Desirable Church Qualities
I’m in the process of moving; so, naturally, I’ll be looking for a new church to call home. This impending process has me thinking, again, about what I value in a church and what I will be looking for in the church-seeking process. Without being exhaustive, I aim to verbalize the qualities I value in a church and relevant biblical support in the areas of preaching, worship, church community, and leadership.
Perhaps one of the most influential components of a local church is its preaching during services. I would argue the lead pastor’s preaching sets the tone for the rest of the church with regards to teaching depth and style. There are many different avenues for a Christian to grow in biblical knowledge, such as books, interpersonal discussion, watching videos, and listening to sermons. However, the Sunday morning sermon is one of the most consistent avenues of a local congregation’s growth, and is often the primary means of growth for some in the church. Consequently, the degree of depth and accuracy of the pastor’s sermon can have considerable influence in the local congregation. If the pastor’s sermons are shallow, bereft of application, and non-expositional; the congregation will likely not grow in maturity, and ancillary Bible teachers (such as in Sunday school teachers and mid-week Bible study leaders) may measure their teaching against the shallow standard set on Sunday morning.
With regards to preaching, I want the church I attend to hold to the biblical example of expositional and Christ-centered preaching. If one studies the sermons in Acts and the sermon that is the book of Hebrews, you will see again and again that the preacher reads Scripture, explains Scripture in light of its genre, historical setting, grammar, and / or context, applies Scripture to the audience, and interprets it in light of Christ. Those are the four pillars of biblical preaching: read Scripture, explain Scripture, apply Scripture, and proclaim Christ from all Scripture. Consequently, those are the four characteristics I want present in the preaching on Sunday morning, in whichever church I attend. Now, granted, different pastors are gifted in different ways and some may excel in one of those areas and may struggle in another. For example, the pastor of one church may do a great job applying Scripture but struggles to thoroughly explain it. Perhaps another pastor explains and applies Scripture well but struggles to preach Christ from the text. In my opinion, as long as the preaching contains all four of those above stated components, it is biblical preaching. However, the depth one may desire in each of those categories is guided by personal taste.
What qualities do I value in corporate worship, particularly with reference to congregational singing? I do believe congregational singing does influence a local church. When Christians sing, they are expressing theological ideas , whether they realize it or not, and that expressed theology can influence how they think about God and their lives. For example, if one church’s songs are all man-centered and focused on an abstract idea of God’s love but state nothing of God’s wrath and the expressions of his mercy and grace; Christians in that congregation may be conditioned to think of God as some sort of “fluffy genie” who just wants their happiness. These very Christians may then fail to accurately discuss God’s just wrath against sin when sharing the gospel and may communicate an incomplete gospel with no acknowledgement of sin and repentance.
With the above in mind, I want my church’s worship to fit the mold of worship as seen in Scripture. Believe it or not, there are examples in the Bible of worship which should inform our view of it. One of the best places to look is the heavenly worship in Revelation. Here are a couple examples:
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” - Revelation 4:8-11
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” - Revelation 5:9-10
When we look at the examples of worship in Revelation, what do we see? We see worship that is thoroughly focused on God, discussing who he is and what he has done. I would argue that is the emphasis a church’s worship songs should have. I want the church I attend to sing songs that are God-focused and biblically accurate. One can often turn on the Christian radio and listen to emotional songs that are vague in their object of discussion; at the end of it, you're not sure if they were singing about God or their ex. Other songs are man-centered and focused on people receiving blessings from God. Both of those kinds of songs can lead one to develop a sub-biblical view of God, the gospel, and his life. Now some songs can be a mix of the above good and bad qualities, but I would say we should value congregational songs that are closer to the biblical standard for worship songs.
A church’s community is often what makes the first impression on those who visit. After all, before one hears the preaching or sings the songs, he is seeing and hopefully speaking to the church members present. First impressions can leave a lasting impact, and if a visitor isn’t welcomed by anybody and the congregation appears cliquey, the church may seem in-hospitable and unloving. On the other hand, if the visitor is quickly welcomed by warm, hospitable people, the church may seem like a caring community.
What qualities, then, do I look for in a local church’s congregation, its church community? To state it broadly, I value a church community characterized by love (1 Corinthians 13) and humility (Philippians 2); a community that owns up to its responsibility to incite other believers onto love and good deeds and encourages each other (Hebrews 10:24-25); a community where its members own up to using their spiritual gifts for the betterment of the body (Romans 12); and a community characterized by unity (1 Corinthians 1:10, Romans 12:16) What I believe flows from the above principles - and therefore what I also look for - is a community that is welcoming and hospitable to newcomers and oldcomers alike. After all, it's hard to encourage and build up other members of the church body if you aren’t involved in their lives. Therefore, owning up to the above principles will necessitate a degree of intentional involvement and reaching out to people on Sunday morning. A church where the majority of people quickly leave after the service is over isn’t likely living out the above principles. Here are two key, relevant passages:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. - Hebrews 10:24-25
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. - 1 Peter 4:8-11
A final key component of a church is its leadership. Leadership, in particular a church’s elder board, is important as it can either help the church thrive or stifle its growth. However, this component is hard to assess without spending a decent amount of time at a church, perhaps at least a year. This process could be sped up by having multiple conversations with a church’s elders and various ministry leaders, but it will still take longer to evaluate than any of the other above components. I’ve been at churches where the elder board was insightful and placed the right people in ministry leadership roles and those ministries thrived; and I’ve been at churches where some elders eventually appeared wanting in qualifications and they placed people lacking in ability and/or character in ministry leadership roles and those ministries suffered for it.
What qualities are desirable in a church’s leadership, especially its elder board? I value a church whose leadership structure is biblical and whose elders (and deacons) fit biblical qualifications. First Timothy contains one of the key sections in Scripture on such qualifications.
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. - 1 Timothy 3:2-7
What the above verses exclude are churches where women are on the elder board, churches where an elder board isn’t the overseeing body, and churches where the elder board’s members are unqualified. I also value an elder board which lets the deacons engage in their own ministry appropriately. When you look at what is often argued to be the inception of the deacon role in Acts 6, you see that they were appointed to take care of physical tasks and needs so the apostles could focus on prayer and preaching. In post-apostolic times, the ministry of preaching is predominantly handled by the elder board. Consequently, I would argue an appropriate division is that the elders are to be focused on the spiritual guiding and leading of the church via preaching, counseling, prayer, etc.; and the deacons are to be focused on addressing the physical tasks and needs. I’ve seen churches where the elder board’s hands were tangled up in the deacons' responsibilities and churches where the elder board included men who would best fit the deacon role. I would argue God separated the responsibilities of elders and deacons for a reason; so, each group is likely most effective when they own up well to the responsibilities of their own role. Finally, on a preferential note, I value an elder board where the elders are evidently gifted for the roles they are undertaking; such as the preaching elder being gifted in preaching, the elder overseeing administrative duties being gifted in administration, etc. Extrapolating to the broader church ministries’ leadership, I value the leaders of various ministries being appropriately gifted for their ministries and of good moral character, as defined by Scripture.
I hope the above discussion of desirable church qualities has been helpful. By no means are they exhaustive and more could be said in each category. Let us push the churches we are in to an ever increasing exemplification of Scripture’s standards for preaching, worship, community, and leadership.