When is a church no longer a church? What if there are indeed some specific criteria that determine whether a church has lost the right to exist? They may be gatherings of people for fellowship, funds available to keep a building running, and a few people host a Sunday service, but are they really a church?
Just poking through Scripture I can find at least eight conditions to determine if a religious gathering is truly a church. If one of these items below is absent, the gathering might be a fellowship, club, group, or whatever you wish to call it, but it is certainly not a church. Gathering is not the requisite, mission is.
Here are eight questions to ask:
Does your church insist that Scripture is the ultimate authority? The early church, even without access to the New Testament, continually used the Old Testament to determine it morals and mission. Additionally, they used Old Testament passages to prove that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.
Does your church have leadership? I’m not talking about management here. I’m talking about someone (and some people) who are discerning God’s plan and getting people on that plan. To be a church is to be led, biblically. Many churches have different structures and governance, but it the end there is leadership. Scripture reveals all sort of names for leaders; elders, bishops, pastors, deacons, evangelists, prophets, and apostles. Scholars will never agree on what each of these terms mean, but they will agree that early churches had someone who worked to “equip believers/saints for ministry.”
Does your church preach? To be a church requires someone to preach. It need not necessarily be a pastor, but someone must speak the truth of Scripture. This exercise is for the exclusive purpose of allowing lost people hear the truth of the Gospel and have opportunity to respond. Preaching, from the word “proclaim” is something I understand differently from “teaching.” Preaching is the proclamation of the gospel, particularly emphasizing repentance.
Does your church teach? Beyond communication for evangelism, there must be the consistent and repetitive teaching of the Word in order to develop believers in to more disciplined Christ-followers. Some people call this discipleship, which is actually an incorrect use of the term. We used the phrase “evangelism and discipleship” as if they were two different occasions. This is not the case. Evangelism is discipleship. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples,” and then said, “teaching them to obey…” I would go as far as to suggest that discipling could actually occur for a season before someone is a convert – or is “evangelized.” Discipling involves teaching, but it also involves preaching. Both of these are part of the discipleship process and are essential is every church.
Does your church baptize people in water? Water baptism seems like a bizarre exercise in our Western culture. I am sure that there have been many pool lifeguards wondering if the groups they see dunking each other in the pool is borderline crazy. Yet, this ordinance is clear in Scripture and repeated hundreds of times. A church that does not baptism in/with water, allowing a person to make a public confession of having died and rose again with Christ, is simply not a church. What may appear as a silly inconvenient ritual is actually a demand of the New Testament.
Does your church participate in communion or the Lord’s Supper? New Testament communion services probably looked a lot different than modern ceremonies. When the early church ate together, they took a moment to reflect on the death of Christ by using the most common tabletop commodities – bread and wine. As Christ commanded participation in this ordinance He said, “Do in remembrance of me.” Every true church must practice this ritual.
Does your church contain a community of people who have determined to be accountable to one another out of love? The early church prayed for each other, taught each other, worshipped with each other, bore each other’s burdens, shared everything together, and disciplined each other. In fact, Paul demanded for early believers to gather together.
So far, your church probably meets the qualifications. But the next question is where many want-to-be churches fall short.
Is your church on a mission to work together to reach the lost? Token evangelism doesn’t count. To be a church, that church must be fully understood as a group of people who are not committed to “having good church” but to propagating the Gospel together as well as individuals. “The church is not the purpose or goal of the Gospel, but rather the instrument and witness of the Gospel.” (Darrell Guder) Evangelism is not just one of the things the church does; it is why the church exists! Any church that is not “missional” has lost its right to exist.
Perhaps all of this too basic of an explanation of what makes a church (little “c”) a church, but it’s a starting point. What do you think? Is your church a church? How can we make a church become a church?