One of the great myths of our age is the myth that there is some perfect Christian congregation out there. In our postmodern, “I determine my truth by what I like”-sort of mindset, “church-hopping” has become a high art for some Christians. The problem is, hop once and get ready to hop again…and again…and again…and again.
This hopping is predicated on the notion of the “perfect church.” My wife told me that recently she saw some sort of comment on the Internet that read like this. “If you think you’ve joined the perfect church, just remember that it’s no longer perfect now that you’ve joined it.” And therein lies the real problem. Those who bounce from church to church thinking each new church is the perfect one, the one that fits their tastes, miss the point that the church is defined by Christ, not by anyone’s tastes or preferences. The Church is made up of sinner/saints. Of course, she’s not perfect and you’re not going to make her any more perfect. Christ defines the Church! Christ says the Church gathers around His Word and gifts. It is, in 1 John 5, the place where the blood, the water, and the Spirit testify. These three point to specifics that have little or nothing to do with the worship style, the architecture, the comfort of the seats, or the pastor’s hair.
These three have to do with the Gospel. The Gospel–the forgiveness of sins through Spirit, water, and blood–define the Church. Where the Word is preached from Scripture texts in the Law and Gospel by which we clearly interpret the Scriptures, there is the Church. Where all God’s children of every age are baptized in the Name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit, there is the Church. Where God’s people receive His forgiveness in the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, there is the Church.
Sadly, this forces us to acknowledge something. Where sermons are preached about God’s plan for you with little or no connection to a Biblical text (aka many extremely large churches which feed on today’s societal shallowness), there is not the Church. Where babies have “dedication rites” rather than Baptisms, (completely ignoring the Bible’s teaching on Baptism), there is not the Church. Where the Lord’s Supper is an occasional extra or never offered at all, despite Christ’s command to “keep on doing this…,” there is not the Church.
Sadly, what I just described is for many “the perfect church.” Too bad! It’s only Christ’s free gifts people are rejecting when they think this way.
A warning: You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t go to a church like that, so I must be getting this right.” Sadly many faithful churches still need to concentrate on their ministries and the overall health of their ministries and fail to do so. It does behoove the true Church in the 21st century to redouble their efforts in bringing Christ to our world today. There may be no perfect church, but that doesn’t excuse us from seeking excellence in preaching Christ to the nations.
The Bible is very clear that the Church in this world will always bear the marks of sin. In his instruction to husbands to love their wives in eph. 5, Paul’s rationale preaches this imperfection loud and clear. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Christ loves the Church in order to remove her wrinkles.
The Church is not perfect, and yet in Christ, she is made perfect. But only in Christ. Any other worldly categories that most church hoppers use to judge churches just don’t measure up and are not a factor. This should cause us to rethink just what it is we are looking for in a church.
What should we look for in a congregation?
1. Law-Gospel Sermons from Biblical texts. As opposed to law-based sermons on self-improvement with only loose connections to the Bible. God has MORE than a plan for you. He’s already carried it out in Christ.
2. “All nations” are baptized because it is God’s gift, not man’s confession. Baptism is regularly reversed in many churches into a human act, and not the gift as it is taught in Matt. 28, Acts 2, and 1 Peter 3.
3. The Lord’s Supper is served regularly and frequently. Christ doesn’t forgive our sins and give us the ticket to eternal life just anywhere. He locates His gifts in water, Word and bread and wine which are His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins. This is Biblical as the day is long. Unfortunately, many churches don’t recognize it. (And the growing idea of an “Internet Church” will never be able to virtually replicate it).
4. The members of the congregation mutually support one another in Christian living and giving. This is where many otherwise faithful churches have gone wrong. As society has grown to see everything, including faith, as personal and private, church members have grown less supportive of one another in living this Christian life we were baptized into. We need each other, perhaps not as much as we need Christ, but we do need each other. Many churches whose teaching is more or less faithful have still lost members to this problem. If we don’t love one another, we do not deserve to bring in new members. ‘Nuff said.
5. The congregation actively reaches out into its community and beyond. Doctrinal faithfulness without missional zeal is probably the definition of the term “dead orthodoxy.” But be careful! A fixation on numbers can be idolatry. The church with integrity is the church which reaches out without concern to make so many new members by the end of each year. God will bless! We just work it out in Christ as “equal-opportunity providers” of the love of Christ.
And there are so many more things I could add! No congregation is perfect. It’s time we got that into our heads! But the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes saints of sinners, making perfect what can be so horribly flawed.
What would you add as Biblical characteristics of a faithful church made perfect only in Christ?