Americans love to shop. They are constantly in search of a good deal, whether for a new pair of socks or a new family automobile. Americans even shop for a church home with the savvy of wise consumers. To listen to church visitors, it seems that Christians are set on what they want: it might be an up-beat worship style for some, a large youth program for others, and still others yearn for a family-friendly atmosphere to help them cope with the challenges of modern times. Many people today claim to be on the lookout for “authentic” worship or a “meaningful” experience. Yet at the rate at which people are constantly changing churches, it would appear that many Christians are dissatisfied customers who can never seem to find what they are looking for. Perhaps they are searching for the wrong things.
The Reformed tradition invites Christians to look for a church by raising a different question, what is a true church? According to the Westminster Confession, churches … “are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (WCF 15:4). Three features characterize a true church:
- The doctrine of the gospel taught and embraced;
- The ordinances (preaching, sacraments and prayer) administered;
- The purity of public worship.
Nothing is more important to a church than its stance on the gospel. Scripture teaches that there is only one gospel (Gal. 1:8-9). The clear message of that gospel is that “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21). The believer is justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. We receive that by faith alone. If this gospel is compromised in the church, then the church’s purity is clearly compromised as well.
The Means of Grace
God has not left us on our own to cope with the struggles in our lives. He has richly blessed us in ways to grow in faith:
Preaching: Scripture teaches that preaching should reflect upon who God is and what God has done for us. This is the way preaching begins in the Old Testament and in the new. The gospel (God becoming man to die and rise from the dead) on our behalf is the most glorious expression of this. In response, we are to believe and obey God’s word. Preaching that that only emphasizes part of this is less than biblical preaching.
Sacraments: Scripture teaches that the sacraments are God-given signs and seals of the covenant, intended to remind us of the promises of God, and of our communion with him and with one another. These are often down-played in the church as being mere traditions. A faithful church should seek to administer the sacraments faithfully and regularly.
Prayer: Scripture teaches that prayer is one of those ways in which God humbles us and conforms our will to his. It is a beautiful way of expressing our dependence upon God and our trust in him. Scripture also commands it, and gives guidelines for how it should be employed corporately. A faithful church should be a praying church.
Ironically, the one thing that all Christians will be doing together in heaven is the one thing that so divides us on the earth. This happens because we let our preferences dictate our expectations of worship instead of letting God direct us by his word. Worship discussions rarely take place with Bibles open, and for this reason much of what is intended to please God, in the end only pleases us. A church’s worship should be measured with Scripture, not our cultural preferences. Scripture determines what is more or less pure, and therefore, more or less pleasing to God.
The purity of the church is viewed through the lenses of faithfulness in preaching, administration of the sacrament, and the propriety of worship. What each of these statements assumes is that scripture defines how these categories are to be evaluated. Such a view echoes the heart of the Reformation, sola scriptura or “the Bible alone.” In other words, God himself has directed the church in these areas, and the faithfulness of church should be measured foremost by the church’s adherence to scripture in them.
Perhaps, then, as you conduct your search of a church you might ask questions about these issues. Why does this pastor preach in this way? Why does that church administer the sacraments the way it does? Why do they pray that way? Why does it worship in this way? Of course, the goal of your search is spiritual maturity, servanthood, and fellowship. It is our true prayer and hope that the right appreciation of the means of grace will cause you to abound in these and the other things that God calls his church to embody.
Choosing a church is a difficult and sensitive issue; it should be. Once the decision is made, we take vows of faithfulness that reflect the serious nature of our commitment to the church and the church to us. To the extent that you understand the beauty of the Reformed faith, you will be able to appreciate some of the distinctive features of Reformed churches. There is a good reason why some of our practices may seem a bit different from those of other churches that you have experienced.
We invite you to talk with us about our church as you prayerfully decide where you and your family will worship and serve. May God bless you and lead you according to his Word and Spirit.