Columns, Features, Preaching
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Am I Attending the Right Church?

[Editor’s note: The following letter and reply have been made anonymous and published with permission.]

Hey Zach, 

I hope all is well with you and your family! It’s great following along with your progression in the ministry. I appreciate all of your posts religious/political (I’m an avid WSJ reader) and am hoping you’d take time to provide some advice. I’d like to know your thoughts on how to know if my family is at the right church. 

When my wife and I moved to town, we started attending Church of the Highlands. We were immediately enthralled with the Hillsong-Esque worship and the welcoming feel. We’ve become connected and made friends, especially my wife, but I can’t shake some feelings I have.

The church espouses a lot of Christ-centered teaching, but the sermons are always “topical”, which I’m not crazy about. There is usually a theme verse, a few bullet points, and bible verses to go along with each bullet point. I just get the feeling that this is not the way God intended for the Bible to be taught. My wife would disagree with me, but I feel like I’m at a church that’s a class on Christianity 101, which I know is intentional so to be accessible. The big downside is that I feel that biblical literacy gets left out.

 Since our boy was born, I keep thinking about the importance of being involved in the right church. I want to be sure our kids grow up in a church that will provide the most spiritual development and biblical literacy. I know a lot has to come from home, but don’t want the sole source to come from us. 

I could say a lot more about Highlands, but I’m assuming you’re somewhat familiar with it or churches like it. This is something I’ve been praying about for a while and I hope I’ve explained my situation. Thanks in advance.

***

Friend,

Thank you for your kind words. I remember our time working together in ministry fondly. Those were sweet times.

Thanks for trusting me with such an important question: is my family at “the right church”? I believe there is no question of greater importance for a husband and father to settle.

I have never been to Church of the Highlands, but I am familiar with it. My wife attended for a year in college just before we started dating, so I have some second-hand knowledge. That said, I hope to answer in such a way that transcends whether Highlands itself is the right church for you and your family.

I know you’ll agree with this statement, so it’s going to be our starting point: more important than a church being a “right church” is that it must be a true church. Any church that is a “true church” can become the “right church” for you, even if it isn’t right in the beginning.

I agree with this confession: A true church “can be recognized if it has the following marks: (1) The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; (2) it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; (3) it practices church discipline for correcting faults.”1The Belgic Confession, Article 29 I think as I explain each of these points you can see why they are critical.

First, a church cannot be a true church if it does not engage in the pure preaching of the gospel. To be clear, my aim is not to evaluate whether Highlands engages in pure preaching. I only want to cast your vision towards the ideal, and then call you to assess whether Highlands meets or falls short of it. Your concern for expository, or verse-by-verse, preaching is commendable, and I believe that dedicating ourselves to the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42) means that we must discipline ourselves to swim in the text of Scripture. We’d both agree that we could talk about the ocean, get in a boat and sail across a bay, even dip our toes in the water, but unless we got out of the boat into the water, we could not say that we know the ocean. Similarly, I think it is insufficient to skim across a few selections of texts which address any given topic and say that we have dedicated ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.

There are occasions where topical preaching is helpful. The danger, however, lies in an inherent posture of the human heart to create idols in our hearts. We are created to long for One who can grant knowledge. My concern for congregations who sit under topical preaching is that over time, they will do two things: first, they will not learn how to read the Bible, and second, but more concerning, they will become dependent upon a man and not the Word.

When a preacher preaches, he is teaching them how to read the Bible by doing two things. First, he is engaging in a monologue from heaven, declaring with authority: “Thus saith the Lord.” More on that in a moment. Second, he is modeling how one is to read a particular chunk of Scripture. The cumulative effect of this over time is that you, yourself, can confidently open up the Word of God and understand it, having seen it interpreted and applied over and over again. I believe that most people do not know how to read their Bibles beyond a meager selection of “life verses” or truths to obey because they have never had a shepherd bring them to green pasture and show them from where to graze.

Now, his authority to say “Thus saith the Lord” is based in the fact that he merely repeats what the Word of God says, not in the fact that he stands on a stage, behind a pulpit, or sits on a stool. I suspect that you long to hear what God’s will is for your life, and you cannot get that apart from the pure preaching of the gospel. In the pure preaching of the gospel, you would hear about God’s perfect creation, the devastating effects of the fall, the curse of sin, the inability of human beings to please God, the necessity of a representative, the perfect obedience of God the Son, the perfect sacrifice of Christ, his literal death, burial, bodily resurrection, and ascension. You’d hear about obedience to God, and the grace needed to empower you to that end. You’d hear about faith, hope, and love. You’d be reminded to long for a world that is not this world.

I believe that what happens over time in a church where sermons are topical and not expository is that a congregation member eventually follows a man and not God. Now, that might seem like an overstatement, and I think most people at your church would reject it. Hear me out and test what I’m saying.

When a pastor selects a topic to discuss, it is usually immediately practical. Rarely are topic-driven preachers delivering sermon series aimed at developing a systematic theology of, say, God’s providence or goodness in a trial. In my experience, topic-driven preachers tend towards series related to life-direction, relationship, stewardship, or prayer life. These might even be disguised as expository sermon series: for example, a relationship series from the Song of Solomon. Herein a preacher is explaining some general “principles for life” based upon God’s word. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is usually quite good and helpful.

Again, however, what happens over time is that people begin to become accustomed to wanting to know what Pastor So-and-So has to say about any given topic. In the life of the church as a whole, the preaching calendar takes the shape of a given preacher’s interests or comfort level. This conforms the mind of the church to the counsel of the preacher’s mind, not Christ’s mind. A helpful test for you might be to ask yourself: When is the last time I’ve heard a sermon about the ancient Israelites being utterly crushed in God’s judgment by the Assyrians or Babylonians? If it has been a while and you don’t expect for him to get around to it, you might question if the preaching calendar is conditioned more by all sixty-six books of the Bible or just the verses your pastor thinks are immediately practical for your life. I’d argue our doctrine of the authority of God’s word makes all of it immediately practical for you.

On the right administration of the sacraments, I know you know how this should look.

On the practice of church discipline, this is one where I have the most discomfort with many churches today. Of course, church discipline extends beyond excommunication. The primary concern for all Christians should be that the church exists and lives as she is to live: holy and blameless. Are the standards for membership sinless perfection? No. There is, however, a standard of diligent repentance. So, are the people who claim to be members of any given church actually Christians? If the answer is no, how can one call the gathering a church? What makes it qualitatively different than say, a Chick-Fil-A which happens to have a few genuine Christians in there. Church discipline simply means a regulated membership. I do think it is, unfortunately, less rigorous to become a church member in many churches than qualifying for TSA Precheck. We, the people of God, above all else, should care about the purity of God’s church.

If Highlands is a true church, then it could become the right church for you. These three components are certainly not all that one should look for in determining the answer, but it certainly cannot be less than this. You can listen to Hillsong on Spotify if you wish. I would strongly encourage you to prioritize these marks above any style of singing.

If you think that these are present, but it still feels insufficient, I’d encourage you to not settle for less than utterly faithful. Trivial things like greeting ministry, small group organization, song style, architecture, awkwardness, etc. all pale in comparison to the pure preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline.

Love you brother. Hope we can catch up soon.

In Christ,

Zach

References   [ + ]

1. The Belgic Confession, Article 29
Filed under: Columns, Features, Preaching
Zachariah Carter

Zachariah is a pastor at Cedar Creek Baptist Church and pursuing his PhD at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also manages The Commonweal Project. Additionally, he serves as adjunct professor at Boyce College. Zachariah is deputy director of Some Pastors and Teachers.

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