The Church is precious. She is precious because she is the Bride of Christ, redeemed by His blood and purified by his Word. When we speak of “the Church,” we are usually speaking of the “universal Church”—a designation that transcends space and time and includes all true believers from Pentecost onward. Or, we might talk about “the Church in America,” or “the Church during the Reformation,” referring in the first case to true believers in a specific geographical region and, in the second case, to all Christians during a certain time period. When Jesus promised to build his church, He was referring to the universal Church (see Matt 16:18).
But other than Christ’s promise in Matthew 16, Scripture rarely talks of the universal Church. By God’s good design, the universal Church finds expression in local gatherings of believers, and it is these local gatherings that are the focal point of God’s redemptive activity in the world. Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California is a church. Community Bible Church in Vallejo, California is a Church. Grace Bible Church in Tenali, India is a church. Each of these churches are complete churches in and of themselves, and they comprise a portion of the universal Church (see Rev 5:9-10).
The Local Church in God’s Redemptive Plan
The New Testament makes it clear that God’s plan to gather a bride for His Son—what we call the universal Church—will be accomplished through local churches. Scripture designates the local church as the place where Christ exercises His Lordship over his people through the preaching of Scripture and the leadership of qualified men. It is the local church where God has chosen to display His redemptive glory, showcase His gospel, and sanctify His people (Eph 1:18-23).
For this reason, Scripture speaks often about the nature, structure, and mission of the local church. Concerning the nature of the church, we learn that local church membership can only consist of true believers (Jer 31:31-34; Matt 18:15-20). Essential to maintaining the health of a local church, therefore, is upholding a clear understanding of the gospel and what constitutes a genuine conversion.
Structurally, churches are to be led by a plurality of spiritually qualified elders and served by competent deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13). This structural mandate requires that those who are appointed to these positions of leadership and service are truly qualified for their task.
The church’s mission is straightforward as well: she is called to worship God (Phil 3:3; Heb 12:28), equip the saints for ministry (Eph 4:12), and evangelize the lost (Matt 28:18-20). Each of these responsibilities requires a thorough knowledge of the Scripture and reliance upon the Holy Spirit.
The Struggles of the Contemporary Church
Survey our contemporary setting in America and it doesn’t take long to conclude that, broadly speaking, the professing church is struggling in each of these three categories. Some local churches, for example, fail to articulate the gospel with precision and neglect to employ biblical metrics to assess individual professions of faith. Negligence in these vital areas opens the church membership to unbelievers, which, over time, significantly weakens the witness and power of a local church.
Unconverted church members may spread unchecked and unrepentant sin among the congregation, or, perhaps even worse, perpetuate spiritual lukewarmness that blinds others to what constitutes true faith. When people are allowed to populate church membership roles without the prerequisite of providing a clear articulation of the gospel or the marks of genuine conversion, pews will be filled with professing Christians who are unwilling, unable, and unequipped to conduct ministry that pleases the Lord and proves beneficial to others.
Many churches currently exist with unbiblical leadership structures in place, while others are slowly moving away from the biblical pattern as they acquiesce to cultural expectations and assumptions concerning leadership and gender differences. Plenty of churches operate with a single pastor model, where one man holds all decision-making authority and conducts ministry without the safety and collective wisdom of a plurality of elders, while more and more churches are ordaining elders who are unfit and unqualified for their post of spiritual overseer.
Still other churches are struggling to draw sharp conclusions about what they, as Christ’s Bride, should be all about. Not a few churches have departed from the simple calling to worship the living God, equip the saints, and evangelize the lost, and now employ most of their time, energy, and resources to alleviating social ills and engaging political issues. While it is good and right for the church to concern herself with the temporal troubles of the culture around them (see Gal 6:10; 1 Thess 3:12), these concerns can never overshadow the local church’s unique calling to worship God, edify His people, and preach the gospel. Of all the institutions in the world, only the local church is able to offer people the riches of the Word of God (1 Tim 3:15). It cannot, therefore, neglect this responsibility for other tasks, no matter how well-intentioned.
Why Churches Drift
There are many reasons why churches drift from biblical mandates and priorities. For example, fear of opposition from the greater society might cause leaders to soften their convictions in order to remove friction between their teaching and the dominant cultural narratives. Desire for quick growth and pastoral fame may make leaders unwilling to confront sin among church members or to establish biblical principles by which to evaluate one’s readiness for membership. Laziness will keep some leaders from the duty of constantly and regularly assessing the ministry of the local church by Scripture.
Pride will also derail a local congregation. Pastorally, pride will tempt the leadership to rely on their own strength and skill to grow the church. Corporately, pride will tempt members of strong churches to think too highly of their own spirituality and look with disdain on weaker, compromising churches—like the ones I have described in this article. Despite its present health, a church that nurses corporate pride about their spiritual status will find itself cut off from grace (James 4:6).
Creekside Bible Church: Retrospect and Prospect
While it is true that Creekside Bible Church (CBC) is neither perfect nor impervious to some of the problems outlined above, the founding leaders and members of this local gathering of believers deliberately sought, from before her inception, to tether the mission of the church to Scripture and establish a leadership structure that protects individual pastors and provides them with accountability and the collective wisdom of a plurality of qualified elders.
The statement of faith and the church’s bylaws have been drawn from thorough study of Scripture, and the membership process encourages only those who are committed to fulfilling New Testament expectations for church life to apply for membership. Relying upon God in prayer has always been a priority at a leadership and corporate level at CBC, and the elders have sought, since day one, to be shepherds who truly know and love each and every sheep. Preaching and teaching the Word of God reside at the heart of CBC’s ministry, while Christ-centered, heart-felt worship has been a priority since our first Sunday.
We can thank God for where he has brought CBC. He enabled the founding leadership and charter members to root CBC deeply into the truth of God’s Word. He has blessed us with spiritual and corporate growth, a committed and gifted membership, and a unified leadership team. We are not perfect, but we seek, above all, to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
But we cannot grow lazy, indifferent, or proud. We must, by God’s grace, constantly evaluate our ministries and corporate spiritual health according to Scripture, daily nurture our love for Christ through the gospel, and ever guard ourselves from self-righteousness and self-reliance. And if the Lord wills, several years from now we will be able to rejoice over our God who has done far more abundantly than we could ask or think (Eph 3:20).