America has approximately 180 denominations. Each was forged out of controversy at some point in its history. Each called on the Bible to mark out its position in the dispute that set them apart. So, which is the true interpretation?
One easy response to this confusion is to refuse to choose. This is happening among a growing number of people who reject any form of the institutional church in favor of doing what makes sense to them. In effect, intuitional religion is replacing institutional churches. In the process they are missing out on the richness of spiritual life formal churches can offer.
Another easy choice is made by those who stay with the church body they were raised in. They find that life satisfying, or at least satisfying enough to not leave. But such loyalty is declining rapidly, especially among young adults.
Here are some criteria I propose for choosing a specific church community. Look for one that takes the Word of God seriously and avoids unnecessary distractions. Look for a church culture that moves its doctrinal beliefs into action through its values and behavior. Avoid a congregation that has become mostly a social organization that respects holy words but does little to practice them. Look for a church that lets the Holy Spirit shape its ministries in new forms and directions, instead of looking mostly backward.
The following statement will offend many. Look for a church that is popular. They must be doing something right. But be sure its ministries are Word-based and Spirit-oriented. Remember the biblical truth that the Word of God is living and active, as will be churches that let this Word work its way out in their ministries.
Accept that most individuals can determine when and where they are being spiritually fed. In a word offensive to many, they are “consumers” now, and churches function in a “marketplace” of ideas. This is a huge cultural change that became dominant only in recent decades. Historic mainline churches based their authority on a top-down approach, applying their historic Confessions. The earliest Christian churches developed from the bottom up. Effective churches today are going back to the bottom-up approach, and the base is the informed spiritual consumer. Democracy is very important to Americans. Can democracy be trusted in church life, too?
To use yet another offensive word, churches are in “competition” with one another, and as in any competition, many are losing. Churches are dwindling and dying around us. “Pure doctrine” is a phrase in my heritage. That is not enough anymore. “Active doctrine” has become more important.
“Reliable” remains an important word in church life. Will a church’s teaching be reliable for living a fruitful life with God? Or is a congregation’s life together based on a fad that will fade. Historical roots remain important for passing the test of time. “Sustainable” is a popular word now. We know that many large and growing churches are built around the personality of the leader. Will the health of that church be sustainable after the leader moves on or, in too many cases, has a moral failure?
Ultimately church community, in general, has to turn into church community in specific. I am indebted to three such communities. One is The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that raised me and still supervises my ordained ministry. Important to me that with all the blogs I have written is that no one has raised a charge of heresy. The second is Fuller Theological Seminary, where I was a visible leader and professor. There I had my Evangelical outlook broadened and deepened in a life-changing way. The present is the congregation I have served now for thirty years. I am thankful for the lessons on church leadership I have learned and for the fellowship that sustains me.
May God bless you with a specific church fellowship that can sustain, enrich and help you grow in Christ-like living. Probably most controversial of what I am saying here is this encouragement. If you are not being fed well where you are, follow the Spirit and move on to a church community that feeds you better.
Does Your Church let the Holy Spirit shape its ministries in new forms and directions, instead of looking mostly backward?