What Kind of Church Should I Join?

Our grandson recently accepted a job in Chicago. As a concerned grandfather I asked him if he knew where in the big city he would be worshiping.

“Yes,” he replied. “I know where I plan to worship, and it is my intention not just to be a drop-in. I plan to join the congregation as soon as possible. During my four years at the university I attended a wonderful church, but I never joined. Consequently, I felt like an outsider. Now that I am employed, it is important that I become a member of the church and assume my responsibilities as a part of the congregation.”

When I asked what criteria he had used in selecting this congregation, he answered, “The first criterion is faithfulness to the message of God’s Word. I have listened to the pastor of this church preach and appreciated his sermons.”

When he mentioned the pastor’s name, I said, “But this is not the denomination in which you were raised.”

He replied, “No, and I will have some doctrinal differences with this church. However, I can accept this in order to hear the Law and the Gospel each Sunday. I need to hear the absolutes of God’s Word, and I need to hear the message of the cross and resurrection.”

I thought, what would his great grandparents have thought? Their own flesh and blood was joining a congregation not affiliated with the denomination where our family has worshiped for any years. We have come to a time where tradition is not as important as it once was. Today we ask questions such as, What is the congregation’s message, and What is its mission? I have no doubt in my mind that, if our grandson’s work takes him to other communities during his life, he will seek out a congregation where he feels his soul is being nourished and he can serve his Lord.

Many find it shocking to see people move from one congregation to another. Perhaps it is shocking, but is it not healthy that belonging to a congregation is more than just following the family tradition? I will always be partial, but not limited, to the denomination in which I spent my entire life. This church has introduced me to my Savior and fed me with the Bread of Life. Nevertheless, if my children and grandchildren must go elsewhere for the same blessing, then so be it.

Now listen to the Apostle Paul. Speaking to pastors and teachers he says, “Men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little that I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”

If you are one of those people whose attention has been caught by the Church since 9/11, you might be asking yourself, what am I looking for in a church?

You need a church that each Sunday presents Christ crucified and risen from the dead. This is the Gospel that feeds your soul and assures you of your relationship with God. He has taken away your sins and restored you into fellowship with God. This is the unique message of the Church.

You need a church where the Holy Spirit is active. He is the One who will be your teacher, guide, encourager, and strength when facing the big decisions of life. He will be your counselor when problems arise in your marriage. He will give you strength to stand firm when confronted with ethical decisions about what is right and wrong. He is the One who will give you a heart for the poor, lonely, and those treated unjustly. He is the One who will give you a true sense of values and make you a dynamic witness for Christ.

You need to be a part of a congregation that will provide you with brothers and sisters in Christ who will become your closest friends. Your church should be a place that will assist you in the raising of your children Ð one with a Sunday school and youth programs that will make the Christian message clear to your sons and daughters. It should be a sanctuary where you can retreat to gain spiritual strength to face the temptations of the day.

A congregation fashioned after the culture of its day is not adequate. Culture changes and seeks to change everything within its reach, including the mission of the church. However, God’s Word is not one of these parts of life that needs to change with culture. His Word never changes.

There are many great churches Ð some small and some large Ð that have this Biblical message. This is where you should belong if you want to be a person of God.

The Merciful Father

The account of the prodigal son has been called the greatest short story ever told. The story is so simple, and the message so clear. Yet it teaches many profound truths. Let us review the story.

A man had two sons. One day the younger of the sons said, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance.” So the father divided his property between them. With a pocket full of cash the son was on his way to enjoy the world of excitement. However, it was not long before the money was gone, and he was destitute. He wrapped on the door of a farmer and pleaded for a job. The farmer hired him to care for the pigs, and his pay was permission to eat the pods the pigs were eating. During those days he did much thinking. The Bible says he then came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!”

So he decided to go back to his father and ask to be a hired man since he was no longer worthy of being his son. Soon he was on his way. When the father saw the son, the party began. The father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

What an example of grace Ð unconditional love. The father received his son as he was. Perhaps this parable should not be called “The Prodigal Son,” but “The Merciful Father.”

Do you see yourself in this story? There are three possibilities.

First, you might have walked closely with your Heavenly Father all of your life. Perhaps you were fortunate to have been born in a Christian home. As a babe your parents had you baptized and then took you home and introduced you to Jesus. They taught you about Jesus. “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” was one of the first songs you learned. They prayed with you and for you. As you got older, they told you what Jesus had done for them in their lives.

You were blessed with fine Sunday school teachers. You attended confirmation classes and youth group meetings, and went on youth trips with counselors who helped you make your commitment to Christ. Somewhere along the way you were awakened to the fact that Jesus wants to live in a very personal relationship with you.

If that is your life story, that you have lived in your baptismal covenant and have gradually been awakened to God’s mercy and love, where do you see yourself in the story? Well, there is really not a clear picture of you, but it may have been the life the prodigal could have lived had he never left home. There is no great joy in having been a prodigal.

It is also well to note that some people who never experience this awakening until they are advanced in years. Let me tell about a pastor friend of mine. We were attending an evangelism conference. For several days we had heard stimulating lectures on sharing the gospel with others who were not Christian. At the end of the conference, Billy Graham, who was our leader, suggested that we choose a partner, kneel where we were sitting and pray together. My friend and I did this. We were in a huge auditorium with thousands of believers in Christ. At the end of the prayer my friend said to me, “First now I have met Him.”

He had been a pastor for years and faithfully presented Christ to the congregation as Savior and Lord, but he had never had a personal relationship with God. Later that day we went to a ball game with a third pastor, who was our bishop. The Twins were beating the Red Sox, but my friend was not with the game. He kept on telling the bishop about his experience on his knees back at the auditorium. Repeatedly he said, “First today I have met him.” Finally it was more than the bishop could take and he said, “Adolph, watch the game! You have always known Him.” But Adolph knew Christ in a new way from that day on.

Second, are you the prodigal son who was converted and went home? You started out with a good background. Father and mother were both Christian people and were saddened when, in those growing-up years you too walked away from home. Then a series of events occurred in your life. The Bible was laid aside. The church was a once-in-awhile experience. You were at college, away working, or in the military. Few people your age were going to church, and it just became natural to sleep in on Sunday morning. You were on your way to the spiritual pigpen. Maybe you awakened one day, spiritually destitute. Liquor, drugs, immoral living, and all the rest had not delivered the satisfaction that you thought they would. Your life was empty, and you were on your way to nowhere.

In a depressed state you recalled the joy in your parental home. You recalled some of those scripture passages you had learned. “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.” “If you will confess your sins, he will forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.” You recalled the happiness and peace in your parents’ lives.

It was then that you came to yourself and asked Christ into your life. God turned your life around. As the days went by you sought spiritual help and began to mature in the faith. You realized the truth of Paul’s statement, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.”

Let me tell you about Don. For forty years I invited him to church. He had been baptized and confirmed in our congregation and had a godly family. However, Don did not want any more of that church business. He was always pleasant to visit with, but that was as far as our relationship went. One day I was called to a care center to visit Don. He was in the last stages of cancer. He body was nothing but skin and bones, and he was so weak. Then he said to me, “I am going home.”

I replied, “Don, you can’t go home. You are too sick.”

Looking at me he said, “I mean that I am going to my heavenly home.”

“How do you think you are going to get there?” I asked.

“Jesus died for me,” he answered. Then he said, “Remember that song, ÔJesus Loves Me?’ Let’s sing it.” There, in the care center, Don and I sang ÔJesus Loves Me.’

This man lived most of his life away from any personal relationship with God. How sad. Yet how wonderful that, in the closing hours of his life, Don’s Heavenly Father received this repentant prodigal. That is grace.

Might you find yourself as the prodigal who some time ago repented of your sins and returned to the Father? Life is different after the conversion, is it not?

Third, you may still be away from home. Let me give you some good news. The Lord is still seeking you today, right here in this service, as he speaks to you through His Word. His arms reach out to you. He wants you. By God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, open your heart and let him into your life.

We as dads have experienced what it is to call God our Father. We have some idea of what it is to be a father to our children. You will never condone your child’s sins, but you will always be willing to forgive him or her. Remember, if those children you love are away from Christ and His Church, God has left the light on for them. He wants them home. Never forget, we love those children, but God wants them home. We love those children, but He loves them more. Amen.

A Beacon Light in the Community

It is a thrill to take part in a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration for a church that has ministered well in a new community. However, whether this is going to be a great church through which many are led to Christ is yet to be seen.

It is a thrill for me to take part in the anniversary celebration of a church that has been a beacon light in the community for a hundred years. Each year the congregation grows stronger. It ministers to its members and others in times of joy and sorrow. It rejoices with the newlyweds and weeps with those who mourn. It sends members into places of leadership in the community and beyond. It watches its sons and daughters establish strong Christian homes and raise their newborn in the Christian faith.

What made that congregation a beacon light in the community? It was not its size and wealth. Other congregations exist in the same community with larger memberships and are well endowed, yet face many empty pews each Sunday morning.

I believe St. Paul has answers to this question that are worth considering. Remember now, we are talking about a congregation that will be a blessing in the community for many generations, not just an organization that grows rapidly and then fades away.

Sometimes we hear people say the preacher is responsible for the growth. If we are realistic, one would have to agree some pastors are more attractive than others in reaching the crowd. However, no human being can change the hearts of people and bring them into the kingdom of God. Listen to St. Paul: “What is Apollos and what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe Ð as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

The seed is the Gospel. In planting the seed Paul told the Corinthians they were sinners, but Christ had come into this world to die for their sins. If they would receive Him as their Savior and Lord, God would forgive them and restore them into fellowship with himself for all eternity. Through this message the Holy Spirit worked faith in the Corinthian’s heart.

When it was time for Paul to leave, the congregation was not left alone. Apollos was Paul’s successor. He continued with the same message and deepened them in this faith. The Holy Spirit worked, and lives were changed. Many of these people became strong servants in God’s Kingdom. The congregation grew in numbers, and it became a beacon light in Corinth.

Paul now moves from an agricultural picture to an architectural presentation. In verse ten the Apostle says, “I have laid a foundation.” This is the Gospel. Others followed who built on this foundation. Some built well using gold, silver, or costly stones. Others came and were not as faithful to the Word of God. Their work was described as building with wood, hay, or straw. The fruits of their work would eventually show as having accomplished little in the spiritual building of the church. This congregation would soon become just another organization in town. It is no longer a beacon light. People can attend that church and enjoy the fellowship, but their lives are not changed. They do not grow into strong servants of the Lord Jesus.

Recently I was visiting with some people who had attended the Moody Bible Church in Chicago. It was the church where Dwight Moody, the great evangelist, once preached. I asked these people about the service. They reported it was the same old church, proclaiming the same message from God’s Word preached there for decades. It is a beacon light in this large city, and people come from miles around, even arranging their visit to Chicago to attend a worship service in this old church.

Let me compare these well-known churches with great eating places. When I return to Maine, I eat much seafood. There is something about eating good haddock with the smell of the ocean and the roar of the waves. Now, while there are many great restaurants to choose from, one is my favorite. It has been in business for at least fifty years. It has a reputation Ð they really know how to fix clams.

This is a crude illustration, to compare a restaurant with a church, but I think you get the point. There are churches where you will always hear the gospel in an exciting way. The music will be outstanding, and you can sense that this place is alive with God’s Spirit. There is consistency in the preaching of the Scriptures. People’s lives are being changed in that place. It is a place that has something to share with me, be it a good or bad day in my life.

Paul continues in our text to tell us that what is taught in a congregation today will reveal itself in the future. Listen to John Stott: “Paul offers a solemn warning to all teachers. The Christian teaching ministry is of greatest importance, because it is designed to build up the Church. If what we teach is Biblical and balanced, we will be adding a valuable building to the foundation, and it will last. If, however, our teaching is unbiblical Ð the wisdom of the world Ð then we are adding a ramshackle superstructure that will not survive. Thus what we teach will bless or harm the Church not only for this time, but for eternity.”

This warning is for all who teach in the church, whether the message comes from the pulpit or the Sunday school class. This is also for the congregations who most often sit as listeners Sunday morning, but are teachers during the week in conversation with the public.

It is also the responsibility of the congregation to know what is being taught in your church. Most congregations at some time place some ridiculous demands on the pastor. He is supposed to be good at all things Ð preaching, teaching, counseling, pastoral care, and the list goes on. Be sensible in what you expect from the teachers in your congregation, but be insistent that the message is true to the Word of God.

I sometimes wonder when I hear people evaluate their pastors. Here are some of their comments: “He has such a beautiful voice.” “He is a wonderful communicator.” “He preaches without notes.” “He has a marvelous sense of humor in the pulpit.” All these qualities have a place. However, what if he possesses all of them, yet he does not hold up Christ? We do not go to church to be entertained. We enter God’s house to be fed. The entertaining church will never be a beacon light in the community. It will deteriorate into a social club with little to offer the sin-sick soul.

Well, if you are a person of the world asking questions about the church, or if you might even be looking around for a church home, think seriously about the purpose of the church. Don’t be in a hurry to join. Remember, what you are hearing will shape your life and your eternal destiny.

What made the church on the corner a beacon light in the community? It is faithfully preaching Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.

Does the Church Have a Future in Our Culture?

I would like to consider these words as I begin a dialogue concerning the Church. Notice, Jesus gave a great promise to establish his Church. That promise came on Pentecost Sunday. Members of the Church are the baptized believers in Christ Jesus. They claim him as Savior and Lord.

Jesus told the Church they would have difficult times, but he also gave them another promise: the gates of Hades would not overcome it. The Church will be here when Christ returns to this world. However, it might not be in a particular location where it once was strong. Many sections of the Mideast where once the Church was strong – Paul himself had been the preacher there – are not so today.

You could even go to some great countries of Europe – Scandinavia and parts of Germany, for example. I am best acquainted with Scandinavia. When I sat in some of those glorious cathedrals that seat thousands of people, I could only count at most a hundred or a hundred and fifty people. The Church there is not very strong.

Could it also happen in the United States of America? What can destroy the Church in a given area? There is only one thing. Adolph Hitler could not change it; Joe Stalin could not destroy it. However, a failure to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ can destroy the Church.

I am happy and proud this day to have my grandson with me. We are going to discuss the question, Does the Church have a future in our culture? Tim and I had two discussions on Christian Crusaders during his years at the University of Iowa. Since our listeners have reacted in a very enthusiastic way in the past, we are going to have a third discussion.

Tim recently graduated from the University of Iowa where he was a student in the college of business administration. He has now accepted a job with an investment bank company in Chicago where he will be employed for up to three years, after which he plans to study for his Masters of Business Administration degree.

Tim is a committed Christian; he loves the Lord and his Church. He has already chosen the congregation where he plans to worship when he is in Chicago. His love for the Church makes him interested in its future in the United States. Will it continue to preach the Gospel faithfully and be faithful to God’s Word?

Tim, I ask you this question: Does the Church have a future in our culture?

(Tim)

I believe it really depends on whether the Church stands by its authority. It seems like in our politically-correct culture today, rather than stand by its authority, which is the Bible, and stand by the truth, not being afraid to state it, the Church has tried to water things down. It has gotten away from the simple message about the Gospel: those who walk in a personal relationship with Christ and trust him as their Savior when they die will go to heaven. Those who do not, will not. I think the extent to which the Church stands by its message is the extent to which it has a future. It is important for the Church to stand by its authority or it will not have a future because then there is no authority, period. And the Church will be just another organization in society with no real pull on its people.

(Rev. Larsen)

Tim, in our conversations, you mention quite often that the Church has to be distinct, or the world will see it as irrelevant and not be concerned with it. Jesus said very much the same thing when he said, “You have to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” Do you want to talk a bit about that distinctiveness?

(Tim)

When I say distinct, I mean the Church has to be clear to the world that it is making a tangible difference in the lives of its people. If someone spends every Sunday going to church, and perhaps even some time during the week, but lives a life no different from the typical person, then the Church is not distinct from the rest of the world. If a person spends time at church every week, but holds convictions no different from the average person, then the Church is not distinct. The Church has to be distinct. By this I mean its people have to view the world differently and live differently than the people outside the Church, or else the world will wonder why a person is spending so much time there.

(Rev. Larsen)

As I listen and speak to people in your generation, it is thrilling to see how pragmatic they are. I think my generation has been willing, at least to some extent, to accept the Church sort of as a tradition. We don’t want to upset the apple cart. However, now I hear you saying that is not quite it. In a pragmatic fashion you are saying the Church really has to count. It has to produce right down to the individual life, or what is happening in other parts of the world in the Church will happen here.

Tell me now, you have accepted a career that will throw you into the business world. How do you see your career relating to this Gospel and to its higher purpose?

(Tim)

I think for every Christian a career has two primary purposes relating to the faith. The first is, in whatever arena you are in, the way you live your life and the convictions you have can be an example for other people. In every industry there are people who are Christians and some who are not. I see it as the job of Christians to set an example to non-Christians by the way they live and by their core beliefs.

The other purpose is to work in your career with a high degree of excellence, because you are adding value to the life of another person or organization. It is important that we take our responsibilities seriously and do them as well as we can. Obviously with a career, you have an opportunity to earn money, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with making a lot of money. However, a career should not be just a chance to make a lot of money so you can buy many things. That gets a little shallow. We should keep in mind we have an opportunity to be an example for people who work in the same place as us and do our jobs with a high degree of excellence, because we are adding value to the lives of other people in our work.

(Rev. Larsen)

Tim, four years ago, as we were discussing some of these things, I think there was in my heart, as well as in your grandmother’s and your parents’ hearts, something of a big question. We had complete faith in you. We knew you, as a high school graduate, were committed to Jesus Christ. However, you had lived in a very protected home and attended a conservative, biblically-based church. Then you went to the University of Iowa with thousands of students, many of them agnostic, so many of them with no time for Christ. Yet you came home stronger in your faith. You are a more mature person today than you were four years ago.

How do you see yourself growing and maturing in the Christian faith so you can stand up to the wiles of the devil in the world of business?

(Tim)

It all begins and ends with having a sound basis for my convictions. Ultimately that rests on what God’s Word says. To me, there is absolutely no question that, to grow spiritually, you must spend time in God’s Word, learn it, and take it seriously. When that happens regularly, it changes a person, because God’s Word is convicting and powerful. It changes the way you view the world, and it changes the way you live.

Had I not been well grounded in God’s Word and then exposed to a culture that was atheistic and anti-Christian, where Christianity is mocked, I probably could not stand up to my professors who thought they had all the answers and attacked Christianity. Unless you have a basis for what you believe, you are going to be in some trouble. However, because I feel like I am well grounded in it, and was committed to spending time in God’s Word regularly, my faith was not hurt when it was being attacked. It actually strengthened it, because it made me aware of the number of people in the world who do not take it seriously. It made me thankful I do have a faith, and it gave me a greater sense of urgency. It all begins and ends with spending time in God’s Word, so you know what your convictions are.

(Rev. Larsen)

Okay, you say we have to get serious about studying the Bible. Along with studying God’s Word, what part do the small group and your circle of Christian friends have in the maturing of the Christian faith?

(Tim)

Standing firm in anything is always much easier if you have a good support group of people who are of the same mind set as you, no matter what it is you are doing. I think that is the whole point behind groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. If someone is an alcoholic, they face a real battle in trying to stand firm against alcohol. So they join a group of people who are fighting the same battle. Those people can influence each other positively and give each other strength.

I think the same holds true in a person’s Christian walk. If they are surrounding themselves with people who aren’t very good influences, then the door is opened to begin questioning their faith and the way they live. However, if people who view the world the same way surround them and share their convictions, then ultimately they will be strengthened, because they will have more positive influences than negative.

(Rev. Larsen)

Good. You and I have grown up in the Lutheran Church. We are thankful for all God has given to us in his Church, and we are thankful we can go there Sunday after Sunday to worship.

Things are changing again as you head off for Chicago. You have chosen a church home. When you come in to a church, Tim, what is the most important part in the worship service? Is it the contemporary music service versus the traditional music service? What really grabs you when you come into a service?

(Tim)

This is being repetitive, but ultimately it is getting a sense of what the church’s authority is. That comes in seeing what their biblical emphasis is in the preaching, teaching, sermon, or whatever is going on in the service. If I get a sense in a church that the Bible is not taken seriously, then I do not think the church is to be taken seriously. My number one criterion is, what is this church’s authority? If its authority is the Bible, then their authority is the same as mine, and that is probably a good church for me. If not, then that church probably lacks power and credibility, and there is no sense in anyone wasting their time there.

(Rev. Larsen)

There is considerable church hopping today, Tim. By church hopping I mean people moving from one congregation or denomination to another. Pastors do not like that very well. Can you understand people, especially your age, church hopping?

(Tim)

I think people are probably trying to find a place that is the best fit for them. Underlying all that is some frustration in many of the people attending. Some people, and I would put myself in this camp, listen to what a pastor is saying on Sunday morning, and they find it tough to walk away with the point the pastor is trying to communicate. What is he trying to say? When that is the case, it is pretty frustrating for someone who is trying to learn something from the pastor. There is no sense in complicating the message. I think deep down inside, people just want to hear the truth stated as simply as it can be stated.

(Rev. Larsen)

I know this is a very difficult thing for you to do, but let’s take a hypothetical case here. Let’s say one day, in your work, you were forced to make a choice between doing what is right and hurting your future with a company, and going along with the crowd and moving up the ladder. Where will your Christian faith play a part there?

(Tim)

Like you said, knowing exactly in what kind of situation that choice might arise is tough. As far as how my faith plays into that, what you see as the purpose of life is what shapes all of your decisions directly or indirectly. In that type of situation, if I see the purpose of my life as solely my own fortune, success, fame, or power, then I am probably not going to make any decision that jeopardizes it, even if it conflicts with what I know is the difference between right and wrong. On the other hand, my faith has given me the conviction that my purpose in life is to live in a way that pleases God. Because I see the purpose of life as pleasing God rather than advancing my own power or fame or money, then I think I have the conviction and strength, with God’s help, to make the choice that is consistent with what God would want, not necessarily with what advances my own way of life.

(Rev. Larsen)

In just thirty seconds, Tim, could you answer the question we have been discussing: Does the Church have a future in our culture, especially as you know it?

(Tim)

Ultimately it comes to whether or not the Church is willing to stand by its authority. Is it going to complicate things and accept all kinds of different viewpoints? Is it going to encourage each person to find the answers that work for them? Or is the Church going to do what it knows is true and right and stand by the simple truths of the Word of God? I think if the Church chooses the first answer, there are going to be problems, and it will not be relevant. If the Church chooses the second answer – proclaiming the simple, but true and powerful message – then it can continue to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

(Rev. Larsen)

Tim, although you are moving into the working world, I hope to have many more visits with you about what Christ is doing in each of our lives. You have meant so much to me in these last twenty-two years. You will continue to be in my prayers today. Thank you for this time.

Father in Heaven, when we hear the testimony of this young man, realizing he represents millions of others who feel like he does, we know there is a future for the Church in our country. Primarily, of course, because the Holy Spirit is at work, but also because of their testimony through which the Holy Spirit does his work.

So we pray your blessings upon Tim and all of the others, these young men and women, going into the working world and into the universities. Make them faithful to your Word, in Christ’s name. Amen.