The Christian life is not designed to be an individualistic life. If any theme is recurrent through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, it’s that God desires not to merely save individuals, but to save and make a people for himself. And that desire is ultimately what Jesus satisfied for God on the Cross. In absorbing the uttermost drops of divine wrath against the sins of all who would trust in him, Jesus gloriously and effectively purchased a people – a family – for God.
But the individualistic, self-centered mindset of our humanistic culture has so adversely affected the modern view of the Christian life that being part of a blood-bought family isn’t the primary perspective many believers have when they think about their life in Christ. Sure, these Christians are likely to acknowledge the importance in attending worship gatherings in theory, but practically, they treat their pursuit of Jesus as a solitary chase rather than a corporate journey. They’ll attend services here and there, but never move toward committed and active membership. They’ll come and listen to a sermon but jet out after the closing prayer before they get sucked into any awkward conversations. These Christians flee from commitment, fellowship, and – though they may not know it – strength, blessing and life.
I was this type of Christian four years ago.
Yet what these believers will soon come to discover, and what I personally came to discover, is that faithfully following Jesus is a nearly impossible task to do alone. The Christian life in general is a tough one, but a lonesome, disconnected-from-the-Body Christian life is unbearably difficult. And my email inbox is point blank proof of this. People from all over the world contact me on a weekly basis expressing desperation and desire for help. They feel at their wits end in their struggle with sin. As their fallen flesh growls hungrily for iniquity and drives them away from God, they detect no power left in them to fight it. Consistent sadness and in some cases even legitimate depression has swallowed up any sort of joy that used to reside in their hearts. They just don’t know what to do anymore.
I don’t want to insinuate that every situation is exactly the same, because it is not. But overall, after corresponding with most of the people that send me these types of emails, I’ve found that at least 90% of them have one big something in common. They don’t belong to a local church.
It is one of my deepest convictions that what every Christian needs most is not counseling or therapeutic exercises but to be an active member of a healthy, local fellowship of believers. Christian counseling may be a necessity for some (it has been for me in certain seasons) and I don’t want to minimize that. But Christian fellowship is a necessity for all, and I want to maximize that. In my personal struggle with sin, when the God-hating, sin thirsting forces within me have been their most violent and ferocious, the local church I’m a member of has consistently been the primary means God has used to preserve my faith and spur me onward in my race toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Other believers walking, praying, and battling alongside me as I wade through my messes toward the Savior have been the primary means through which God has given me strength to persevere in hope. I know the power and blessing of good (yet not perfect) Christian community from experience, and it’s for this reason I want to use the platform the Lord has given me to encourage and aid struggling sinners who are without strength and without fellowship to seek out a solid, healthy church.
As of today, you’ll notice an additional page on my website entitled Need Help Finding a Church? A friend and I have tried our best to come up with a “healthy marks of a local church” type of checklist to aid people in their search for a local church home. As noted on the checklist, no church will exhibit perfection on all points because no church – an entity made up of imperfect people – is perfect. But a church full of perfect people isn’t what we need, guys. What we need is other frail yet redeemed people chasing the Perfect One alongside us. We need to constantly make ourselves available to strengthen others and be strengthened by others in the good news of the gospel. My hope is that this list will aid struggling Christians in their pursuit of such a community.
I will post the checklist below, but for future reference, you can find it here.
- If you have no idea where to even start looking for possible churches, ask a Christian friend or relative where they go and invite yourself to tag along. Additionally, the following are networks of churches that might be a good place to start your search. www.acts29network.org (“Find a Church” tab) www.thegospelcoalition.org (“Ministry” tab, “Chapters” organized by geographic region)
- When you visit the church, does it seem authentically friendly and welcoming?
- Is the Bible embraced at the Word of God? Is the gospel preached?
- Do the pastors/teachers/leaders of the church embrace the biblical teaching of man’s sinfulness (as opposed to the pro-“gay Christian” movement that basically denies the utterly sinful state of humanity)?
- Do pastors/teachers/leaders humbly admit their own sinfulness and great need for Christ in front of the church? This is important because whatever is coming from the pulpit on Sunday is tuning the hearts of the congregation. The sheep will reflect their under-shepherd. If the leadership of a church is humble and Christ-exalting, the church will likely be humble and Christ-exalting.
- Does the church have small groups that permit people to get to know one another and grow in legitimate fellowship? Is time made available for people to talk about issues they are struggling with, receive prayer etc.? Do these groups provide a source of accountability – or is there other provision for this within the church, such as some sort of mentoring program?
- Even if the church does not have groups specifically focused on homosexuality or your specific sin struggle, do they have other types of recovery groups such as Celebrate Recovery or other groups that focus on recovery issues? Can they do a referral to an outside “specialist” counselor who deals with these issues in addition to the general support they can give (may be more necessary in a smaller church)?
- What types of discipleship or spiritual counseling, if any, does the church provide? Find the person most appropriate to talk to and meet with them to discuss your own personal situation, what you are looking for in a church, and ask about the experience they have had in dealing with situations similar to yours. Try to determine if the person you are talking to feels comfortable talking about the issues. If there is some hesitancy or uneasiness, this may be an indication of lack of experience or expertise in this area.
- Are there others in the church dealing with similar issues that you may be able to talk with and see what their experience has been? Not everyone may be willing to do this, and if it is indicated that such information is deemed to be confidential, that is not necessarily a negative factor.
I would recommend attending at least three to five worship gatherings to really get a feel for what the church is like. It is unlikely that you will find a church that is “expert” in all of these areas. The current church I am part of (and which I love dearly) doesn’t have all these things down pat. But I think it’s quite possible to sense whether a body of believers desires and is striving to walk in these things – and that’s what’s important.
Lastly, I would encourage you not to judge a church by its musical worship style, sanctuary decorations, etc. These things are important to some, but they shouldn’t be a “make it or break it” for anyone. Try to look past the superficial things in the church building and service and look to the people. Look to the pastor, to the leaders, to the members. A church that embraces the Bible, preaches the gospel, loves its members, and loves its neighbors is all that you’re looking for. Pray for the Lord to give you wisdom and discernment. Pray that if there aren’t any red flags you will have a open and willing heart and mind to pursue the possibility of membership with that church.
If you have a testimony of how God has used the local church to minister to you, please feel free to share it in the comments section under this article. I really think that people reading this article who may be hesitant or even resistant to join a local church could be greatly benefited by your stories.