“Friend, what are you looking for in a church? Good music? A happening atmosphere? A traditional order of service? How about: a group of pardoned rebels . . . whom God wants to use to display his glory . . . before all the heavenly host . . . because they tell the truth about him . . . and look increasingly just like him – holy, loving, united?”
― Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church
What is the Church?
Systematically, there are two theological categories one should have in their mind when they think of the word “church.” There is the Church universal (historically this has been labelled catholic – Latin for universal – Church; not the Roman kind), and the church local.
The Universal Church
The universal Church is invisible (meaning no one can tangibly recognise it except for God). It is made up of God’s people who the blood of the lamb has saved throughout all time (past, present, and future), from all tribes, nations and tongues (Revelation 7:9). God’s people exist among every tradition (typically despite them), in every context (such as persecution), and demographic (from rich to poor). The universal church is God’s redemptive work or kingly rule over the entire cosmic order as He seeks to renew all things. Therefore, the universal church is in a sense that mustard seed slowly sprouting throughout the course of history so that all of creation may nest in its branches (Luke 13:18-19). Therefore, I would argue that the universal Church is another way of describing God’s Kingdom. As Scot McKnight says
“It is reasonable to say that the kingdom is the church, and the church is the kingdom – that they are the same even if they are not identical. They are the same in that it is the same people under the same King Jesus even if each term – kingdom, church – gives off slightly different suggestions”
The Local Church
The local church is the God-ordained, tangible, yet imperfect expression of the universal body of Christ (God’s Kingdom). It is where both the world and the Kingdom come together as it is made up of both believers and unbelievers (Matthew 13:24-30), sheep and wolves (Matthew 7:15), God’s people and those who pay lip service to God but who’s hearts are far from Him (Matthew 15:8). Biblically, the local church has a polity (church government – elders, deacons, members), sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and Baptism), worship (singing and prayer) all centred around the exegetical teaching of God’s Word. The local church is ground zero (after the Cross) for God’s mission to go forth and redeem the world through the preaching of the Gospel.
- If the local church is ground zero for God’s mission and the Gospel, you cannot be an effective Christian without being in a biblical local church.
- Looking for a good church no longer means finding out if it has a good kids clubs, men’s group, or women’s ministry. It no longer means flashy lights, feel-good messages, and social homegroups. Looking for a good church now means looking for a biblical one (a plurality of elders, deacons, membership sacraments, worship and prayer, the exegetical preaching of God’s Word, and mission). This might mean a biblical church is a bit smaller then you’re used to, a little slower, a little less flashy (they might not be). Yet it is these things that God’s Spirit works through. Without a strong biblical local church, the Christian can not hope to flourish in God’s kingdom effectively.
- Becoming effective in the local church leads to being effective in the world in our mission to take forth the Good News of Jesus. Learning to love the Lord and your brothers and sisters in Christ, equipped with God’s Word and Spirit will compel you to herald the Gospel to any and all who would hear.
In Australia, churches too quickly jump to what is pragmatic at the expense of a solid biblical foundation for their ministries. Programs are good, but only if they’re built upon these principles first. If we rely on a men’s breakfast or on a woman’s coffee day once a month to facilitate fellowship (the command to love one another), perhaps we should be questioning our ways of doing church, to begin with before we implement even more programs that often replace genuine Spirit-filled love for our fellow members. If we rely on youth groups to disciple our young people, perhaps we’re doing something wrong from the pulpit or even from our own homes. If we have to rely on our church programs to feed the poor, to look after the environment and to address other social issues, then we’ve missed the point of what it means to be an effective Christian in the world. I don’t hate programs. I’m not suggesting we get rid of them. What I am suggesting is that we recover a strong biblical foundation of church (at the expense of all else if we must), and I can almost guarantee that the Christian landscape, at least in Australia, would experience a sort of reformation that has been needed for man, many decades.
My prayer for 2021 is that we will plant, grow and revitalise healthier churches so God may be glorified, and the Gospel will go forth effectively in our nation.