Friends, I don’t know about you, but my gut tells me something big is going to happen in the next couple of months. Regardless of whether it is some sort of attack or an economic crash (or both), millions of people will find themselves without hope and desperate. In my book Rude Awakening, I describe how most of us in the United States seem to be serving the gods of comfort, convenience, and control. What happens when all three of those are gone? It’s time to not only examine our hearts but also consider our associations. Now more than ever it is vital that we get before God and let him cleanse our hearts. In addition to our inward repentance, we also need an outward support system. The following is an excerpt from my book which goes into the importance of finding a great church.
A Place to Call Home
So far we have focused on five areas vital to not simply surviving as a Christian but thriving. Those five are:
- Obtaining access to God through the blood of Jesus
- Getting to know God through reading and speaking His Word
- Praying higher levels of prayer
- Worshipping God in spirit and in truth
- Receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit and yielding to His leading
Technically, we can do all the above without any help from any ministers. So we can probably be the best Christians we can be simply by relying on our personal pursuit of God and the help of the Holy Spirit, right? No, friends, that is not the way God set things up.
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11–12).
Simply put, if there were not a need for all five branches of ministry gifting, there would be no reason to have them. Pastors have a special equipping to be shepherds and overseers, nurturing those who are under their care. God has set pastors up in their respective churches and given them spiritual authority to lead, feed their congregations, foster the members’ spiritual growth, and equip them for works of service. That was God’s design, not the design of man. Granted, there are pastors who were never really called by God to be pastors. However, the office of pastor was God’s plan, so when you choose not to attend and get involved in a church, you are attempting to skirt God’s plan. You are basically saying to God, “God, I know You set this system up for my benefit, but I think I know better than You. I really don’t think I need it. I can do this Christian thing on my own.” Is that really what you want to say to your Creator? Admittedly, there are thousands of churches whose pastors/leaders have succumbed to pressure from their peers or pressure from society, watered down the message of Jesus, and implemented programs that glorify people rather than glorifying God. This is sad, yes, but it is absolutely not an excuse to stop looking for a church that has stayed true to course!
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching (Heb. 10:24–25).
Many people have quit attending church because they decided to watch church on television or the web. If someone simply cannot attend church due to physical reasons, then yes, that may be a legitimate alternative. However, many able-bodied Christians have chosen convenience over commitment. After all, if you watch online, you do not have to shower or get dressed, you can avoid the travel time, and you can watch the pregame shows on a nearby TV. What a deal, right?
It is convenient, yes, but it is also very expensive in terms of your spiritual health. If you make your decisions based on convenience, you will be an easy target for the enemy. You need to find a church that preaches the uncompromised Word of God and plug in, not just as an attendee but also as a volunteer. Your attendance and involvement at church actually fits into both the “loving upward” and the “loving outward” categories. Sitting under the anointed teaching of your pastor will facilitate a deeper relationship with God, while being involved will also give you ample opportunity to show love to others by helping and encouraging them. We will cover the loving outward part in chapter 7. Here, we will briefly cover the benefits of being in church and then go into the importance of being in the right church.
- At your local church, you will position yourself under a spiritual father, someone who is accountable to God for you and someone to whom you are accountable. Obviously you need to find a pastor who takes that accountability very seriously and corrects you (or the congregation as a whole) when necessary.
- At your local church, there is a corporate anointing over the worship that is offered to God and the word that is delivered from God.
- At your local church, you will build lasting relationships with people who will (or should) help support you in trying times.
- At your local church, you will be reminded that you are not in this alone—that many others are experiencing the same trials and temptations that you are.
- When you tithe to your local church (where God wants the tithe) and invest time volunteering, you will be positioning yourself to receive blessings from God because you are blessing others.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. While some preachers and teachers on television are great, even they cannot and should not take the place of your local pastor.
What to Look for in a Church
When you look for a church, it is very much like a period of dating. There are many qualities for which you should be looking to determine if a long-term relationship is possible. Just one date (visit) is usually not enough. In addition, before you even start looking for a church, you need to have a clear-cut set of criteria by which will you determine whether a long-term commitment is even on the table. At the very least (the following is not an exhaustive list by any means), you should look for a church where the answer is yes for each of the following questions. In fact, you could apply these questions to any minister (teacher, evangelist, etc.):
1. Do they teach that the only way to God is through the redemptive blood of Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, who died on the cross for us and rose again, achieving victory over sin and death?
2. Do they teach about Hell, expose sin for what it is, and establish the need for true repentance when we come to Christ, or do they seem to imply that a simple prayer is all you need.
3. Does their teaching move people to seek God’s heart first (intimacy) rather than seeking only His hand (His blessings)?
4. Does their teaching motivate people to truly love others as they love themselves? (We will cover what each means in the next two sections of this book.)
The questions above represent core principles of the Christian faith, yet there are many ministers, even well-known ministers, who have abandoned one or more of these principles and are teaching things that are more palatable to the world. Friends, run from those “ministers” because it is likely they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They may not appear to be wolves in their demeanor. In fact, they may be kind-hearted, care for others, and know the Bible like the back of their hands, but that does not mean they are not wolves. Remember, the devil quoted the Word when tempting Jesus. I am convinced that most preachers who are wolves do not even realize the enemy is using them. We will dig deeper into this later, but for now, if you are looking for a church and could not answer yes to all four of the previous questions, keep looking. Even when you do find a church that qualifies with four yes answers, you may want to consider three additional questions:
5. Do they teach about the baptism of the Holy Spirit and our need to foster a spiritual environment in our lives where the Holy Spirit can operate in and through us in an ever-increasing way?
6. Does their teaching hurt at times, in a good way, meaning that it is hard for the flesh but good for the spirit, or is the teaching always “feel good” in nature?
7. Do they reach out to the community on a regular basis?
I would like to point out some questions that are purposefully not listed here: How cool is the pastor? How contemporary or edgy is the music? How fancy is the building? How impressive are the graphics, videos, or other media? Bottom line, those areas do not matter in the end. What matters is the extent to which you will grow spiritually if you attend the church. I believe a wonderful example of a church that totally fits the list of seven items I listed and does not bother with the superficial items is Times Square Church in Manhattan, founded by David Wilkerson. Years ago, when Rev. Wilkerson began his ministry to street gangs in New York City, he did not try to be “down” with the gang members by attempting to talk like them or dress like them. If he had, he most likely would have been killed. Rather, he simply loved them. He was (and his ministry still is) a world changer, and the “coolness factor” was not part of his arsenal; he relied on lifting up Jesus rather than himself.
There are probably more questions to consider when looking for a church than the seven I listed, but let’s move on. Once you believe you have found the church where God wants you to plug in, treat that relationship like a marriage. Be committed, be supportive, be quick to serve, and be a giver rather than a taker. There are millions of people who go to church as a spectator rather than a participant. Know that your home church will in many ways be like the people you live with at home. You will get out of it what you put into it. And just to prepare you, there will be times when someone will say something that will hurt you or offend you because we are all human. My wife and I have unintentionally said and done things that have hurt, offended, or frustrated the other, but guess what? We are still married. Because we all are human, it would be impossible to be in a marriage relationship without some bumps in the road now and then. That is part of life. We must have tough skin and tender hearts, not the other way around.
You may be thinking, Mark, I agree with you that we should be in church, and I go to a church where the answer is yes to all of the questions you asked. The problem is, I am bored with it. It just is not satisfying to me. What do I do? I have been there, and I understand. I will pose several questions to you now:
- Are you spending quality time in the Word on a daily basis?
- Do you take some time every day to intercede for others?
- Do you set aside time each day to praise and worship God in a focused, fervent way (you are doing nothing else)?
- Are you witnessing to others about what Jesus has done for them?
- Are you ministering to the needy in your community?
- Are you going to church looking for someone you can encourage?
- Are you tithing and volunteering at your church?
There are two points I am trying to make with the above questions, and I have fallen prey to both situations. First, church was never meant to be a replacement for your own passionate pursuit of God; it was meant to enhance it. If you are looking for church to pull you out of the state you got yourself in by being undisciplined and lazy in your personal walk with God, most of the time you will be disappointed (though occasionally God will come through out of His mercy). Pastors are there to encourage you in your walk, not carry you so you will not have to walk.
Second, maybe there is not enough of an outflow in your life outside of church (or even inside church). Maybe you are not getting anything in from your church because you are not giving anything out. If your answer was yes to all the above questions, then ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you what is going on. It is possible that you are carrying hurts or offenses that are short-circuiting your ability to receive. It is also possible that your pastor is going through some struggles. Have you interceded for him lately? Have you encouraged him? Have you thanked him for sowing into your life?
Maybe you left a church for a completely legitimate reason and have decided to take a break from church altogether. Please, for your own good and the good of all those God wants you to touch, plug back in somewhere. You simply cannot be and do all God has called you to be and do without the covering and support of a local church.
I was talking with a friend several years ago, and she happened to mention that she had terrible credit. When I asked her why, she said that she had gotten mad at her phone company, so she simply stopped paying her phone bills. I was dumbfounded and patiently explained, “Did you really think that would hurt them? It hurt you much, much more!” I further explained that if she really wanted revenge, the best avenue would have been to pay the outstanding balance, switch companies, and then tell all her friends, family, and coworkers how great the new company was. Word would get out, and especially with social networking, positive referrals can spread like wildfire.
You might have laughed when I mentioned what my friend did, but if you have quit church altogether because of one or more bad experiences, you are following the same logic. A much-better route would be to find a better church and tell everyone about it. A word of warning here: It is okay to talk up a church you like, but do not speak against a church that you don’t. How do you know you were not part, or all, of the problem? As we continue in this book, we will approach some difficult questions that may expose hidden selfishness in our lives. Because you could possibly hold some of the blame, do not tarnish the reputation of your former church or pastor. We will address that later in the book as well. For now, realize that God created the role of a pastor, so your involvement at a local church is absolutely, positively part of His plan for your life.
If you’ve read my book, you know that I place a heavy emphasis on fostering unity amongst Christians (aka the Body of Christ). The last thing I would want to do is plug a particular denomination because of the possibility of alienating people who didn’t subscribe to that particular set of doctrinal beliefs. However, I will say that I recently read the book Assemblies of God: History, Missions, and Governance and gleaned valuable insight from it. Consider the following:
The Assemblies of God was founded to be a missionary agency rather than an institution. It is a cooperative fellowship. This means it has the strength that comes in numbers (unlike a single, non-denominational church entity) yet it doesn’t have the top-down governance like many other denominations. I think about it this way: an institution sits while a missionary agency moves. The former is passive, the latter is active. The former rests on doctrine, the latter carries doctrine into experience.
I remember my high school football coach describing how I should run with the ball. “You don’t want to slow down and raise up when you’re about to be hit. Not only will you be tackled, it’s a good way to get hurt. Stay low, speed up, and hit your would-be-tackler harder than he’s hitting you. That’s how you break through. Make him remember you.” Of course, I also was aware of the importance of having teammates around to block opponents, encourage me as needed, and celebrate victories with me.
Maybe it’s time to find some good teammates. Maybe it’s time to get back to church. Maybe, soon, we’ll need a good support system.