It’s been five years since I’ve had a church to call home. Three interim churches, a couple of moves and now I’m adrift. It’s time to start looking for a church where I can be one of the folks.
What should I look for?
I think I’ll look for the things Jesus looks for and work from there.
Jesus told us, in his own words, seven qualities he seeks in his churches.
It’s interesting that there are two great commands in the Old Testament. Can you name them?
It seems that Jesus said these are applicable today! The first great command is restated in Luke 14:26, where Jesus himself is the object of supreme love.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).
Jesus also seeks this quality in his churches. In speaking to the otherwise commendable church at Ephesus, he warns them that they have become “loveless” toward him. They’ve been so busy defending truth that they’ve lost sight of Him.
I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first (Revelation 2:4).
When I start looking for a church to call home I’ll have my radar on. I’ll be looking for evidence that the churches I visit really love Jesus above all else.
How will I recognize this?
1 John 3 gives us some clues. How people treat one another indicates the quality their love for Jesus. Whether they gladly and generously meet the needs of those in need is a solid clue.
And are they passionate about the things Jesus is passionate about? It’s pretty hard to claim you love Jesus when you don’t love the things (I’m thinking of unredeemed people) that he loves!
Jesus calls his disciples to voluntarily submit themselves to God’s will. That’s the meaning of his exhortation to “take up the cross.”
In the Letters to the Seven Churches Jesus told us that he would be looking for submission to God’s will, even when it includes hardship. Jesus exhorted the church at Smyrna that he would be looking to them for submission to the will of God even though it portended suffering.
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (Revelation 2:10).
So, one of the things people should look for when they’re in “search mode” for a new church is whether this church actively seeks and submits to God’s will.
If most of the business meetings, ad hoc discussions and even prayer sessions involve people wheedling and angling to get what they want – move on to the next.
If the church is unwilling to speak the hard truths of the day (at the moment that concerns divorce, consumerism, sexual morality) lest they lose members, money or favorable tax treatment – move on to the next. This isn’t a place you’ll want to be.
Self-denial is one of the distinguishing marks of Jesus’ disciples. It appears in conjunction with the phrases “take up the cross” and “follow me”, they probably refer to different aspects of the act of answering the call to discipleship.
Jesus told one of the Seven Churches of Revelation that he would be looking for self-denial that leads to righteous living.
But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:14-15).
There’s a lot to unpack in this text. To recover the essence of what this text is all about requires some serious exegetical work; it will include a lot of digging into first century culture.
But let me give you the thumbnail description: The “teachings of Balaam” refers to unfettered sexual indulgence and the Nicolaitans were (likely) proponents of deliberate and profound moral rebellion.
These false prophets appealed to the lusts of the flesh. Resisting them required great self-denial energized by the Holy Spirit. Only then would they find the power needed to live righteously in the midst of that perverse influence.
Jesus seeks a people who deny themselves – that is, their sin natures – and live righteous lives in spite of the pollution around them.
How do you spot this in a church?
In the Upper Room, the night before his trial, Jesus spoke of another distinguishing characteristic that marked off his disciples from the rest of the world.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
Jesus made it quite clear that he would be seeking this “other focused love” in his churches. To the church at Thyatira he opens with a commendation.
I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first (Revelation 2:19).
Clearly, this was a congregation that excelled in brother love. It continued to grow and to be expressed in concrete acts of service and patient forbearance.
But all was not well. There were some at Thyatira who had – in spite of their love for the brethren, their good works and patient service – wandered off into trouble.
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:20-23).
Acts of charity do not excuse a congregation from the need for high moral standards and self-denial.
Jesus seeks both – love of the brethren and self-denial issuing in righteous living – from his churches. But what does that look like?
Listen to what “the disciple whom Jesus loved” says.
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:11, 16-18).
Jesus’ disciples abide in, are devoted to, and obey God’s Word with passion. Jesus makes that point clearly when he spoke to the Jews in the audience who believed his messianic claims.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).”
Believers who “abide” in Jesus’ words make them a habitation. Jesus’ teachings become a frame of reference by which we interpret the world. His commands and instructions guide the decisions we make, the actions we undertake, and the values we cherish.
Jesus’ words (and the Word of God) because the instrument the Holy Spirit uses to bring about conviction of sin, comfort of grace, and correction for right living.
In the Letters to the Seven Churches Jesus made it clear that abiding in the Word is not the atomistic responsibility of each believer (although we are individually responsible), it is one of the key characteristics he seeks in his churches. This was the essence of his admonition to the church at Sardis.
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (Revelation 3:1-3).
Sardis had once been a vigorous church. It had “the reputation of being alive.” But they’d grown weary. Spiritual malaise had set in. They had become apathetic and even spiritually impotent.
Where does a church find vigor? Where does it find revivification? Where does it find renewed passion and spiritual energy?
Apparently it comes from remembering what they had received and heard, the Word of God.
Devotion to the Word of God Jesus seeks in his churches.
So should I.
What are some of the telltale signs of a church devoted to the Word of God?
Obeying Jesus is one step removed from abiding in his Word. His message to the troubled congregation at Philadelphia makes it clear that in spite of the problems that beset and weakened them as a church, they had remained obedient and faithful.
I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name (Revelation 3:8).
Obeying Jesus is often inconvenient, unreasonable and (in the eyes of some) irrational.
How smart was it for Peter, James and John to abandon their business venture, leave their capital equipment languishing on the beach and quitting their businesses simply because Jesus said, “Follow me”?
And yet that’s what Jesus wants; churches that will keep (= “obey”) his word.
It shouldn’t happen but it does.
When churches start to get things dialed in, when they get all systems hitting on all cylinders they move from “effective ministry” into “maintenance” and from there it’s not much of a slide over into plateau and decline.
People start going through the motions. In time they lose their passion for the Lord and their zeal for the ministry. They’re simply doing “what’s expected.”
Jesus is looking for the opposite in his churches. Take a look at what he said to the passionless church and Laodicea.
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).
If Jesus is looking for spiritual passion in his churches then I guess I should, too. What should I be looking for?
I’ll sense it when I get there.
What do you make of the fact that these Seven Letters are not addressed to “the saints of the churches” but to the churches themselves?
Bud Brown has over thirty years of vocational pastoral ministry and church consulting in a variety of venues from small, rural churches to multi-staff churches to rapidly growing megachurches. Ten years as an intentional interim and interventionist in small, mid-sized and large churches. An author, speaker and educator with special interest in training interventionists, intentional interim and turnaround pastors.