We’re going to talk about what to look for in a church. And this is a very important topic.
People choose churches for all kinds of reasons -- some good, some really bad.
Examples: Tradition/upbringing; It’s where their friends go; Music; Programs; Cult of personality -- they like the preacher/speaker. He makes them laugh; They like the culture/atmosphere; The people are friendly; Proximity to their house; God told them/laid it upon their hearts.
So there’s all kinds of reasons, but we want to talk about the biblical reasons. And frankly, they are the only reasons that matter. if you’re wanting to find yourself part of a church that’s pleasing God, and also a church that will help you grow.
People find themselves being part of church, where, if they’re honest, they haven't grown in years. They’ve been stagnant.
Perhaps they grew a lot in the beginning, but they now find themselves drifting. Well there is a reason for that.
Now it may be due to the fact that the person is being unfaithful (or has grown lazy in their walk), but it might also be due to the fact that they’re not a biblically healthy church.
So in light of that, we want to talk about what a person should be looking for in a church.
Now these are not our thoughts, but rather, they’re biblically derived principles and standards. And so, we’re just interested in what the Bible says.
In fact, if it were up to me (MM), and based on my preferences, my ideal church would probably look very different.
However (or as MM says, howbutever), since we’re controlled by the Scriptures, our church is what it is.
Very little of it has anything to do with preference, but everything to do with what Christ has mandated for His bride.
Now, there is a lot of freedom when it comes to certain things within the church, but there’s also some very important non-negotiables. And these are what must drive (and control) the freedoms.
So we want to give some thoughts on what a healthy church should be, and therefore, what a person should actually be looking for in a church.
We’re, then, going to expand with some of our own thoughts and commentary on each one of these marks.
IX Marks of a Healthy Church
(1) Expositional Preaching
“Expositional preaching (otherwise known as expository preaching) is the investigation of a particular passage of Scripture whereby the pastor carefully explains the meaning of a passage and then applies it to the members of the congregation. The point of a sermon, then, takes the point of a particular passage. This is in opposition to the topical preaching showcased in the majority of evangelical churches, where Bible passages are woven together to support a pre-existing point.”
Not all exegetical/expositional preaching is the same. And this is very important to understand.
There are various approaches to “expositional preaching.”
True expositional preaching is not merely “Bible-based” preaching. It’s not using the bible as a launch point to talk about whatever topic the preacher may want to talk about.
Further, some forms of expositional preaching might go passage by passage through a book, but it tends to be nothing more than a high fly-over. They’re giving a basic sense of the passage, but are quick to run to application. That’s their goal.
Other kinds tends to go more line-by-line (sometimes word-by-word), and are more focused on providing a full explanation of the text. The goal is to leave very little unturned.
These approaches will still have much application, but the goal is to give a solid understanding of the passage, not merely application.
All true application must be based on true understanding.
This approach never shies away from difficult sayings of Scripture -- for they can’t!
As a result, it can sometimes be uncomfortable for the people. The focus of this preaching is to match the tone and intent of the author.
So if the purpose of the passage is to give comfort, then that should be the goal of the preacher.
But if the purpose of the passage is to give a warning (or rebuke), then that is how the preacher ought to preach the passage.
This is not popular, but we would argue it is faithful. Much of Paul’s writings, for example, are written as correctives. So there’s a lot of rebuking that happens.
Don’t confuse Gospel-centered preaching with faithful expositional preaching.
Much of what is called Gospel-centered preaching tends to make quick application to the Gospel.
There’s obviously nothing inherently evil to this, but we would also argue that it is not necessarily faithful to the text.
The goal of true exposition is for the people to walk away with a solid understanding of the text at hand. So if the passage is a strong rebuke, it’s not wrong to remind the people of their forgiveness in Christ, but it can also take out the teeth of a rebuke by Paul or James. As a result, this why people do not necessarily grow as they ought under Gospel-centered preaching. It’s heavy on grace, and light on God’s mandate for true growth and change.
Further, people under Gospel-centered preaching tend to view expositional preaching as legalistic.
They’re not used to being challenged to actually obey.
There is something good when the people are left to feel uncomfortable at times.
Paul (and Jesus!) goal was often leave people hanging, and force them to wrestle with their words.
There should be a true wrestling with the text, as the people now understand it’s meaning.
This is where the application comes in. They should now be examining their own life in light of what was just taught.
As a result, true expositional preaching tends to be more implicational, rather than applicational.
As the people are taught the full meaning of a text, there are now implications for their life.
Applications always tend to be generic anyway. As a result, people are never truly challenged to consider their life before the text.
We would say, pick a church that leans toward a deeper exposition.
You should not merely know the pastor’s conclusion of what a text means, but you should know why that is his conclusion.
We’re not saying you have to know (and weigh out) every possible interpretation of a passage, but you should at least know why the pastor has landed on his interpretation.
Force him to show you (in his preaching) why He believes the passage to be saying what he thinks it is saying.
Right application (i.e. worship) flows from a right interpretation. If a pastor is giving a high fly-over, and then making quick application to the Gospel, you’re not going to rightly know all that God has told you through His Word.
The result is a vague Christian walk that is more or less the result of a church’s culture (or living vicariously through the words of a preacher), then what God has given through His Word.
Col. 1:9-10 - “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
Paul’s prayer is for the Colossian believers to be filled with knowledge. And not just knowledge, but knowledge that is controlled by all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Again, this doesn't happen through vague, Gospel-centered preaching, but through a deep exposition of the Word (week after week).
Refuse to settle for shallow expositional preaching. Look for a church (and pastor) who is resolved to systematically work through books of the Bible, but at a substantial level.
The depth of preaching will have direct correlation to the depth of your walk and Christian maturity.
(2) Biblical Theology
“This emphasizes not only how we are taught but also what we are taught. In a sense this should follow naturally from expository preaching because the careful exposition of a passage should lead to sound theology. The majority of poor theology arises from a lack of careful Biblical exposition. Where there is poor exposition, we should expect to eventually find poor theology.”
This is very true, but very rare today.
Most churches can’t tell you what their theology is. In fact, most pastors can’t tell you what their theology is.
Sadly, many pastors have discarded with the necessity to be formally trained.
As a result, many churches are weak, and controlled by little more than pragmatics.
All churches do a lot of things, but few are able to give a blicial defense as to why.
A robust theology ought to control every aspect of what a church does (or does not) do.
(3) Biblical Understanding of the Good News
“There needs to be a proper understanding and necessary emphasis on the full gospel. Where many contemporary churches teach that Jesus wants to meet our felt needs and give us a healthier self-image, that is not the gospel. The gospel message is that we are sinners who have rebelled against our Creator. But Jesus took the curse that was rightfully ours and all that remains is for us to have faith in Him so God may credit Christ’s righteousness to our account. When we de-emphasize sin and damnation to make the presentation more friendly and less offensive we cease declaring the full gospel.”
If you make the gospel man-centered you end up messing up the actual gospel. The purpose-driven life is not the gospel. Nor is it that God has a wonderful plan for you.
A gospel-centered church will speak much of sin for it is what controls this entire age we live in. It is not light with the topic of sin nor does it joke about it. Sin covers everything in this age…..literally everything.
But you also must point them to the utter necessity of finding life and forgiveness in Christ alone. Not science or medication or morals; but ultimately in the provision found in Jesus Christ.
This is best done in an expositionally driven church that weaves the fulness of who God is and what God has done on our behalf into the sermon simply because the text is actually dealt with.
A non-Christian should not walk away from a sound church happy about himself. And a Christian may or may not walk away from any given Sunday happy with himself. But he should walk away with knowing where he must flee.
(4) Biblical Understanding of Conversion
“When we have a Biblical understanding of the gospel, we must then also have a proper understanding of conversion. Conversion is a new birth from death to life and is a work of God. It is not merely a change of attitude or a change of affection, but a change of nature. Conversion does not need to be an exciting, emotional experience, but does need to produce fruit to be judged a true conversion.”
David Platt says the reason so many are leaving the church today is because we’ve been concerned about membership than discipleship.
The membership rolls are filled up with unconverted people, who’ve been little more than attenders of a church for their entire life.
Frankly, going to church and calling yourself a Christian means very little.
Unfortunately, many churches are filled with these kinds of people, which is why more churches close their doors each year, then there are church that are being planted.
A truly converted person will bear fruit. This is abundantly clear from the Scriptures. What a person believes, says, or says they belive, has little bearing on whether or not they’ve been truly converted.
A fruitful life always flows from a faithful confession.
A truly converted person should be able to clearly state the Gospel.
They should be able clearly assent to the truth of the Gospel (without hesitation) as being entirely true. And they should being evidencing a love (and hope) in the Gospel, not merely in word, but also in deed.
1 John 3:18 - “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
First, there cannot be a mere confession. There must be a confession that naturally results in a transformed life of godly deeds.
Second, the converted life isn’t a vague life of generic Christian words. Rather, it is to be a life characterized by certain deeds, but deeds which are controlled and motivated by truth (“in deed and truth”).
In other words, the converted life must look a certain way. It is a way defined by the truth of Scripture. As a result, the converted life can be identified by certain objective realities.
You cannot merely say you’re a Christin. You’re life must evidence certain things, and these “things” must be utterly defined by radical adherence to what God has demanded be true of every confessing Christian.
For this is the mark of true conversion.
So if the church doesn’t require this, or is vague about it, it is not a good church.
It should be what defines the people, and certainly, the leadership.
(5) Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
“The way we evangelize speaks volumes about how we understand conversion (and further, what we understand about the good news). If we believe that people are essentially good and are seeking Jesus, we evangelize using half truths and tend to elicit false conversions. When we present a watered-down gospel, we end up with a watered-down church. We need to be faithful to present the full gospel, the good news with the bad, and leave the results to God.”
Once you make the gospel something that is a package you have to sell or tell then things get messed up for a lot of people.
Evangelism is best done as an outflow of a life committed to Christ. As changes occur in your life then comments are made to you and you must be ready to give an answer. This is the point Peter makes in his letter.
Evangelism should make it clear that you are not merely becoming a friend to Jesus or adding him into your life. It is a life-dominating reality instead. You leave all things to follow Him. You are called to consider the cost. And when you meet your first time of testing you are reminded of the call to follow Jesus.
(6) Biblical Understanding of Membership
“Church membership is a privilege and a responsibility and needs to be regarded as such. People should only be members if they are dedicated to the church – in attendance, prayer, service and giving. To allow people to become and remain members for sentimental or other unbiblical reasons makes light of membership and may even be dangerous.”
You don’t join to gain some benefits. You join so as to identify yourself with a specific group of people who hold to a specific set of beliefs.
-- It means you make life choices related to how it affects the church, not just you and your home.
-- It means you place yourself willingly in submission to a set of leaders and doctrine.
-- It means you put on the apron of a servant and seek to serve, not to get your needs met.
-- It means you are present faithfully and consistently. Exceptions are truly exceptions.
-- It means you are giving to that church and seeking to serve wherever it is needed.
(7) Biblical Church Discipline
“Discipline guides church membership. The church has the responsibility to judge the life and teaching of the membership since they can negatively impact the church’s witness of the gospel. Leadership need to be firm in discipline as this is an expression of love to the congregation.”
We have done an entire episode on this, so go and listen to it if you haven’t.
A church that is not disciplining its members is a disobedient church and you should not be there. It is how it maintains purity within itself, but also seeks the well-bing of its sinful members.
(8) Promotion of Church Discipleship And Growth
“We need to recover true discipleship – discipleship that causes Christians to live lives of increasing holiness. The emphasis on growth needs to be directed at holiness rather than membership. True discipleship producing strong, committed Christians will present a clear witness to the world.”
You should walk away from a year of attending a church with some clear sense of what is now different in your life and home. And it should be intrinsically biblical in its definition.
If you come and sit and leave then you are not part of the church. And if you are made to feel comfortable in doing so, then the church is not interested in being biblical.
Relationships in the church are messy and a member must learn to embrace that. If you are a younger believer then coming to a sound church can be a bit overwhelming at times, as so much of your life is out of kilter.
We see this alot. Many come into our church thinking they’re mature, but once they enter, they discover they’re not what they thought they were. This often causes them to either press in, or quickly leave.
If they can get over that initial hump of realizing that they need to grow, we see so many flourish.
This can sound so arrogant, but when people stick around our church, they realize we’re doing nothing more than calling them to biblical faithfulness.
You are also not the savior of the church, so don’t enter one thinking you are the key to its health. Come with a spirit to learn and to grow.
If you are older and mature in the Lord then you should make it your habit to gather people younger in the faith to help them grow. This is done in kindness and grace but it must be done. Few things are more frustrating than to pour energy and time into a person for years and then when retirement comes they check out.
True discipleship should be at the heart of a mature church. It’s what ought to characterize its members, and what ought to drip from the mouth of the leadership.
Discipleship is not a simple formula. It happens in many ways. But it should nevertheless be a clear
(9) Biblical Understanding of Leadership
“Until recent times, almost all Protestants agreed that in church government there should be a plurality of elders (which means that there should be an office of elder and not merely one or more pastors in positions of leadership). This is a Biblical and practical model that has fallen out of favor in modern times.”
You are commanded to follow them, submit to them, remember them and to honor them. Figure out how you are doing these things.
This is what is wrong with most mega churches; you never get to know your leaders. Or they are only on a video screen. But even worse, the leaders never get to know you. If you’re pastors/elders don’t know your name, this is a problem. Functionally, how are they caring for your soul?
Learn what is the flow of authority within a prospective church. Look for men who are modeling godliness and a commitment to the Word. Look at their households and it will answer many questions.
If your leaders speak to you about something in your life then take it seriously. It is likely they were serious about it even if you are not.
Ask yourself, can I follow these men because they are like Paul who said “imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
A church will never be more healthy than its leaders and the plethora of fallen and disgraced pastors today should be a warning to us all.
And again, the biblical model is a plurality of qualified, male elders. At a bare minimum, they must meet the qualifications of an elder/pastor in 1Tim. 3, and Titus 1.
They should also understand (and own) their job description, as outlined in 1Pet. 5. We don’t have the time to work through these passages, but these are the biblical mandates. [We’re planning to do a full episode devoted to church government/leadership].
Suffice it to say, congregation rule is not biblical. Also, elder-led is also not the best way. Rather, it should be elder-rule. [short explanation between elder-led vs. rule]
Church traditions/denominations have screwed this up. Further, we live despises any notion of authority and submission in our culture. As a result, the church has succumbed.
But a biblically defined model of church government is one the major marks of a healthy church. For from the state of the leadership will flow (and determine) the health of every other aspect of the church.
So there you have it.
It’s important to understand that if a church has these 9 marks, they may be stronger or weaker on some of them.
There’s no perfect church, but there are better (or healthier) churches. The health of a church has direct impact on the health of a Christian. It is vitally important, and something every true christian must take seriously.
Don’t settle. Don’t compromise. Don’t make security, tradition, or comfortability a factor. Always make certain your choice of a church is radically determined by the bibical non-negotiables.
So we hope this has been of help, and let us know if you have any questions.