A few years ago as I was teaching from Acts 2-4, I, almost in passing, threw out some observations about what people should look for in a church. Not that these qualities are unimportant; rather, it wasn’t the bulls-eye target of the text that day. But it warranted a drive-by mentioning, so I generally lobbed these implicit church-trait observations into the laps of our people that day.
Know what I discovered in subsequent emails and conversations? It was one of the main things that stuck. Go figure.
So, here’s the same lob your way. I’m fully aware this isn’t exhaustive, and that some will disagree. But I find this textually-based approach refreshing in a day when lots of people use lists that have their basis in everything but Scripture.
Finally, I do see this simple list as prioritized, which not only makes it meaningful when you are looking for a church, but also quite helpful when you are thinking about leaving a church.
So what does Acts 2-4 implicitly teach about how to select a local spiritual family in which to grow strong? There are three main things you need to consider.
1. Content of the message (GOSPEL-CENTERED DOCTRINE) The Apostles were veracious cross-clingers. No amount of cultural pressure could hide their clear and compelling attachment to the work of Jesus, both his crucifixion and resurrection. So when they spoke, there was not even the slightest attempt to make what had just happened —the Gospel—palatable or politically correct. The Gospel is where they started, stayed, and ended. And everything else was built on that.
The point? Any church that seems ashamed or afraid of our core, central message—Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension—isn’t going to have the boldness or power to address anything else that matters either. So find out if they got the core right, and if they are unashamedly clinging to it.
2. Character of the leaders (SHEPHERD-LIKE AUTHORITY) Speaking truthfully, living authentically, witnessing boldly, enduring faithfully, giving selflessly … these were the traits of the leaders. They were the ones who first modeled what God showed us in Jesus, namely sacrificial leadership! They cared and they shared. It only makes sense, then, that the rest of assembly, for the most part, followed suit.
The point? If you’re not seeing the leaders lead, they’re probably not. Leadership leaves no doubt about what is expected, not because of what they say, but because of what they show. And it will be an environment of multiple leaders showing in a unified manner what it means to be part of that specific faith family. So look first at the leaders—do they model with grace and truth what they are mandating?
Here’s why this matters: hypocrisy hurts! You may think you can avoid collateral damage, or that it won’t affect you. But nothing is further from the truth. Atmospheres of selfish ambition and hidden hypocrisy end up costing everyone something. Much like a family where mom and dad pretend year after year—the kids aren’t at fault, but they usually end up absorbing some of the effects.
3. Conduct of the people (MISSION-DRIVEN BEHAVIOR) As the Gospel took root and the leaders modeled its effects, thousands followed in their footsteps. And they were footsteps molded around the mission of Jesus. And not only in the beginning when this meant sharing their stuff, but more so later when it meant moving their stuff. This “accidental” moving was exactly God’s upper-level strategy to get his followers out of Jerusalem and into the other parts of the world, living an on-mission life in a brand new place!
The point? Look for a body of believers characterized as catalysts, not consumers. Those who see themselves as part of a spiritual chain reaction empowered by the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the end of a pseudo-spiritual equation where they are the final product, are the kind of Great Commission people who will serve, relocate, adjust, sacrifice—even die—for the sake of the Name.