What Church Should Be
Over the past twenty-two years, I’ve been in a wide array of different churches. And in the last three years especially, I’ve experienced more different churches than I ever have before.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, though, that I realized my focus over most of that three years had been what church shouldn’t be. I’ve been very critical. That isn’t all bad — it’s good to realize what should be done differently — but constantly focusing on the negative doesn’t do much good either.
So the past 14 days has been a time of shifting my focus to the positive — leaving behind what shouldn’t be and thinking about what should. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
What It Does
Last summer, a friend and I worked several days to come up with a mission statement that we felt reflected a healthy, Biblical church:
A community of believers that exists to worship God, make authentic disciples of Jesus, and serve others for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom.
In our three decades of study collectively, those were the three things we had come to believe were absolutely essential for a church: worship, making disciples, and serving. We felt like a church that wasn’t actively doing all three couldn’t be truly healthy.
What It Looks Like
I have heard 1 Corinthians 13 read in virtually every wedding I’ve ever been to. As long as I’ve been in church, though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone teach or preach from it. Because of that, I had always just thought that Paul was writing to instruct couples on love inside marriage.
That’s not what he was doing, though. Not that the same principles don’t apply, but Paul wasn’t writing to couples at all. That chapter is 100% about how people in the church should behave toward one another.
Now I do a halfway decent job of living up to those principles in my marriage, but I certainly fail the test when measured against how I have treated people I have gone to church with. Just read the meat of that passage:
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
My church experiences (even the great ones) had always been much more accurately described by this quote from Tennessee Williams:
We have to distrust each other. It’s our only defense against betrayal.
We carry the same attitude within church as we do outside because we’re largely treated exactly the same both places. That should never be the case. First and foremost, above everything else, a church should be characterized by love — the kind of true love that Paul described. The Bible makes that abundantly clear.
The most important commandment is this: “Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” The second is equally important: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” No other commandment is greater than these.”
John, his disciple and friend, wrote:
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Jesus also said:
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
My sense is that love isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of Christians today.
The church should also be characterized by community — not just a group of people with common interests, but a group of people who truly care about and support one another. We see that throughout both the Old and New Testaments. We weren’t meant to go this alone.
The other thing we see constantly in the life of the early Christian church was a dedicated commitment to prayer — prayer lasting hours or even days. It’s the number one way church today is different than it was then. And the number one reason things look so much different. I love this quote from Ron Dunn:
In Acts chapter two, they prayed for ten days, Peter preached for ten minutes and 3,000 were saved. Today, churches pray for ten minutes, preach for ten days and three get saved.
Paul compares the church to a human body, with Jesus as the head:
Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?
But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”
In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.
The church should foster and encourage these different roles so that all members have an equal responsibility for the health of the church.
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This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, and I’m sure I’d change some things if I thought about it for another 7 days, but there’s also the danger of trying to make it too perfect and never actually publishing it. I’d rather stop here and revisit it in later post as I continue to think about it.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.