NOTE: This article was written when I was a pastor of a church. Back then I titled it “Attending the Church that God Does.”
I would no longer state things as I have done so in this article, but I am publishing the article anyway for posterity. Also, whether you “attend” church or not, I do think that some of what is said in this article still applies for how best to follow Jesus into the world. It is important to know the Scriptures, be in fellowship with other believers, and maintain a spirit and attitude of prayer.
It is amazing what people look for in a church today. You have heard the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” but when it comes to churches, this is exactly what some people do. They pick a church based on what the building looks like, or how many people attend on a Sunday morning. Some people look at what kind of children’s programs a church has or how long the service is. The deciding factor for others is the kind of music the church sings – hymns, choruses, or a mixture of both – and what kind of instruments are used to accompany the singing. Many pick a church simply because of the denomination the church belongs to.
These are the most common ways of picking churches, but some have much stranger checklists. I once talked with a man who said he couldn’t come to our church because of the color of the carpet. Another lady said she had to leave a church because of another woman who attended there. One person left our church because we put up a book and literature table, another because we had a free coffee and snack table in the foyer before the service.
When you set out to pick a church, what is on your mental checklist? What do you look for in a church? Whatever is on your list, we should look for the things God looks for. We should ask ourselves, “If God lived in this town, which church would He attend?” I have been in enough churches over the years to know that while God is everywhere, He is not active everywhere. There are some places where His work is quenched or stifled. There are others where God is simply not welcome. He stands at the door and knocks, but is not invited in. He doesn’t fit in with the human agendas and human plans that have priority. So while God is present in these churches, He is not actively at work there. We could say that He does not “attend” these churches.
So what kind of church does God attend? Well, there are at least two ways of answering this question. First of all, we can look at what kind of fellowship Christ attended when He walked this earth. The church as we know it did not begin until after Christ returned to heaven. But based on the kind of gatherings Christ regularly attended, we can get clues about which gathering He would attend if He lived in our town.
Second, we can look at God’s instructions in His Word about what the church should focus on and emphasize. We can be certain that God is mainly at work in those gatherings of believers that obey His Word and follow His instructions. If we refuse to do what He says in His Word, then He will refuse to be at work in our presence.
Once we have considered both of these, we will be well prepared to pick a church that is pleasing to God and attend the church that God does. Let’s look first at the kind of gathering that Jesus attended.
How to Pick a Church Like Jesus
The word “church” in the Greek is ekklesia, and it simply means “gathering.” So while the “church” as it is today did not begin until Acts 2, we can say that throughout the history of God’s people, there have been local gatherings of believers to accomplish God’s will in their lives and communities. This was especially true during the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The local gatherings in that time were called “synagogues.”
Most people don’t realize that during Christ’s life, week in and week out, He could be found every Sabbath in the synagogue. When He was younger, He attended to learn and be instructed. When He was older, He went to teach and instruct. Most people seem to think that Jesus just wandered about the countryside preaching on mountaintops and along riverbanks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though He did do some of this, His normal pattern of ministry was to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This is attested to frequently in the Gospels. Luke 4:16 says that going to the synagogue on the Sabbath was His custom (cf. Luke 4:31; 6:6). They synagogue was the gathering of believers that Jesus attended every week of His life. So the question is, what took place at the synagogue? What did these gatherings look like?
Well there was pretty much only one purpose of the synagogue gatherings: to instruct those who came about the Word of God. The goal and purpose of the synagogue was to teach the entire counsel of God to the believer. The emphasis was the Bible. The focus was the believer. They emphasized the Bible by making it central to all that they did. And rather than focus on entertaining or befriending the unbeliever, they focused on educating and training the believer.
Now certainly, there were some unbelievers present. There were people who needed counseling or healing (Luke 6:6) and there was the occasional demon possessed person (Luke 4:33). And when these needs arose in Jesus’ ministry, He dealt with them. But these were not the normal practice of the Sabbath day gatherings. The single purpose and goal of attending the synagogue was to teach the Word of God to the people of God.
And the way they did this was logical and simple. The Sabbath days were mainly devoted to teaching the Pentateuch, which consists of the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The goal was to teach through the Pentateuch every three and a half years. Toward this end, on any given Sabbath, they would have at least seven different sermons based on a verse by verse, chapter by chapter explanation the text.
Each sermon was generally taught by a different teacher if enough were available. The sermons could vary in length, but it is unlikely that any were less than half an hour. The teacher, when his turn came, would turn in the scroll to the text He had been assigned, would stand up and read the text, then sit down and explain the text. He would explain what it says. He would explain what it meant. Then He would explain how to apply the text. When He was done, they would allow a brief time for questions and comments, and then would move promptly on to the next sermon for the day.
Now you can imagine that this would take up most of the day – and it did! They may take a break for meals or to fellowship between sermons, but they would spend the majority of the daylight hours under the instruction of the Bible. And they all loved it, because they were receiving what they could not get anywhere else – the Word of God. In fact, they loved it so much, if they got done with their seven Pentateuch sermons early, they would clamor for an encore. They would ask if any of the teachers present (they were called Rabbis) wanted to give another sermon. If one was willing and able, he could teach from any portion of Scripture – not just the Pentateuch. This is why Jesus is teaching from Isaiah in Luke 4:17.
But aside from these Sabbath day sermons, those who were able would also gather on Mondays and Thursdays for instruction in the rest of the Bible. Since the Sabbath was devoted to teaching through the Pentateuch, Mondays and Thursdays were for teaching through the rest of the Old Testament.
The emphasis at the synagogues then was to teach through the Bible. But didn’t they do anything else? Well, yes. It was already mentioned that they may have had times of fellowship in between sermons or over a noon meal. Aside from this, the only other thing they did was pray. Every Sabbath gathering always began with a significant time of praying to God. They praised Him for who He was. They thanked Him for all He had done. They expressed gratitude for the gifts He had given them. They offered their prayers and petitions to Him. And they requested that through His Word, He would teach, instruct and train them, and correct or rebuke them if necessary.
Though singing may have occasionally been part of these gatherings, it is so infrequently mentioned in the histories and documents of that time, that it must have only played a very minor role in the synagogues. It is, however, mentioned very frequently in reference to personal worship at home, while traveling on the road, during times of celebration and festivities, or as part of the temple worship. But they did very little singing (if any) in the actual gathering at the synagogue.
So what kind of gathering did Jesus attend? He went to a place where people prayed, fellowshipped, and the Word of God was taught straight through, verse by verse, chapter by chapter. That was Christ’s checklist. Let’s turn now to look at God’s instructions for what the church should emphasize and focus on.
How to Pick a Church like God
It should not surprise us that Christ’s checklist is an identical match with God’s. The kind of gathering that Jesus attended during His ministry is right in line with God’s instructions. Though these instructions are found everywhere in the Bible, one verse that brings them all together is Acts 2:42. We read there that the early church continually devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to the breaking of bread and fellowship, and to prayer.
The apostles of the early church, who were taught by Christ and inspired by God, organized the church to primarily focus on three things: teaching, fellowship and prayer. Now, this is a description of what the early church did, but does God actually command that these should be the emphasis and focus of every church? Yes, He does. Aside from the many other examples of God blessing people and ministries who focused on these three things, we can find very clear statements in Scripture that this is what God wants His people to do.
One of the many places to see this is Paul’s inspired instructions to Timothy on what to focus on in his church. There are numerous commands in Paul’s two letters to Timothy, but three of them are repeated frequently. First, Paul tells Timothy to, above all, preach and teach the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:1-2; cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-5; 1:18-19; 4:1-6; 4:12-14; 5:24-6:6; 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 1:12-14; 2:2; 2:15; 2:24-26; 3:1-17). It is emphasized so frequently, it is impossible to miss what God wanted Paul to tell Timothy. Every pastor and every church must emphasize the teaching of the Bible. Paul also mentions prayer (1 Tim. 2:1-8) and fellowship (1 Tim. 4:12; 5:1-16), but the emphasis is on the Word.
We could go to passage after passage, verse after verse to show that these are the three things God wants in His church. You see, it’s all about communication. Marriage books say that communication is the key to a good marriage. Well, communication is also the key to a good church. God communicates with us through His Word. We communicate with Him through prayer. And we communicate with each other through fellowship. Do you want to attend a church where God is at work? Go to one that preaches God’s Word, prays and fellowships.
How You Can Pick a Church
What do you look for in a church? If you are struggling in your Christian walk, it may be due to a failure to attend a church where these things are emphasized. Similarly, a church that is struggling generally is neglecting one or more of these three foundational ministries. Even churches that seem to be doing well, if they are neglecting these three priorities, are not “doing well” in God’s eyes.
So do you want to go to a church that God goes to? Look for three basic elements. First, look for strong Biblical preaching and teaching. This means that when the church meets, the majority of the time in these meetings is spent in the Word of God, explaining and applying it.
Be very careful and picky about this. If God thinks His Word is important, we cannot settle for “close enough.” You see, most churches today claim to be centered on the Word, but are really centered on music, entertainment, or cute illustrations and humorous jokes from the pulpit. A church that is centered on the Word will spend time in the Word, preaching, teaching, and explaining the Word. The pastor will read the text, explain the text and apply the text.
This time in the Word will also take up more than fifty percent of the time spent at church. While it is not possible in most situations to sit all day in church and listen to seven sermons, we can give the majority of our time in church to the study of God’s Word.
It seems that the best way to do this is to teach the Word as God wrote the Word – verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book. This is the logical way to read or study any book; the Bible should be no different. You must pick a church where God’s Word is heard.
Second, look for a church that fellowships together. Try to determine how warm, loving and accepting the church is toward you and toward one another. Try to determine if people have each other over in their homes for meals and love spending time with one another. Determining this will often take more than one visit.
Finally, see if there is a concerted effort to bring people together for prayer. See if the church even has a prayer meeting. There are some who say that the spiritual temperature of a church can be measured by how many attend the prayer meeting.
Bible teaching, fellowship and prayer. These are the three basic elements to the church. The three things God wants done in every church. The three things Christ would look for if He was picking a church. I would encourage you to clear your checklist of everything that used to be on it, and put these three right at the top. When you attend a church like this, you will be attending a church that God does.