation with about 400 attending their primary service. Kathy has really been enjoying the lively worship style, led by a “Worship Pastor” who is definitely not afraid of looking foolish in the cause of Christ. I have found the teaching there to be like a refreshing cool breeze … thoughtful, challenging and courageous. The children’s programs seem to be well-organized and dynamic. There is a relational solace in being anonymous in that church, especially after the way fellowship has been broken with some in our former church. Unfortunately the church is more than an hour away from our home, which is hard, particularly given the amount of time I spend commuting during the week.
One possible choice is the Quilcene Bible Church, where several of our friends attend. It is a small church, not much larger than our former church, but it is organized under a board of male elders. The pastor tends toward teaching more than preaching, but I appreciate that in any case. One concern is that the church doesn’t seem to have many families with infants or toddlers, which generally means that less resources are devoted to the nursery program. Then again, with Sarah approaching the two-year mark, and David passing that important potty-training milestone, our reliance upon the nursery program is beginning to diminish. Still, it is hard to serve in the nursery multiple Sundays in a given month — not uncommon in a small church when the resources are used by only a few families.
One thing I know for sure: I will not choose a church lightly without carefully exploring all of these criteria. I will scrutinize the doctrinal statements and the constitutions of these churches, learning from the mistakes I made when we started attending our former church.
I’ll keep you posted.