God’s “Plan A” for his Kingdom Mission
God loves his church and he’s got big plans for her. The first place where the word church appears in the Bible is in Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says to Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus goes on to say that the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” will be given to his church.
First Corinthians 12:27 says, “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Paul goes on to explain how this works. In the body of Christ, Jesus Christ himself is the head of the body, giving direction to the various parts of the body and determining how they function together. The rest of the body is interdependent; each part depends on other parts of the body for everything to function. God gives gifts to each person to be used for building each other up. The guiding principle in all of this is love – love for God and love for each other.
In Ephesians 3:10, Paul writes that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God’s design is that ultimately his endless wisdom would be made known cosmically to every creature that exists through his church.
In Revelation 5:9-10, the entire church from all times and places are pictured before God’s throne. God’s people are called a “kingdom of priests” and “saints” who were ransomed “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” And God’s church “shall reign on the earth.”
The word church occurs in the New Testament 74 times. In almost every instance, the word refers to a local congregation of believers. In other words, God has accomplished his saving work through the cross of Jesus Christ, yet his continuing work in the world is accomplished largely through local churches that are faithfully striving to obey God in the world. That’s why he gave us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers God’s people to continue the work Jesus began until Jesus returns.
Even though there are great organizations and ministries that do great work for God’s Kingdom, God’s “Plan A” for the world is through the church. There is no substitute for the church; every Christian should be plugged into a local church body where he or she is taught the Bible, serves others, gives financially, and enjoys community with others.
What to look for in a church
When it comes to choosing a church home, there are plenty of things that distinguish different churches from one another. Some of these differences are merely stylistic and cultural, and other differences are deeply theological. The best thing to do is look first at the substance of the church and then move on the to style. What follows is a list of some of the most important things to consider when choosing a church.
- Biblical Doctrine. The church is where our shared beliefs about God and the world are lived out in community. Therefore it is absolutely vital that your church home submits to the Bible as her highest authority. Usually, a church’s website can give you a good sense of what’s most important to them. Look for evidences throughout the church website that indicate a high view of God and scripture.
- Leadership. The Bible teaches that churches should be led by a team of qualified pastors (“pastors,” “elders,” and “bishops” all refer to the same office in the Bible). Church plants may be the exception to this since they may not have appointed other pastors yet. When choosing a church, look for leaders that are humble yet confident and are fully committed followers of Jesus Christ.
- Preaching. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul tells his protégé Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” Since your church will be the primary place where you will be learning the Bible and taught how to live the Christian life, you’ll want to make sure that your church home has an effective and engaging preaching ministry. Good preaching should be based on the Bible, inspire your heart to worship God, and show how the work of Jesus Christ brings us near to God rather than our moral effort. If available, download and listen to a few sermons from the primary teaching pastor. Look for a pastor who teaches the Bible and helps you understand the Bible better (not merely his opinions!).
- Discipline. Churches have a responsibility to hold people accountable and to protect the flock from sin. Church discipline broadly means that there is a cultural expectation in the church that sin is taken seriously and the leadership of the church takes responsibility for dealing with sin.
- Sacraments. Healthy churches make a regular practice of observing the Lord’s Supper (also called “communion”) and baptizing new Christians. Although this may not happen every Sunday in some churches, these should be part of the church’s rhythms. These are two practices that Jesus specifically instituted and commanded the church to observe.
- Mission. Jesus said that the church’s presence in the world should effect change in the world. Look for a church that emphasizes her responsibility to share the gospel with non-Christians and meet the practical needs of those around us who are hurting.
- Culture. This is where style and cultural preferences come in. If you’ve narrowed down your church search to a handful of churches that believe and practice the things above, now consider things like musical style, programs, and other things that make the church a good fit for you.
When we hear the word membership, we immediately think of a club with membership dues and privileges attached. A member pays dues, comes to meetings, and fulfills the obligations of a club member. When you move, or no longer have time for the club, you simply withdraw your membership and move on.
The Bible says membership in a church is much more intimate. In Ephesians 5:29-30, Paul says, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Being a church member means we are part of a local congregation and are committed to living out the Christian life in community with others. Through this community, the members of the church become more interdependent like the various parts of the human body. We need each other and God has designed us to be dependent on each other in this way.
Paul illustrates this in 1 Cor 12:14ff:
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
Therefore, membership in the body of Christ is not like membership in a club. Rather it is a willing participation in the lives of other people and allowing other people to participate in your life. In a healthy body, this is a beautiful portrayal of the wisdom of God.
Similarly, leaving a church body without good cause is not the same as leaving a club and withdrawing your membership. When you walk away from the church body without good reason, you are dismembering the body. The rest of the body feels your absence because those people have come to depend on you.
The Church and Campus Ministries
In churches that have a large population of college students, some of these things can seem fuzzy because you’re only there for part of the time. As a result, many college students may choose to attend church only sporadically, if at all. They remain on the fringes of church life – not getting to know people outside of their age group, not serving, not giving, not getting involved in small groups, and treating church like a spiritual vending machine to dispense religious goods. Of course, this seems only natural since it takes so much effort to commit to a church and they’re only there during the school year anyway.
Others look to campus ministries as a substitute church. After all, campus ministries usually meet on campus, meet at times convenient for students, and have custom tailored ministry for college students. There’s a problem with this, though. Campus ministries are not churches, nor are they supposed to be; yet it often feels like they are in competition. Campus ministries exist to partner with churches to reach the campus and disciple students, but they are not meant to replace churches.
Think of campus ministries like the Special Forces. Their aim is to reach a particular target group more effectively than the church by itself. Older people or young children, for example, are not part of campus ministries because the campus ministry is not made for them (nor should they be). But when students treat campus ministries as their church, they quickly develop unrealistic and unsustainable expectations. Many students find that after graduating they no longer fit in with their former campus ministry but do not know how to function in a church either. They’ve lived too long in a bubble where ministry always caters to them.
Churches operate differently than campus ministries, however, because they are designed to accomplish different things. The church is intended to reach all different ages, races, and cultures. The church may also partner with specialized ministries to reach particular groups of people more effectively.
A better way is to find a good balance between church involvement and campus ministry involvement. The church is “home base,” where students are spiritually nourished by a diverse community of people and under biblical and qualified leadership. The campus ministry works alongside the church and provides special ops training and opportunities to reach other students.
A common sentiment in many of today’s Christians is that the church is not worth the effort because of its many problems. There are stories of pastors who fail morally and sexually. There are stories of churches that are more interested in numeric growth than spiritual growth. There are stories of people who have been used by the church to accomplish the personal ambitions of an egomaniacal pastor. Some churches have grown large and powerful and use their influence to harm and oppress people rather than serve them. Some churches have been coopted by politicians and have become a special interest group. Some churches put on a great show with bright lights and loud guitars but offer no substance or biblical truth. Some churches show little concern for the needs of their communities and for the poor. The list of problems in the church goes on and on.
In a great overreaction to this, the trend with many young Christians is to abandon the church in search of something they perceive to be more pure and authentic than the churches of their experience. Yet God hasn’t given up on his church, and neither should we.
Every generation of Christians from the time of Christ until now has dealt with its share of problems in the church. That’s what led some church leaders to believe in the concept of “Semper Reformanda” – the church is “always reforming.” Rather than abandon the church in search of something more pure, the better solution is to bring reform to the excesses and abuses of the church wherever needed in every generation.
In fact, the problem may go deeper than this. Many people reject the church with a self-righteous pride that stands in judgment over the church. But the real problem is simply that people just don’t find the church cool and modern enough to suit their tastes.
Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have noted this:
“Perhaps Christians are leaving the church because it isn’t tolerant and open-minded. But perhaps the church-leavers have their own intolerance too–intolerant of tradition, intolerant of authority, intolerant of imperfection except their own. Are you open-minded enough to give the church a chance–a chance for the church to be the church, not a coffee shop, not a mall, not a variety show, not Chuck E. Cheese, not a U2 concert, not a nature walk, but a wonderfully ordinary, blood-bought, Spirit-driven church with pastors, sermons, budgets, hymns, bad carpet and worse coffee?”
The Paradox of the Church
The fact of scripture and of our experience is this: the church is a paradox. On the one hand, the church expresses to the universe the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10). Yet on the other hand, even in the New Testament times the church was plagued with false teachers, sexual immorality, selfishness, neglect of the poor, and spiritual pride. And that was just in one church in Corinth!
Saint Augustine has been attributed with the saying, “The church is a whore, but she is my mother.” Jesus knew he was saving sinful people who would have lots of problems and calling them into churches that would be a mess. And yet, the church has survived through the centuries and accomplished some of the greatest things the world has ever known.
God’s Plan A is for the church, and he’s committed to his bride, for better or for worse. And just like Jesus, we don’t reject the church; we love her, commit to her, and reform her. And when it’s all said and done, the gates of hell will not prevail against her.