What characterizes a faithful church? Among the questions I am regularly asked as a pastor, I receive this one consistently. And that’s a good thing. The ability to identify a faithful church is a spiritual skill that all Christians should cultivate because our spiritual health and general fruitfulness will be, in large measure, shaped by the churches of which we are a part. Jesus told his disciples that a disciple will be like his teacher once he is fully trained (Luke 6:40). Although there may be rare exceptions, the general rule is that we become like those who instruct us, for good or for ill. Determining where we will receive regular instruction in Christian doctrine and living, therefore, is a matter of first importance.
So, what should you look for in a church?
Look for a True Church
First and foundationally, a church must be a true church. There are plenty of establishments that use the word “church” in their title and may even claim to be within the Christian tradition. But the mere use of the word “church” is not sufficient to classify an institution as a church in the New Testament sense of the word. A true church is constituted by a group of regenerate believers in Jesus Christ, so an essential component of a true church is the presence of the gospel, for it is only the gospel that saves and regenerates (Rom 1:16). If a church does not have the gospel, then they are not a legitimate church, regardless of how they describe themselves on Google Maps.
What is the gospel? The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died for our sins, that he was buried, and he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4). This good news can only be received by repentant faith, apart from works (Matt 4:16; Rom 4:5; Gal 2:16), and will lead, when genuinely believed, to newness of spiritual life and a lifelong pursuit of holiness (Rom 6:4ff). Without this gospel, the church does not exist, for God’s people do not exist. (For more on the content of the gospel, please see my article, “Getting the Good News Right.”)
Look for a True Church
Second, a church must be a true church. While an institution may possess and proclaim the true gospel, that doesn’t qualify it necessarily as a church. To be a church, a group of believers must formally designate and structure themselves as a church. Compassion International, for example, is an evangelical, para-church organization that partners with churches to serve the poor throughout the world. (“Para” means “alongside.”) They possess and proclaim the gospel and they do much good, but they are not a church. The Christians within that organization are part of the universal church (Christians from all times and all ages), but the organization itself is not a church.
In Jesus’ good design, he determined that his universal church would find concrete expression in local churches. When the word “church” is used in the New Testament, it predominately refers to local churches and far less often refers to the universal church. This distinction is significant because it tells us that from the very beginning of Christian history, the local church was the centerpiece of God’s redemptive work.
A church, therefore, is a gathering of regenerate believers in Jesus Christ who have, by God’s Spirit, formally established themselves as a local expression of Christ’s body. The implication, then, is that the church will possess certain essential components that will not characterize other Christian institutions (i.e., parachurch organizations).
The first element that distinguishes a church from a parachurch organization is the preaching of God’s Word. If the preaching of God’s Word is absent from a Christian institution, then that institution cannot be, by definition, a church. Paul instructed Timothy, the new pastor in Ephesus, to make teaching and preaching his primary work, and to maintain a steady pulpit ministry, come what may (2 Tim 4:2). But there are Christian organizations that possess the gospel and make preaching and teaching a regular part of their ministry, so this element—the preaching of God’s Word—is a necessary but not sufficient component of a local church.
Pastoral leadership, therefore, is another essential mark of a church. God intends that a plurality of qualified, spiritually gifted men will provide the biblical preaching and care that must characterize a local church (1 Tim 3:1-8; Titus 1:5-9). But it may also be the case that a Christian organization—like various college campus ministries—may be led by pastors (usually from local churches) who make teaching and preaching God’s Word a central part of their ministry. Therefore, we need to identify one more indispensable element of a church: the practice of the ordinances.
Jesus Christ designated baptism and the Lord’s supper as two practices that belong exclusively to the church. While individual Christians and parachurch organizations occasionally engage in both ordinances, Christ intends that they each be a vital aspect of local congregational life. Paul designates the Lord’s supper as a celebration that, by its very nature, requires corporate participation. Throughout church history people have use the word “communion” as shorthand for the Lord’s supper precisely because we have communion with Christ and with one another as we partake in the bread and the wine (cf. 1 Cor 10:16, KJV). The instructions for the Lord’s supper are clearly given within the context of the local church (1 Cor 11:17-33).
We can now draw our discussion into a more detailed definition of a church.
A church is a gathering of regenerate believers in Jesus Christ who have, by God’s Spirit, formally established themselves as a local expression of Christ’s body and who, following the instructions of Scripture, have made the preaching of God’s Word and the practice of the ordinances central to its congregational life, and who are guided by pastoral leadership.
So, as you look for a church, begin by first establishing that you should be looking for true churches.
But beyond the basic instruction to locate true churches, is there anything else we should look for? The growth of denominations and denominational distinctives has, in some ways, made the search for a faithful church more challenging because we must now sift through these various distinctives to identify what really matters when it comes to finding a church. This process may take much time and research. Positively, however, the existence of multiple denominations has also brought to the surface some key qualities that tend to characterize healthy evangelical churches. In other words, the preponderance of denominations has led to, out of necessity, a distillation of key principles that are reliable markers of corporate health. I will offer five, each in the form of a question.
(1) Does the church affirm inerrancy?
Usually, when I am asked about what to look for in a church, my first response is to look for a church that unambiguously affirms the inerrancy of Scripture. The reason I mention this first is because a church’s stance on the nature of Scripture will inevitably shape the teaching and thus the ongoing health of the church. While there is more to look for in a faithful church, there can never be less. If a clear affirmation on the truthfulness of the whole Bible is not firmly woven into the fabric of a church’s doctrinal commitments, that church will, inevitably, begin to drift away from historical Christian teaching, especially when that teaching is challenged in the culture.
When looking for a church, therefore, locate their doctrinal statement and identify whether they believe that the Bible is inerrant. In our current theological climate, it is not enough that they affirm that the Bible is, for example, “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” While this statement is true as far as it goes, it may indicate that this church does not hold to inerrancy. Historically, the phrase, “the only infallible rule of faith and practice” has been used to affirm the truthfulness of the Bible’s theological teaching (“faith and practice”) while not explicitly affirming that the truthfulness of biblical statements in areas of history, geography, and science. Churches that affirm inerrancy are consciously stating that all biblical teaching is true and trustworthy, including statements that relate to history, science, geography, and the like.
(2) Is the church led by a plurality of qualified elders?
While a true church may be led by only one pastor-elder (Timothy was by himself until he established elders at the apostle Paul’s direction), it is God’s design that church leadership consist of a plurality of qualified male leaders. While I’ve served in different churches with different leadership structures, I can say without hesitation that I would never serve again in a church that is without a plurality of elders. When only one man leads and shepherds the body of Christ, a tendency toward authoritarianism, isolation, burnout, and narrow-sighted decision-making will be ever-present. When multiple men share the burden of pastoral leadership (each elder should have equal authority within the church), each pastor benefits from the collective wisdom of the team, any unhealthy thirst for power is checked by the other elders, and the hard work of shepherding is shared by more than one man. When the team consists of qualified men, this leadership structure translates immediately to corporate health.
(3) Does the church prioritize expository preaching?
Expository preaching may be defined as preaching that relies fully on the text of Scripture for the substance and structure of the sermon. Expository preaching occurs when the pastor derives his message directly from a biblical text or set of biblical texts, explains the meaning of those texts within the immediate and canonical context, and then applies that meaning to his people in their current setting. Expository preaching, particularly preaching that makes its way through entire biblical books verse-by-verse, provides the congregation with a steady diet of God’s Word and protects the church from fallible human wisdom that can easily creep into the pulpit if the pastor is not careful to root all of his teaching in the actual text of Scripture. Much of what is called expository preaching today, however, falls short of this model. When looking for a church, listen attentively to the preaching to determine if the pastor is getting his message from Scripture, or if he is using Scripture as a vehicle to proffer is own ideas (see Acts 17:11; 2 Cor 4:1-2). Only true expository preaching will lead to corporate health.
(4) Does the church prioritize evangelism?
A church may possess the gospel, affirm inerrancy, enjoy the leadership of qualified elders, and even prioritize expository preaching. But if that church does not prioritize evangelism, its health will be stunted. The primary mission of the church is to make disciples of all the nations (Matt 28:18-20), but the first step in discipleship is evangelism: a person must be called to Christ through the gospel before he can begin the walk of discipleship (Rom 4:5). A church that enjoys the benefits of godly leadership and good preaching but is only focused inward will grow fat and spiritually lethargic. Like ponds that have no outlet grow stagnate and unhealthy, so will churches that never reach out to others with the gospel. Look for a church that clearly prioritizes evangelism. Often, you can observe how a church prioritizes evangelism when you visit that church for the first time. Do the people of the congregation notice and warmly welcome you, even though you are a stranger to their local congregation? If a church is not friendly, this may be a sign that love for people is lacking. When this is the case, evangelism and outreach may not be a high priority in that church.
(5) Does the church prioritize discipleship?
But a church that only focuses on evangelism but does not disciple its members will also find its health impeded. Discipleship occurs when believers are being taught, in various settings, venues, and formats, to obey all that Christ has commanded (Matt 28:20). The largest of these settings will be in the corporate gathering on Sundays as the pastor opens the Scripture to the congregation during the sermon and the truth conveyed through the music instructs, edifies, and exhorts the saints. But discipleship will also occur in smaller groups like weekly Bible studies and less formal one-on-one relationships. While a church doesn’t need official titles for their discipleship venues in order to conduct genuine discipleship, there will be in a healthy church the clear aim to train and equip the saints of the congregation so that they might grow into maturity (Eph 4:12-16).
Healthy churches come in all shapes and sizes. They can be found in the country or in the city, in a traditional church building or a warehouse. Their website may be first-class or stuck in the mid-nineties. What matters is whether the church is led and structured in a way that will facilitate spiritual growth. While there may be times when a person deliberately chooses, out of a desire to help a church become better established, to remain in or locate themselves in a church that doesn’t possess the above qualities, it is still the case that churches that exist long without these qualities will struggle to make progress. In most cases it is best for believers to identify and place themselves within churches that bear the marks of corporate health.
As you research local churches, peruse their website, study their doctrinal statement, listen to a few sermons, speak with one or more of the elders, attend some Sunday worship services and small group Bible studies. Pray for God’s wisdom and consider whether that particular church bears the marks of corporate health. Remember: no church is perfect. You will only frustrate yourself if you create unrealistic expectations for what a church should look like. Nevertheless, there are more healthy and less healthy churches, as well as more obedient and less obedient churches, and Scripture provides us with several important qualities to look for as we contemplate where to make our church home.