Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Good things come in small packages

In 1990, my husband and I made a move across the country. With a young child, and still basically newly married, we were eager to find a good church and get involved.

We tried a few, but nothing really felt like it was the best place. A few of the churches we tried were larger and had excellent programs, and we did begin leaning toward one, but then, when I was looking in the yellow pages, I saw listing for a church, Wheatland Bible Church. I called the number and found out that they met in a school. We went the following Sunday, and from the moment we walked in the door, we were warmly welcomed, and never looked back.

I don't think there were more than 35 or 40 people there. There were no "programs," and for mid-week services, we met in the pastor's home. His wife would take the younger kids downstairs and do activities with them. There were a some adolescent girls who took a great liking to our young daughter, and she was allowed to go downstairs with them and they would fuss over her and play with her. On one occasion, the young people were learning the song, "Take the Name of Jesus With You," and I have memories of our daughter, not even two years old, rocking in our living room chair, saying over and over again, "precious name, oh how sweet," having been in on the teaching sessions enough to learn that little piece of the song.

The preaching was excellent. It was expositional, thorough, and reached right into our hearts.  It was preaching that was lived out before us in the lives of this humble pastor and his wife. They cared deeply about the people. The pastor had been saved through the Navigators, and he would meet regularly with my husband for bible memory work and mentoring. They were down-to-earth people who would do anything for you.

This small church was a praying church, as we gathered regularly to pray, whether it was mid-week or at other times with assigned prayer partners. We knew about each others' lives, and we had a lot of fellowship together. One Saturday, I hosted a church Scrabble tournament in our home, and that was a lot of fun. We would have church picnics in local parks, and on Saturday nights, the school allowed us to use the gym, and we played volleyball.

Nothing was elaborate. Nothing was high-tech. Another lady and I shared piano duties, and we had one song leader. We didn't have a sound system. Usually, we met in the school staff room, but when the floors were being cleaned, we often had to meet in the hallway. The pastor's wife was glad to man the nursery (my daughter was the only infant at the time), but when I had another child, it meant my husband and I taking turns with a baby who cried a lot.

We served each other. When I had surgery, I had meals brought to me, despite the small numbers. There was no "official" care group for this. Someone just organized it so that for the first week I was home, I had a dinner every night. When my husband and I moved into our first home, we had a myriad of people willing to help us move.

It was the best church experience we have ever known. We all loved each other, and we were truly a family. When our pastor and his wife had to move back to the U.S. for family reasons, we were all devastated. It was three of the best years we ever had. Unfortunately, when we hired a new pastor, there were some issues that ultimately resulted in people leaving, which meant the church was too small to carry on. Some of us moved to the same church, and others went to a different one. The church we attended after was a warm, friendly place, and we enjoyed our time there before moving back here to Ontario, but it was never like it was at our little church.

How do you measure church success? Is it the numbers? Is it the quality of the music? Is it the number of programs? After this little church, when we came back to Ontario, we began attending a church with bigger numbers, with a staffed nursery, with programs. And while we love our church, we still look back on our time in our little church as one of the best times. It was a church of people who wanted to be disciples of Christ, and who wanted to live that out. We loved each other, served each other, prayed for each other, shared with each other. As a young couple, we were privy to watch some well-established couples live out their faith. They mentored us by their lives. The standard set by the preaching of the Word meant we would never be satisfied with anything less than solid teaching.

In comparison to some churches today who host coffee shops in the foyers, book stores, and technical expertise, our church may have seemed very basic. But it was all we needed. What else do we need to grow in Christ but a group of people with shared beliefs in the gospel, willing to meet for worship, willing to invest in each other's lives? That can all happen without the bells and whistles of a big church, but a big church without people of that kind will quickly prove itself.

The important thing is to align yourself with a church and serve. Size isn't the most important thing. What matters is what's coming from the pulpit and the commitment of the people who congregate. And we can each make a difference wherever we are, to be a sincere disciple of Christ, no matter how big our church is.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Love the church

Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with the greeting “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” (Phil. 1:1) From this salutation we can make a couple of observations. First, Paul writes to a group of believers, saints, who are in a physical location, at Philippi. In other words, he writes to a church. Not only does Paul write to this group of localized believers, but he specifically mentions overseers and deacons, both offices of church leadership.

So I think we can conclude that Paul is writing to a church that is local and is organized, important distinctions in our current age of disillusionment with both.

We can read on in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and most any other New Testament epistle, and read of the importance of the church both in the life of the believer as well as in God’s plan for the world. Church, local and organized, is crucial.

And I imagine most of us would agree. We aren’t disillusioned with the idea of church so much as we are with the church in practice. We’ve been hurt or disappointed or betrayed. It’s easier to walk away. I understand. I’ve been there.

Consider again the New Testament epistles written to churches, local churches like yours and mine. Nearly all the letters address problems of one kind or another, some more serious than others. From selfish ambition and quarreling to sexual immorality, these churches struggled. Yet over and over Paul and James and Peter and the other authors encourage their readers to pursue love and unity and reconciliation. Not once do they recommend the reader take off on her own, that she is better without the church than with.

The Lord saves us for Himself and He saves us for the church. Messy and heartbreaking as it sometimes--often--is, we are called to love one another in the context of the accountability and fellowship of a local, organized church. We need the instruction, we need the interdependence, we need the church.

So love your church especially in her struggles. Love her people and pray for them. Find a way to serve and serve well. Maybe you will have to finally leave for another church because of irreconcilable gospel differences but may it be as a last resort. 

How I pray the Lord will help us all, in all our churches, to be faithful to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who loved the church and gave Himself up for her. May we see the glory of Lord in His church! Yes and amen!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Something worth fighting for

I love the local church, and I stand by everything I've ever said or written about my faith family. But Christian community isn't always easy. It requires commitment, perseverance, and sometimes it's necessary to roll up one's sleeves and fight for it. But the fight may not be against another person. I've learned that the battle is often against myself.

Last year, I was dealing with issues from the past, events that took place long before I started attending my church. Opening old wounds you thought were healed is never pleasant, but added to that was the sense that I was alone in this one. As far as I knew, I was the only member who had gone through an experience such as this. I had also been hurt by well-meaning people the first go around. So to avoid a repeat, I decided that I had better tough it out on my own. As a result, I found myself becoming defensive. Not toward anyone in particular, but it was a gradual internal distancing, the raising of a mental and emotional barrier to protect myself. Of course, I tried to keep this hidden behind a smile, but it was hard, and I could feel the pressure building inside.

At least there was one person I could talk to - my daughter. Her response was, "Mother! This is Gracewe're talking about. You know these people." And she was right, but I was still afraid. Afraid of rejection, misunderstanding, and above all, I didn't want to get hurt again. But it got to the point where I had to call out for help. And guess what? I got it. I received wise, compassionate counsel and much-needed prayer. As I opened up bit by bit, there was love and genuine concern. All my fears of what might happen were unfounded.

But isn't this often the case? The things we dread never come to pass because the driving force behind the fear was just a cleverly fabricated lie. In my case, a lie that caused me to sell my brothers and sisters and, in reality, the Lord short. So to combat the lies, there was only one thing to do. Get in the fight by preaching the truth to myself:

- There is no odd man out in the body of Christ. There is no one who has an identity that is other from the rest. It's no wonder Paul reminds the Ephesians that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father when he admonishes them to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The family of God shares a common identity - in Christ. (Eph. 4:3-6)
- Lack of common experience doesn't mean there is a lack of love or a desire to understand. When one member suffers, the body suffers. When one member rejoices, the body rejoices. (1 Cor. 12:26-27)
- Without the gospel, our differences would divide, but if we look at one another through the gospel lens, those differences become facets that reflect God's providence.2 We can praise Him together for the specific ways in which He has made, saved, and sanctifies each of His children. (Eph. 2:11-22)
- We don't bring our meager resources to the table and hope there is enough to go around. We are called to love, but He has loved us first. We are called to bear with one another, but He has borne with us. We are called to forgive each other, but He has forgiven us. (Col. 3:12-14)

So I share this with the hope of encouraging you to persevere in the local church. It's not always easy and hard work at times, but if Christ loves the church and laid  down His life for her, isn't she worth fighting for?

                                                                                                                                                       
1. My church's name is Grace Baptist Chapel or Grace, for short.
2. Made for More, Hannah Anderson, Moody Publishers, 2014, pp. 146-147.

Monday, April 20, 2015

When Church is Challenging

A little more than two years ago, my husband and I made a decision to leave our church. We'd spent 18 years celebrating, mourning, growing, and living with a wonderful group of people. We stood in the parking lot in tears after informing our pastor we were leaving. Anticipation accompanied grief, as we wondered where the Lord would providentially direct us. There were no local options; we would have to travel to find the place we were looking for. The third church we visited was located in a community 45 minutes away. It is the family to which the Lord brought us.In the past two years, we have learned some important lessons about church and about ourselves.

It has been hard.

There are many, many wonderful things about our church. Being joined with this body of believers has been good. Despite the protestations of the current church culture, difficulty and goodness are not mutually exclusive. They are often woven together inextricably. We know - we cling to - this truth. It sustains us when we might otherwise feel like giving up.

Feeling connected is one challenge we face. The daily-ness of Monday through Friday makes it easy to put relationships on the back burner. I text a couple of ladies periodically, but for the most part I am so wrapped up in my own life and family that I don't make the effort to build new friendships. I've not had to make such an effort before, but it is a glaring reality now. We have virtually no contact with our church family from Sunday to Sunday. No running into each other at school events, in the grocery store, or on the ball field. No spontaneous lunch or dinner dates. No "I was in the neighborhood" visits. The reason we sometimes feel entirely disconnected from the church community is that we are not part of its surrounding community.

Another challenge is our level of involvement. In our former church, my husband served as a deacon. We were active in the choir, in teaching Sunday School, and as members of various committees. Our daughter was a leader in the youth group. Being so active was a large part of our identity that we planned to bring with us. It didn't take long to realize that adding 1 1/2 hours to any meeting or activity is an obstacle that is sometimes too difficult to overcome, especially considering my husband spends roughly 11 hours commuting to work each week. Service shouldn't necessarily be convenient; nor should it be impractical. I fear that our lack of participation has been seen as reluctance because people don't fully understand the extent to which we are hindered by time and distance.

So yes, it has been hard. Yet we have made a covenant with this church family. A covenant that requires us to be committed church members. I thought I knew what a committed church member looks like; in the past, all I had to do was glance in the mirror. However, the Lord is showing me that my notions - while not wholly inaccurate - were far from complete. Being committed to a church is much more than regular attendance and leadership positions.

In his book What Is a Healthy Church Member?, Thabiti Anyabwile writes that the expressions of a committed member are: regular attendance (Heb. 10:24-25), peace-seeking (Rom. 14:19), edifying others (1 Cor. 12, 14), warning and admonishing others (Matt. 18:15-17), pursuing reconciliation (2 Cor. 5-18-21), bearing with others (Gal. 6:2), preparing for the ordinances, and supporting the work of the ministry (2 Cor. 8-9).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also sets forth the ministries of those committed to the Christian community in his classic Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community. They are: holding one's tongue (James 4:11-12), meekness (Rom. 12:3), listening, helpfulness, bearing (Col. 3:13), and proclaiming (James 5:20).

As I think about these characteristics - these charges - I'm learning that my commitment to the church is not measured by how many positions I hold or the number of committees I serve on. In fact, it's not measured by any thing I do. Rather, it is only the grace of the Holy Spirit expressing itself in my life that demonstrates my commitment to the church family where He has placed us.

"The church isn't a circle of friends, but the family of God," writes Michael Horton (source). When I first read that statement, I thought it sounded harsh. As I've continually pondered it, I've realized that Horton is exactly right. In our former church, we were more than friends with our fellow members; they comprised our entire social circle.  Bonhoeffer writes that the Christian "...belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work." We had insulated ourselves from the secular world. As we've emerged from the church cocoon, the harshness of that reality has hit us with overwhelming force. We find ourselves stumbling, but reaching for God's strength all the more.

I knew joining a church that isn't local would be challenging, but I thought it would become easier with time. Two years later, my family is still wrestling. Perhaps we always will. While we love our pastor and our congregation, I must admit that if we thought of church as only a group of friends we would not have made this choice.  Knowing that our Sovereign God has joined us with this family, that we have a responsibility to them (and they to us), that we are part of a true church, and that He is sanctifying us in the process - these are what we thank Him for.   
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Serving in the Local Church

Lisa encouraged us to see the people in the church and serve them for the Lord's sake and for His glory. In this post, we will be sharing the different ways we labor for the Lord in our home churches. We hope this will encourage you in your service as well.


Persis:

I've been a member of a Reformed Baptist church since 2008. There are less than 100 members, so there are plenty of opportunities to chip in. I help out in the ever-growing nursery once a month and play the keyboard alongside other musicians as part of the music team. I also facilitate a small group of middle-aged women who meet every other week. We've studied books of the Bible and read books together. Currently we are finishing Made for More by Hannah Anderson. This has been a great way to get to know my sisters. We've had thought-provoking discussions and have been able to support one another in prayer. Some younger ladies have joined us at times, so it's not always strictly middle-aged.

Lastly, my primary area of service is Deacon of Library and Resources. I work mainly with the pastor to keep the church library updated with books that complement sermon series and Sunday school topics. I am also on the lookout for books which cover a range of subjects including current issues, theology, and those which help put our faith into practice. I love sound Christian books and take great joy in helping to provide these resources for my brothers and sisters. I'm also responsible for sending out the weekly prayer list and keeping the church calendar up to date.

I'm thankful for my church family and opportunities to serve. I'm also thankful for the elders who encourage the members to use the gifts God has given them for the benefit of the whole.

Kim:

I have been a member of my non-denominational, Baptist-leaning church since 1996. Our church has grown since then, to over 300 people. It's become big enough that I am beginning to see lots of faces I don't recognize. We have two services on Sunday morning, and it can be difficult to get to know everyone.

Since joining, I have served in quite a few areas, but mostly teaching capacities, and that is where I am now. We are fortunate to have five ladies' bible studies available: two on Sunday, and three which meet twice monthly at different locations. I have a class of about 17 eager students ranging from women in their 70's to young women with toddlers. Some of my students were once my students when I taught teenagers, and that is really neat to see how they have grown and are becoming godly women.

I also help out with the young mom's bible study, usually in the nursery. However, currently, I am filling a teaching need, but when September comes, I'll return to the nursery. There is always a need for nursery workers, and it's fun, too! I have really enjoyed teaching this group for the past few weeks. Some of the same faces have shown up in my Sunday school class. The format for the young moms' study is much less formal, and there is a lot more discussion, but these young women have a desire to know God's word, and that's exciting.

I'm really thankful that my church has so many opportunities for service.There is something for everyone, and I've never lacked for something to do.


Melissa:

"Being a Christian is a personal matter, not a private one. When you are born again, you are born into a family." - Mark Dever

"The health of the local church depends on the willingness of its members to inspect their hearts, correct their thinking, and apply their hands to the work of the ministry." - Thabiti Anyabwile

Two years ago this month, my family visited our current church home for the first time. It's a small PCA church with approximately 100 members. Prior to that, we were in a substantially larger Southern Baptist church. Through the years I've taught Sunday School (adult and youth) and Vacation Bible School, led women's Bible studies, served in the nursery, choir, and women's ministry teams. I've also gone on mission trips to New Jersey, Texas, and Peru.

Our current church does not have many of the programs and committees that we were accustomed to in a larger church. It's taken a while to find our niche. This year, my husband and I have taught elementary Sunday School together. I must admit, doing so was out of my comfort zone (I'm much better with youth); however, the Lord has been gracious. We've learned a great deal and had entirely too much fun. I also serve on the women's ministry committee.

A personal ministry I enjoy is sending cards to church members. I love to write encouraging notes and prayers to the members of my family. Often, I find myself encouraged as I remind them of God's love, provision, and promises.

(NOTE: The quotes I shared both come Thabiti Anyabwile's book, What Is a Healthy Church Member?, which I've found to be an invaluable resource.)

Lisa:

Like Persis, I attend a small church where opportunities to serve are many and varied. They are also often beyond my comfort zone! I rock babies in our ever-growing nursery once every few weeks and I teach the children during one eight week community group rotation each summer. And, if we’re being honest, it’s a long eight weeks for me and the kids both! Teaching children would not be my chosen area of service but I’m glad to serve both the future generations of my church as well as their moms. However, I draw the line—a hard line—at any and all crafts! :)

In a small church the hospitality opportunities also abound. The ladies of my church have monthly fellowships and I enjoy taking my turn either leading the devotion or hosting the fellowship in my home. An important part of our community group model is a fellowship meal so I also take my turn providing food for the community groups my family participates in and for other church events. One of the most exciting ways I am currently serving my church is through a committee charged with choosing the interior and exterior finishes as well as appliances and fixtures for our new church building currently under construction.

While it is not a direct ministry of my local church, I teach a community Bible study for women and it is my privilege to serve my church girlfriends who attend or listen via our podcast.

Having grown up in a rather large “mega” church, the small church has been something of a culture shock for me but I love it. I love my church and I love serving my church family in any capacity open to me, from text conversations about spiritual issues to laughter with friends around my kitchen table. Truthfully, I have been challenged by the need to serve outside my preferences and outside what I perceived my gift or talent to be. But the Lord is faithful and not only has He shown Himself sufficient in the sanctifying process but He has taught me how we the church are partakers together of grace as we love and serve one another.

Rebecca:

I attend a small Baptist church—small by North American big city standards, anyway, but it's probably one of the larger churches in my town. We've grown a lot over in the past few years, and if you show up late for the service you may have to squeeze in a pew to find a place to sit. And for the first time in my life, there are people who regularly attend my church whose names I don't know.

Officially, I serve as church librarian. This requires that I spend an hour or so a month keeping books organized, and several hours a month reading and reviewing a book for the church newspaper. Like Persis, I also purchase new books, so I'm always on the look out for books that will help fill out our collection. When I took over the library, it was rarely used, but now, while it's not used as often as I would like, it is used regularly.

I'm also a choir member, which requires me to attend choir practices whenever they are scheduled and sing on Sunday morning whenever we're slated to sing.

Unofficially, because I have 4 toddler grandchildren who attend, you'll find me in the nursery on at least two Sundays a month. While I may not know all the grown-ups in my church, I do know most of the under three crowd, along with their parents.  Knowing all these young families is one of the bigger blessings in my life right now.

Friday, April 10, 2015

See the People

As children some of you probably recited the rhyme (with motions!), "Here is the church / here is the steeple / open the doors and see all the people." I thought of its simple truth as I reflected on the church and her influence on me. It's true: I see all the people.

  • The senior adult who taught me in fourth grade Sunday school (I think). I remember the dioramas we made but more importantly I remember she cried when I told her my grandmother died.
  • The elementary grade Sunday School teacher who gave me a pin for memorizing the Lord's Prayer. I wore that pin for ages.
  • The college student whose excitement and passion for the things of God were revolutionary to me. And contagious.
  • Malcom, the big former Texas football player, who taught me in ninth grade; from his class I will never forget that bad company corrupts good character, that I am known by the company I keep and that what I reap I will sow. The amount of Scripture he had committed to memory was astonishing to me.
  • Trisha, my college minister's wife and my friend during those crazy college years, who modeled for me wisdom and intelligence. From her I learned that as a woman I could hear from and know God for myself and that He had a calling specifically for me.

And there are more, Sunday school teachers and leaders through the years who faithfully taught me the truth of God's Word. Most I cannot even remember their names, but I remember their love for me and their love for the Word. Their legacy, their faithfulness to the Lord, endures today. In me.

I am who I am because of the humble service of these saints of God.

We need the church. I need the church. You need the church. That's a truth for another post's exposition but it is undeniably the message of the Bible.

The Bible is also clear: the church needs you.

We need each other. If you belong to Christ you have been gifted by the Spirit to serve the church for the common good. There are varieties of gifts and varieties of services, but the same God who empowers (1 Cor. 12:4-7). Your church needs you to serve her people in the provision and grace of the Spirit. This is the privilege and responsibility--and joy!--of the saints.

It's interesting to me to note that as I catalog those individuals who profoundly affected my life and faith, it is most often the layperson, the humble Bible teacher, the Sunday school teacher who comes to mind first. They were not professionals. Those who influenced me most knew me, loved me, and served me in the context of relationship.

Will you be the Sunday school teacher who will love a group of young girls and who will cry with them in their grief? Will you infuse in teenagers the priority of Scripture? Or maybe you will rock babies in the nursery so their moms can enjoy a hours' respite and uninterrupted Biblical instruction. Maybe you can serve your church family as you cook. Maybe you could clean the toilets or vacuum the sanctuary.

Not sure of your gifting? Not sure where to serve? Ask. Find a need and fill it. Build relationships. See the people and love them as well as you can. As we do so may we see the Lord's glory in His church for His kingdom's sake!

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace... 1 Pet. 4:10

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why I love the local church

It will be seven years next month since I've been a member of my church. It's hard not to get teary-eyed when I think of the journey that led up to that day. It's also hard not to get teary-eyed as I write this and think of what this group of believers means to me. If you asked me 10 years ago whether I would darken the door of a church again, the answer probably would have been, "What!? Are you kidding?" Yet here I am today, a member in good standing of a local church.

There was a good chunk of time when my family thought we just needed us and Jesus. We had been through a difficult church situation and pretty much threw the baby out with the bathwater. I would strongly discourage anyone from going lone ranger for Christ now, but I am grateful that God was greater than the choice to do so. While this doesn't excuse sin, He uses all things to achieve His purpose, which included bringing me back into Christian fellowship again.

So here are some reasons why I love the church and specifically my local church:

- After being a Christian for 40 years, I finally heard the clear presentation of the gospel for the first time. Oh how sweet and freeing it was to realize that Jesus not only paid the penalty for my sin but also provided the perfect righteousness I so desperately needed. This message continues to be proclaimed week after week.

- This is the place to receive the means of grace. After being spiritually malnourished, sound preaching Sunday after Sunday and regular celebration of the Lord's Table are feasts for my soul.

- This is where the one anothers of scripture are put into practice. Love one another, exhort one another, pray for one another, and the list goes on.

- "[B]eing united to one another in love, they have communion in each others gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, in an orderly way, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man."1 Suffice it to say, I have received abundantly from the gifts and graces of my brothers and sisters.

- Because of the gospel, I am united with those for whom Christ died and with those He loves. My lone-ranger days are over for good. And though we haven't arrived yet, we share in the promise that He will present the church to Himself without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, for which He gets all the glory. (Eph. 5:27)

… to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:21

Now that I've shared why I love the church, it's your turn. Why do you love the church? Please share in the comments section.

Monday, April 6, 2015

In Search of a True Church

This month my fellow ordinary theologians and I are discussing the church (you can read Kim's thoughtful introduction here).

Well then, the Children's Creed teaches us (as was said) that a Christian holy people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world...But how will or how can a poor confused person tell where such Christian holy people are to be found in this world?
- Martin Luther
quoted by Daniel R. Hyde
Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims (103)
Luther's centuries-old question is one many Christians find themselves asking today. Maybe more so than in Luther's time.
Today the situation is more confusing, since so many organizations call themselves churches. We have everything from theological cults, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to thousands of garden-variety nondenominational churches, to the so-called "mainline" churches, and everything in between. The Belgic Confession's words are just as true today as they were when originally penned: "all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church" (Art. 29). - Hyde (104)
So, indeed, how is a Christian - whether newly converted, newly relocated, or newly convinced of a need for change - to find a church? We must begin with what Scripture says about the church, with - as Derek Thomas calls it in his commentary on Acts - the "pattern of how the church ought to be." (55) .
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, ESV)
Does such a church exist in our fallen world? I have wondered that myself. In January 2013 my family left our church home of 18 years. Our search for a new one was at times arduous and frustrating. And, as we were grieving our loss, it was also painful. Despite our all-over-the-place emotions, the Lord was gracious enough to keep our focus on the goal: finding a true church to call home. He taught - and continues to teach - us some invaluable lessons along the way.

Anyone looking for a church home must take the matter seriously, and prayerfully. Whether finding your first church or simply (for whatever reason) another one, the process will require commitment, discernment, and - I know I am repeating myself here - prayer.

Certainly, it helps to know what you're looking for. Careful study of the doctrine of the church - and prayer - are a crucial foundation of any church search. Hyde sets forth three marks of the true church: pure preaching of the Gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline. In his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever sets forth even more distinguishing marks of a healthy church: expositional preaching, biblical theology, the Gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of church membership, biblical church discipline, a concern for discipleship and growth, and biblical church leadership. Both books have a solid foundation of Scripture, and Dever's was tremendously helpful. (I have blogged about how Dever's book aided in our church search)

We had a clear vision because we had experienced it at the church we attend whenever we visit our nation's capital and we had spent time studying Dever's book. With our mental checklist - and prayer - we formulated a plan for our search. Instead of rushing into a commitment of the first church we visited, we determined to spend one month each at three different churches we had heard of before making our final decision. As we were completing the first two months, we realized the third church we'd planned to visit was no longer an option. We were at a loss. Providentially, the Lord directed our steps to another church we'd never heard of but that has become our church home. In many ways it is not what we expected, but it is where, as Luther wrote, Christian holy people are found.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A month of the church

What is the church?

That's an important question. Check the table of contents of any systematic theology, and there will be a section discussing the doctrine of the church.

In Ephesians 1:22-23, we are told that God the Father, appointed Christ as head of the church:
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
If God put Christ as head of the Church, it must be important.

When Jesus was speaking to Peter in Matthew 16, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus responded with this:
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:17-18)
Jesus planned to build his church, and he intended for it to be strong.

Who is in the church? Wayne Grudem, says that the church, "includes all who profess faith in Christ and give evidence of that faith in their lives."1 The church is full people; people who are redeemed, but still sinners.

The church is everywhere, all over the world. Wherever there is a gathering of those who profess the name of Christ as their Saviour and live as his disciples, there are churches. They can meet in expensive, technologically equipped buildings, schools, hotel boardrooms, and old warehouses.

Churches often do things differently from one another. Some churches baptize infants, and some do not. Some have one kind of church government, and some have another. Some have different worship styles, and because of the culture they exist in, looked different from what we're used to. I live in small town, southern Ontario, where the population is not all that diverse. There are churches only an hour away in Kitchener-Waterloo with very ethnically diverse congregations.

While churches are different from one another, our unity is found in Christ. The song The Church's One Foundation reminds us of who is the head of the church:
The Church’s one foundation
  Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation
  By water and the Word:
From heav’n He came and sought her
  To be His holy Bride;
With His own blood He bought her,
  And for her life He died.
As we think of the church and our relationship to it and our fellow brothers and sisters, we must never forget that the foundation is Christ. He is the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20), and we, the members, are the living stones which are being built into a spiritual house (I Pet. 2:4-5). Whatever we do within the church flows from that reality.

The church is not a place to help us become famous, or show off our talents. It is not a place to further our own agendas. It's about Christ, who died to purchase those who would be living stones. It ought to humble us to be part of the church. To be part of building the kingdom of God through local church congregations is a gift. Not everyone belongs to the church.

As I look ahead to this month, I am eager to see what my fellow blogging companions will have to share. I hope you will be edified. Later this month, we'll be doing a group post, where we all share with you the various things we are busy at within our own local churches. And if you don't make a habit to attend a local church, but you are a Christian, don't delay. Start searching right away.


1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 856.