“Church shopping” is such a crass term but unless you still go to the church where you did Bible drills at AWANA you have looked for a new church community. What criteria did you use to make that choice? Maybe right now you are searching for a community to belong to and wondering the same thing.
The last time my wife and I “shopped” for a new church we took the decidedly unscientific “we’ll know it when we see it” approach. Each week was a nerve-wrecking gamble. Plus, we had a new element: children old enough to have opinions.
One church visit lives in infamy in our house. When we picked up the kids (about 6 and 8 at the time) they came running full speed toward us. We could barely contain our curiosity until we reached the car. Turns out they played so much Bible hangman that they couldn’t wait to get out of there. Guess how many times we went back.
There has to be a better way.
Acts 2 is a kind of golden age for the church. Everything was still new and not yet institutionalized. Is there anything from that time that we could apply to our church searches?
While no church will be perfect – we are dealing people – great church communities have certain traits in common.
Here are seven characteristics of the healthy church community from Acts 2:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The Acts 2 church devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. I imagine the Apostles sharing things Jesus taught them. At this time the church was still primarily Jewish so it stands to reason that their teaching resembled the conversation on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35 about how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures.
How do you tell a Bible-teaching church today? Three questions to ask about teaching:
- Is Scripture valued? It’s hard to tell from one service or sermon but you want to see that Scripture is read, preached, and applied in multiple contexts. A Scripture-valuing church will usually pepper passages throughout a service, for example.
- What does the Bible reveal to this church? You can tell a lot about a person’s spiritual maturity by what they believe the Bible reveals. To some, the Bible is a constant drumbeat of rules and lifestyle judgments. If you get this impression run and do not feel bad about it. You want a church that sees in the pages of the Bible a glorious God revealed and responds to Him. The difference is night and day.
- Is Jesus preached? Jesus is the one thing all believers have in common. Everything leads back to Him and so should sermons, Sunday School lessons, worship in song, etc.
The second thing the early church devoted themselves to was fellowship. The word here is one you may have heard before: koinonia. The root of the word means “common” which is why they “had everything in common.” Deep and genuine fellowship is a sign of a community you want to belong to.
Here are three questions to ask as you look for fellowship in a church:
- Do people have the courage to be vulnerable? Deep relationships cannot be developed without someone willing to share their struggles. In a church culture that values looking like everything is okay this can be difficult to find but it’s out there. You see this kind of vulnerability in the church’s shared activities like prayer and meeting one another’s needs.
- Do people demonstrate genuine concern for others? Fellowship looks outward to see how others need help. In the Kingdom of God we are no longer self-protecting but others-protecting.
- Do people seem to feel like they have a personal stake in the ministry of the church? When people feel empowered to use their gifts to help others and share in the ministry of a church great things happen.
Breaking of Bread
Third, the early church spent time together eating. Yes, the church potluck might be the longest-running church tradition. But there is more than just deviled-eggs and German chocolate cake on the line here. A church that eats together demonstrates uncommon unity. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to eat next to someone you are fighting with?
Two questions to ask about breaking of bread:
- Does the church feel like family when they eat together? You can find this in churches of all sizes. During our search, we knew we found the right place when there was a potluck the first Sunday we visited. We did not stay but felt like we could. It felt homey and comfortable.
- How does the church handle conflict? Talk to leaders and ask how they handle conflict. I guarantee anyone who leads for any significant period of time has dealt with conflict. Do they ignore it and hope it goes away? Do they address concerns immediately? Is restoration the goal always? These questions will tell you much about a leader’s commitment to unity.
The early church spent time together in prayer which meant both formal occasions at the temple (Acts 3:1) and times of intercession asking God to do things like release Peter from prison (Acts 12:12). A community’s prayer will reveal much about its depth with the Lord.
Questions to consider:
- Does this community pray for one another? Interceding before God for needs of others demonstrates both an awareness of the need and faith in God to intervene.
- How do they move beyond intercession? Prayer is much more than simply asking God for things although it is that. A thriving spiritual community will have at least a few people who listen in prayer. A great one may even do so in a service.
Meeting of Tangible Needs
One of the more fascinating aspects of the early church is the selflessness with which they treated possessions. They were no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things but rather with meeting the needs of others where they could.
How to gauge the meeting of tangible needs:
- How does the church meet needs in the community? Do they offer a food bank, clothing store, or help with a benevolence fund? Does the church rally around people who have sudden (or even long-term) needs? In action, this means taking meals to people who lose loved ones, helping the homeless, and going to pray with people when they need it.
- Does God seem to be working here? I include in this section the miracles the Apostles were doing. Not only were people giving of what they had but God was meeting needs as well. Not every church will have a miracle worker (I don’t think I’ve gone to one that did!) but God seems to do amazing things with people who trust Him. Usually there will be a story or two that reminds you God is alive and active in this church. Find those stories and you will learn much about the church.
Worship is always the result of seeing God at work both in the miraculous and the hearts of people around you. The early Christians were no different. They thanked God for everything He had done for them. In a world before formalized church services the church praised God in everything.
Questions to help evaluate worship:
- Is worship an attitude or a section of the service? In the days of the “worship wars” some have the impression that worship is the singing part of church. Praising God is an attitude of joy no matter the style of music used to express it. Look for joy.
- Does worship go beyond Sunday morning? You want to know and live your Christian life with people who honor God with their entire lives not merely Sunday morning. Look for people who genuinely praise God regardless of their circumstances.
Finally, God added to their number daily. The Acts 2 church still had no outreach program, no missions budget, and no training on how to “win souls.” The community was simply attractive. People could see that God was working and wanted to be part of it. Luke puts the credit for growth squarely on God not on the people’s ability.
- Does God seem to be attracting people to this ministry? Notice where people are coming from as a church grows. Look for diversity of reasons people are joining the church. If no one is “being saved,” but people are transferring from other churches you want to ask why. One is not necessarily better than the other. Churches go through cycles. But ask the question and evaluate.
- Is there a developed mission program? The early church probably did not have their mission strategy written on papyrus but I’m sure that everyone in church could have told you why their diverse community held together. They were about sharing the good news of Jesus. A church with a plan in writing will have thought through a mission strategy and be positioned well to accomplish it. Not a deal breaker but an impressive addition if it exists.
- How does the church interact with the community? You want to know how the church relates to the community around them. Would anyone miss them if they were gone? If yes, you found a good one.
So there you have it: seven characteristics of healthy churches. No church will have everything you are looking for so I encourage you to make your own list. You might want to rank these seven ideas in order of what is most important to you. Be smart and open and I know you’ll find a community you can belong to.