It is increasingly tempting in our disposable, consumer culture to choose a church home by the same standards we use when choosing a car or carpet. The institutions of marriage and the family, the workplace and the Church are under attack by those who would try to convince us that it’s all about our own perceived happiness, fulfillment and self-gratification. (And if “my needs” are not being “filled” to my current liking, then I’ll just walk away and find some other “product.”)
But God in Christ through his Word and Spirit calls each of us to responsibly investigate Christian congregations and test them to see if what is believed, taught and confessed squares with what the Bible calls us to believe, teach and confess. This is why it is indispensable to “be in the Word of God” — so we truly know the measuring stick with which everything in the Christian Church is measured and re-measured.
So how does one evaluate a congregation that calls itself “Christian”? How do we responsibly kick the tires and make sure the air conditioner works and the car hasn’t been salvaged after a month underwater?
There’s always a better question to ask than “How did that church experience make me feel?”
There are many items that could be mentioned, but here are seven important guidelines to keep in mind.
1. WHAT ARE THE NON-NEGOTIABLES OF THE CONGREGATION – IN WORD AND DEED?
What teachings or convictions will the congregation suffer all instead of changing or sidelining (if any)? Does the life of the congregation give credence to the Reformation rubric: “Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone”?
2. IT’S MORE AND MORE ABOUT WHAT’S NOT BEING BELIEVED, TAUGHT AND CONFESSED.
The easy thing is to evaluate a congregation or a Sunday service on what is said and sung. But these days it is often more helpful to not only ask, “What was that all about?” but also, “What was missing?” Have the following been slowly and silently covered in bubble wrap and dragged into the back storage shed when no one was looking:
- the three universal creeds;
- the use of physical, doesn’t-change-every-week Bibles and hymnals;
- a confession of sins and absolution (that doesn’t try to be cute or creative but actually announces the clear forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ);
- a biblical, trinitarian invocation and benediction (instead of invoking some “great and awesome architect of the universe”);
- Christ and the Word of God presented faithfully with a Law and Gospel distinction;
- a well-grounded biblical understanding and a comfort level when it comes to the identity, mission and calling of the congregation and its members
3. DOES THIS CONGREGATION UNDERSTAND HERSELF AS THE BRIDE OF CHRIST AND A MEMBER OF THE ONE HOLY, UNIVERSAL (CATHOLIC) CHRISTIAN CHURCH — OR IS IT A KINGDOM UNTO ITSELF?
The Christian Church on earth has not been called to create little, self-contained religious country clubs. Is there something bigger than the ego of the senior pastor or the glory of the campus facilities? What elements of Sunday services and Bible studies are held in common with the whole Christian Church on earth? Are the kids ushered away for “Children’s Church” during services or does the congregation worship together as a church family?
4. IS THE WORD OF GOD SPOKEN AND SUNG WITHIN A PROPER LAW / GOSPEL DISTINCTION — AND ARE CHRIST AND HIS GOSPEL OF GRACE GIVEN THE LAST WORD?
One of the great graces given to the Lutheran Church is the biblical distinction when it comes to the two very different ways God’s Word comes to us and to the world. These two distinctions are “Law” and “Gospel.” Responsibly evaluating a Christian congregation means knowing where this distinction comes from, what it actually is and how it plays itself out in the life of the congregation. A great place to go to get a better handle on Law and Gospel is “Handling The Word Of Truth” By John Pless.
5. FAITHFULNESS TO THE WORD OF CHRIST AND THE DESIRE TO SHARE HIS SAVING GIFTS WITH OTHERS.
There is something more important that being “relevant” or “creative” or “dynamic” or “on the cutting edge.” Wherever there is the desire to be faithful to the one authority in the congregation (the Bible) there will also be the desire to share undeserved gifts of salvation with other undeserving family members, work associates, friends and neighbors. Congregations are, at the end of the day, called to (paraphrasing one Lutheran pastor) get the Word of Christ straight and get the Word of Christ out.
6. CHECK OUT WHAT’S GRACING THE SHELVES OF THE CHURCH BOOKSTORE AND THE PASTOR’S STUDY.
Is there more than drippy, subjective devotionals about the inner life of the Christian? Are there resources for those who have just received Christ by faith and others who are looking for a little theological meat?
7. IS HOLY BAPTISM REGULARLY UPHELD AS THE FOUNDATION AND CORNERSTONE OF OUR IDENTITY AS CHRISTIANS?
Do Bible studies and services and sermons often remind the faithful that we are who we are before God through the eternal promises given by Christ in, with and under the water of the baptismal font? (Does the baptismal font have a prominent place in the sanctuary or is it wheeled off into the closet whenever it isn’t needed?)