In many cities of the Western world, selecting a church can be like shopping for clothes in the defect factory store. You know you need to wear clothes, but every item you try has some spot, snag, or run that catches you eye. You simply have to settle for the one that has the most bearable flaw. Please don’t take my candor for cynicism. I’ve loved all three local churches I’ve been a member of, but was not caught off-guard by discovering their inevitable imperfections.
But what we need to realize is that some unpleasantness inherent to a healthy local church is NOT an imperfection, but a necessary attribute of faithfulness. In some pills it is the active ingredients that make it taste bitter. Here are four bitter pills that you may prefer to avoid swallowing, but should view as a sign that you’ve found a good church home. In fact if all four of these “unpleasantries” were absent it would indicate you’ve stumbled into a dangerously inept church.
Healthy churches tend to…
1. Downplay the importance of your personal preference.
I’m not saying that a healthy church is one whose leadership refuses to listen to feedback. But, if after careful consideration, the church leaders decide not to accommodate the preferences you harbor that are not mandated in Scripture, you should thank them and decide to commit. A church that panders to the tastes and trends that swell numbers, is a church that has lost its bearing on their biblical mandate: please God, not man. When people are pleased by the work of the church, that’s a purely incidental bonus; it is not the purpose of the leadership to seek out that approval.
Feedback you should hope the leaders roll their eyes at include:
- your preference for rap music (God gave you an iPod so you can listen to Lecrae on the way to church and back, but in the pew you are there to please God and love your neighbor)
- your suggestion for adding/subtracting the amount of humor/stories/yelling/application in the preaching (God gifts preachers in different ways, and if they preacher is doing his best to be faithful to the word, that should be enough for you; don’t tweak his preaching to tickle the part of your ear that is itching).
- your taste in wall art or pew cushion color
- your request for filter coffee to replace the instant junk they serve (it might elude you that some churches prefer spending money on missions rather than cappuccino, but that is why you just need to trust that the elders will be held accountable by God at the Bēma Seat for the beverages they offered).
2. Preach sermons that frequently make you uncomfortable.
I know what it’s like to feel like the preacher went through my trash or heard me sleep-talking, and is now crafting a sermon around my personal struggles, fears, and temptations. I know what it’s like to squirm in my pew for 45 minutes while the pastor sends jolts of conviction into my heart like a trigger-happy medic with a new defibrillator.
But the solution is not to leave the church and find a place that only ever tries to make me feel warm and fuzzy encouragement. (Footnote: If a pulpit is devoid of all encouragement, that is a yellow flag indeed, but even encouraging sermons can have moments of conviction in them it as well).
3. Insist on formal membership before letting you serve.
Some people get all in a huff when they offer to serve on the sound desk or play in the band, only to be kindly informed that they first need to attend a membership class. This may seem like red tape to an immature believer, but a church that lets you serve (especially in a public ministry like singing upfront) without first bothering to ask if you are a Christian, baptised, and in general agreement with what is taught, is a church that is being flippant with a massive responsibility.
In Hebrews 13:17 we are reminded that the leaders of a church will be held accountable for the souls in their care. It is reasonable for those leaders to implement a formal process that attempts to discern if people joining the church are believers who commit to attend, give, serve, and submit. It may be a bitter little pill to swallow for some, but formal membership is essential to guarding the health of the church body.
4. Be willing to ask you to leave.
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus taught the process of patient, loving, but firm church discipline. Discipline, when done with a loving motive of restoration of a repentant sinner is a sign that the church is willing to do the difficult job of guarding its own purity from the infection of unrepentant sin (See also Titus 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 5 for some pretty hard core applications of this instruction).
One of the first questions you should ask the leadership of a church you are considering membership at, is what they would do if you were caught in sin. If they jump to the final step without the patient, loving part… yes, that’s a yellow flag that they may lack grace. But if the church will stop short of the final step, even in the bald-faced defiance of unrepentant sin, that is a disqualifying red flag.
I’m not saying all good churches leave a constant bitter taste lingering on your palette. But if you find these attitudes to be too bitter to swallow, perhaps its time to consider whether you’re looking for a biblical, healthy church that please Jesus, or if you are looking for a social club focussed on keeping its clientele comfortable.
What other bitter pills are necessary to keep us spiritually healthy?