Church Criteria

Dear Church Family,

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a friend who had recently moved to another part of the country. As is usually the case with most Christians, he immediately began to visit local churches in search of a church home. His search was (and is) not without difficulty. [As an aside, this speaks to how a Christian might think about prioritizing looking for a church home before making the decision to move. I’m not picking on my friend, but why is it that looking for a church home often an afterthought, rather than a prerequisite when Christians consider moving to a new geographical location? But that is a topic for another day.]

Anyway, my friend had finally found a church where the preaching and teaching was biblical; however, he had some concerns about how the church administered the Lord’s Supper and the church worshipped. So, his question was: How should someone prioritize what he looks for in a church? Yes, sound and biblical preaching and teaching is an essential, but what about some of these other matters like worship, administration of the sacraments, etc?

These are very important questions. These are questions that have been asked since, at least the Reformation. Of course, no church is perfect. As the old saying goes, “If you ever find the perfect church, don’t go there; you’ll ruin it.” Therefore, we have to be willing, within certain criteria, to be flexible. And, we must be careful not to allow our own personal quirks or opinions to guide us in answering this question. At the same time, there are some objective principles which we may use in our evaluations. So, with some editing for style and to maintain my friend’s anonymity, here’s how I answered his question. [By the way, just to allay anyone’s fears that I might turn any private email conversation into a public essay, I sent a copy of this essay to my friend and received his permission before publishing it.]

The Reformed Confessions on the Marks and Distinctives of the Church

The Belgic Confession (Article 29) defines the three marks of the church like this:

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith would be in general agreement with these three, but also speaks to the purity of worship (WCF 25:4):

“This catholic [visible and universal] Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

Interconnectedness

So, I actually wouldn’t want to choose one of these four (preaching, administration of the sacraments, discipline, and worship) over the others. They are all interconnected. Unfortunately, the reality today is that you find fewer and fewer churches that understand this interconnectivity. Having to choose would be like having to choose one criteria to the exclusion of others with respect to finding a wife. So, is it OK to say, “Well, she has a great personality, she’s a wonderful Christian who loves the Lord, but I’m not physically attracted to her at all”? Or, “She’s a Christian and very beautiful, but whenever we talk I’m bored out of my skull.” I know that some of these are more subjective criteria than are the marks of the church, but I think the illustration still holds.

My point is: keep looking until you feel like you’re not having to settle. Too often the corporate worship of the church is conducted in such a way that tends toward performance, entertainment, and an emphasis on the emotional response and sentimentalism. Allowing people to just go and get communion on their own during a service is not proper administration of the sacraments, it’s more like trough-feeding on demand – “come and go, as you please!” These are connected to the preaching. Even if the preaching is biblical and sound, it is set in the midst of a worship service and context that works against the whole idea of authoritative preaching.

“White space” in Worship

My friend also noted that in many of the churches that he has visited, there is a “serious overemphasis on the worship band concept, to the point of being overkill; leading me to be irritated or stressed…being bombarded by the cacophony of the praise band. There are many Sundays where I wish I could just be still, quiet, and be at spiritual rest (or even physical rest) during the service” (quoted from his email, with permission).

For my part, there is a difference between a ‘praise band’ and what we may call ‘varied accompaniment.’ [But again, that is a topic for another day.] However, I find my friend’s insight about continually being bombarded in the worship service to be insightful and poignant. I believe that “white space” is a good thing; some people call it “dead space” (quiet time between the elements of worship, time for private prayer and reflection, and not filling every second of the service with speaking).

Purposeful times of silence or simple ‘dramatic pauses’ in the liturgy of our corporate worship are helpful in that they give us time to reflect, to consider, to meditate, to take note of and digest what we have prayed, sung, or heard. Too often, those who lead in worship feel compelled to fill every moment with speaking for fear that it will be ‘awkward.’ I believe this to be the result of what we experience in our media-saturated culture. On-air dead time is a major no-no. But, in the church, we ought to strive to be counter-cultural, at least in this regard. Most people’s lives are inundated by the frenetic pace of the world and the bombardment of news and information, 24/7 – as if anyone really needs news and information 24/7! But deliberately encouraging pauses and times of silence in corporate worship helps us to withdraw from that bombardment, and actually mimics the worship of heaven (Revelation 8:1).

Conclusion

Well, I began this week’s reflection by speaking about marks and distinctives of the church and somehow meandered to talking about the benefits of “white space” in corporate worship. But, that’s sometimes the nature of correspondence. Here’s how I concluded my response to my friend:

“I hope that helps. Remember, you’re looking for a church where you can belong and worship, not a place where you can simply ‘download’ (listen to) a good Bible study on Sunday mornings. You wouldn’t settle for a woman who’s only attraction is that she’s engaging to talk to as a wife (at least I hope you wouldn’t), and you shouldn’t settle for anything less in a church. Hope that helps. These are all good questions. I may do some more thinking about this and make it my weekly ‘pastoral reflection’ for this Wednesday. We’ll see.”

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch