The Church Defined
In selecting a church, it is important to first know what the church is. The Greek name is ekklesia, which means the called out ones. The church is composed of individuals who have confessed their belief in Jesus as the Christ, and based on their faith, have been called out of the darkness of the world. Peter called the church, “A holy nation” (1Peter 2:9). The church therefore is composed of a group of people who are distinctly different from those outside of the church. The statement does present a mystery, for how can the church be called out of the world yet it is still in the world? This is simply explained by saying at present the church exists within the original creation, which is fallen and passing away. However, the church is passing on to a yet new creation.
If you continue to read on in 1 Peter 2:9-10, you find a little more about the church. The church is, “A people belonging to God… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” The church then is a completion of God’s plan stated in Exodus 6:7, “Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God.” Later in the Sinai Desert God said, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the people” (Ex 19:5). Still later God said, “I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev 26:12).
To sum up what the church is: It is a group of people who, through their belief in Jesus Christ, have been called to live separated from the world. The people who are the church are those who have obeyed God’s voice, kept His covenant of grace, and thereby have become His possession; a very intimate possession, one in which God actually walks amongst them.
Who is in Charge of the Church
The church is a body of believers, and just as a body must have a head so too the church must have a head. The head of the church is Jesus Christ as Col 1:18 states, “And he [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church…” Jesus as the head of the body implies a number of things. The first, just as the head is the authority over the body, so Jesus is the authority over the church. Jesus being the head of the church gives us a second implication: The church is the agency by which Jesus accomplishes his mission. Jesus came to earth out of obedience to God and, “To seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). The church therefore, is the instrument by which Jesus is accomplishing His mission.
A final implication of Jesus as the head of the church can be seen in Jesus lengthy farewell address to his disciples found in John 15. In that address, Jesus used the metaphor of a grape vine to instruct his disciples that they were to abide in him just as a vine-branch was to remain attached to the vine in order to live and produce fruit. Jesus was implying that just as a vine-branch receives nourishment and life itself from remaining attached to the vine so the disciples would receive nourishment and life by remaining attached to Jesus. The metaphor gives us our last implication of Jesus being the church’s head; the church receives its nourishment, sustenance, and life by being attached to Jesus.
The Mission of the Church
Above describes what the church is, but this leads the church seeker to another important question: What exactly is the church suppose to be doing while it is here on earth?
If the answers are building large cathedrals, accumulating wealth, or sitting on a hillside on a bright sunny day without a cloud in the sky while drinking tea and eating crumpets, then I’m afraid it is a church that has lost its purpose. The church simply has two purposes: First, it is to display God’s glory on earth. Second, it is to be the means by which God shares his goodness with humanity.
The importance of the church’s purpose must be realized. As soon as a person is born into this world, the grip of physical death is upon them, but also, because we are sinners, a state of spiritual death also exists in our lives. More fearful then these two types of death is an eternal death which happens when a person dies without God in their lives.
Many people ignore our ultimate enemy, or think they have found ways to avoid its fatal blows. They are bolstered by false religions that teach people to find the answers to death in knowing, feeling, or by doing. What do I mean? The knowing religions say, master a set of ideas. Learn the keys that unlock the answers of the universe and you will unlock the answers to your life. The feeling religions teach you to engage in the mystical, enter into an experience of the mysticism of the universe and you will be changed. In so doing you will always have a reference point to base your life on. The doing religions teach you to do the practical things. Do these practical set of things, and they will help you change.
Jesus did not come to give us a new thought; though there is nothing more profound then knowing him. He did not come to give us a new experience; even though there is nothing more life changing than him. He did not come to give you a new list of things to do; though we are to be known by the things we do. Christianity is rooted in being attached to Jesus; Christianity is abiding in Jesus. That is what John meant when he wrote, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4). Jesus is not an abstract thought, he is real; abiding in Jesus is life itself.
Christianity is unique in its way of thinking, and living. Life is not found in doing, feeling, or knowing. In Christianity, life is found in being in Christ – abiding. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:6). It is through Christ we are saved, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might be come the righteousness of God” (1 Cor 5:21). Thereby, Jesus accomplishes both purposes of the church. Jesus both displays God’s glory on the earth, and is the means by which God share his goodness with humanity.
Beginning The Search
This then is the church, its purpose, and who makes it up. Knowing this gives the church seeker a good foundation to begin their search. Personally I think the next step in finding a church is prayer; an honest prayer to God that you are seeking him and want to be part of his church. The best example I have of this is to share with you my own prayer and how God answered that prayer and led me to find his church.
I grew up in the Methodist Church and never had to be prodded to go. On Sunday morning I knew that I would be in church. I sang in the choir, was a member of MYF, an acolyte, went to Sunday school, and was confirmed into the church when I was twelve, but I was not a Christian. It was not until I joined the Navy, and while in the service to our country, that I read the Bible for the first time and accepted Jesus as my Lord and savoir. If you asked me from then on what my religion was, I would simply reply, “I’m a Christian.”
After my naval service, I returned home and found myself unable to go to church. This decision was the culmination of several things: My two tours of Vietnam had left me skeptical of the church, my wife was not a Christian, and the cultural upheaval of the sixties and seventies all combined to make me question the established institutions of our country.
I was honest with God about my struggle, and my specific prayer to him was: “Lord, I believe that Jesus is your Son and that he has saved me, and I would like to be a part of your church, but I am turned off by what I see. I see large buildings, costing millions to build, all preaching the same message, but not getting along. Would you please lead me to your church; a church that teaches the Bible, a church that has communion every Sunday, a church that is not caught up in a large building, and therefore does not pass a collection plate. God if you can lead me to such a church, I’m in.”
Several years later, my wife and I had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and we still had not found a church. Wherever we looked, we found the same old empty congregations.
One summer my brother came down from Portland, Oregon, to the Bay to help a friend named Bill move. I met his friend, who was a Christian, and helped in the move. At first, our friendship was strained and we did not see much of each other.
After a couple of years, my wife and I bought a home near to where Bill lived. It turned out that he, too, was looking for a church.
One day he called me and said, “Kirby, I have found an unusual church, and I think you will like it. Can you come to church with me Sunday?”
The church met in a rented building. The sermon was preached by a Greek Professor from San Jose Bible College. His preaching was unique in that he preached verse by verse from the Bible explaining it as he read. During the service the congregation celebrated communion, and when I asked how often they had communion they said, “Every week.”
After the service I realized that a collection plate had not been passed, and when I inquired about where to put my offering, they showed me their offering box, and explained that they did not pass a collection plate.
I had prayed to God to lead me to his church, and was honest with God about wanting to be in his church. It took a little over five years and 2,000 miles for me to be led to it, but God had answered my prayer. I joined the church about six months later, and my wife accepted Jesus about a year after that.
Know the Fundamentals
After praying for God to lead you in your search, I think it is important for the seeker to know the fundamentals of the faith. I say this because most people cannot answer this question, “How does someone become a Christian?” It is only logical to know the answer to this question, for if you don’t know the fundamentals of the faith, it is easy to become involved in the wrong church.
The best example of the fundamentals of becoming a Christian is found in Acts 2. In this chapter, the apostle Peter preached the first sermon. The Readers Digest version of his sermon is:
A person hears the word.
What is this word?
The word is: Jesus is God’s Son, he lived, was crucified, died, was buried, rose from the dead and anyone who believes in Him will be saved.
A person who has heard the word will either accept or reject it. The person who accepts the word and believes it becomes convicted of their sins and repents. What does repenting mean?
A person realizes they are walking away from God, and when they repent, they turn 180 degrees around and begin walking back toward God. What is sin? Sin is the willful and purposeful opposition to God and his ways. Next the person who has repented confesses that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. After a person confesses Jesus they go to a place of water and reenact Jesus death, burial and resurrection in a ceremony called baptism. Finally, the believer receives the Holy Spirit. Who is the Holy Spirit? He is the third part of the trinity. He is God’s gift to the believer that works within a believer to sanctify them in their walk towards God. What does sanctification mean? Sanctification is an ongoing process within a believer by the Holy Spirit that makes the believer holy. As you read through Acts and the New Testament, you will see this pattern repeated over and over again.
As you look for a church you should look to see that this pattern is taught and followed within the church. It does take some discernment, but if the church you are visiting does not teach this pattern, keep looking. If the church you are visiting teaches that everyone is saved, keep looking. If the church you are visiting teaches that Jesus is one of many ways to God, keep looking.
This of course leaves many questions. One of them is: Should a church be a particular denomination? In my opinion the answer to this question is no. Denominational divisions cannot be found in the New Testament, and it was not Jesus intention for his church to be divided. An example of what I mean is seen in Jesus prayer of John 17:20-21, “My prayer … that all of them may be one.” Seeing as denominations are in themselves opposed to one another it is wrong to select a church solely on the bases of denomination.
What if a church is friendly, outwardly moral, and does a lot of good works, but teaches from books other than the Bible? If a church is teaching other ways, or from books found outside of the Bible, it is not a Christian Church, and should not be considered in your search. They may feel Christian, but feelings are not truth, and feelings do not mean they are followers of Christ.
Finally, the church should be a welcoming church. There should be an atmosphere of friendliness and greeting as you visit. The pastor should be approachable. I have been in many churches where the pastor cannot be found before or after the service. I think the pastor should be readily available to be met and answers questions. I personally can be found before and after the service sitting in the sanctuary. I always have time for someone to approach me, ask for prayers, to answer questions, and to greet people.
It takes time to find a church that is a right fit, but the search is worth while. Have patience, and put your search in God’s hands to guide you.