“Does God call me to belong to a local church where the Word of God is not being taught?” That was one of the questions I have often been asked. I hope to have an occasional series looking at these kind of questions.
To some the answer to this particular question is so obvious that they think even the question is daft. But life is not as simple as all that. Imagine that you live in a small village or town where there is a local church. It’s not heretical in the sense that its official creed is orthodox and the minister or pastor does not really preach against it. You want to be a witness. You want to be able to invite your neighbours, your friends and your family who live in the area to the church. You want to participate in community life, help with the parent and toddlers, be part of the churches social witness. If you go to an out-of-town church then all that seems to be negated. Surely it is better to hang in and try to be salt and light within the church? As a friend once argued, the local church is a great boat to fish in.
I have enormous sympathy with that point of view and furthermore I don’t want to be a kind of sectarian or denominational Christian who is only going to go to a church where every t is crossed and every i dotted to my taste. I once preached in a church in the US, where I met a couple who told me that had travelled over 1500 miles to come to it because it was ‘the only church in the US where the gospel was faithfully preached’! They were wrong. I am not here talking about denominations, liturgical styles or secondary issues. Even though I am not a Baptist if there was a local Baptist church where the Word of God was faithfully preached then I would not particularly care if it was Baptist. However what about the situation where that is not the case?
Let me give some concrete examples. One woman queried whether she should continue to go to a local church which didn’t preach the gospel, or one further away which did. She was asked, ‘could you take your friends and family to the local church and be confident they would hear the Good News?”. Her answer was ‘absolutely not’. To which the response was then ‘thats a no-brainer’. If you can’t invite your friends and family to the church because you are not sure if they will hear the gospel, then what are you doing in that church?
Another friend in Edinburgh told me that he was going to go to his nearest church, a large Church of Scotland, ‘to be a witness’. With a membership of 1,000 and an attendance of 200 it was traditionally ‘liberal’. So he went and was given permission to have an evening service/bible study to which about 20 people came. After three years he left Edinburgh and moved into a small town in the middle of Scotland. I asked him which church he was going to and he responded the local small Baptist church. I was a bit cheeky and asked him why he did not go to the much larger C of S where he could be a witness. His response said it all – he was exhausted after three years of doing that and needed his own soul to be fed.
I have great admiration for those who stick it out in roles as Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, elders and members in congregations where they struggle with the lack of teaching and the general spiritual climate….however I think the two stories above and many others perhaps illustrate why there is time for a rethink.
Let me put it this way – what is the great need in Scotland? What is the number one priority for the Church? Surely it is that there is a famine of hearing the Word of the Lord. People don’t know the Bible. They don’t know the Word of Life. They don’t know the Word that brings them Christ. They don’t primarily need playgroups, art festivals and foodbanks. Please note I am not decrying these things – they should spring from the preaching and believing of the Word, but they should not replace it. Here is the crucial thing – just going to church is not a witness in the eyes of the general public. The Church is to be the witness. The Church is not the Good News. The Church is to believe and proclaim the Good News. Likewise the church is not a boat to fish in but rather a boat to fish from. If the boat is sinking then why would we bring people on board?
Furthermore it’s not just that we need to bring the good news as a church, we also need to be fed ourselves. One of the reasons our witness is so weak is that we ourselves have become so spiritually anemic. If are not fed we will starve. And how does the Lord feed us. Yes – we can get internet sermons, podcasts, books and we can read the Word of God for ourselves. But we normally need more. And I don’t believe that ‘more’ is provided by a couple of special conferences in the year. We dont’ get filled up at that event no matter how special it is. We need the regular manna of the Word of God being proclaimed on the Lords Day as we gather together with his people and collectively listen, confess, pray and respond. To me one of the greatest tricks of the devil has been to convince the Lords people that we don’t need the Lord’s Day and the preaching, praise and prayers of the Church. A consumerist individualistic mindset coupled with a shallow theology and to be frank, a lack of passion and love for Christ, means that, whilst we are happy to seek for and claim extraordinary miracles, we despise and neglect the ordinary means of grace.
When I was a child I remembering travelling 45 minutes each way (twice!) to go to church. What I loved was getting fish and chips on the way home, but one thing that taught me was that my parents really thought that church was important. Not just church in general but the kind of church we went to. Of course that can be because of tradition, or a narrow-minded legalism , or just because we can’t get on with anyone in any of the local churches – and I am not defending or advocating that.
This is not about denigrating other churches or some kind of inter-church competition – God forbid! Its far more serious than that. It’s not about denominations or styles. It’s about the Gospel. Its about Jesus Christ. Its about hearing the Word of God. If the local Church of Scotland preached the Word of God and were free to do so without the interference of Presbytery or Assembly I would go to them as well. And if the local Free Church was though on paper orthodox, but in reality asleep/dead, I would not go to that. We need to be very careful before we claim that a situation is dead, or indeed that we don’t ignore the reality if it is!
Let me put it another way. We can travel many miles to get to our favourite football team, to hear our favourite band, or eat at our favourite restaurant. Why then do we insist that the only church we can go to is the one within five minutes of our house? Yes I would go to the local restaurant if it served good food – but if it served poison or rubbish I wouldn’t support it out of some misplaced loyalty, I would go where I could get decent food. Do I love my stomach more than my soul? If a restaurant announced that it believed in serving the best food and then when I went in found that the advert was not met by the reality, I wouldn’t go there either. Far too often I find that churches use the term ‘evangelical’ and yet they feed their people a minimalist diet which does not spiritually connect or satisfy. It’s not the label, its what’s inside that counts.
It is necessary to offer one more caveat. I am not talking here about people who church hop according to personal taste or who are so spiritually immature that they are looking for the perfect church (Spurgeon’s rejoinder to one woman who was living the Met to look for the perfect church, still stands “when you find it, madam, don’t join it you will only spoil it!). I’m not talking about those who want to go to the latest ‘in’ church or the one that is aimed for their particular demographic/age/style. That is the curse of the modern church – we have created an apartheid church culture where churches aim for particular demographic/social/ethnic groups rather than seeking to be the Church of Christ proclaiming the Word of Christ to all. I am just simply answering the question whether we should stay in a church where the Word of God is not proclaimed. To me it is clear that we should not.
I don’t say this because I want people to come to St Peters from other churches or from all around Dundee and beyond. It gives me great sorrow that people have to come to us on an occasional Sunday because their local church does not feed them the Word of God. I have no desire to see St Peters being built up at the expense of other biblical churches. We want to see the whole Church of Christ grow. But where the Word of God is not being proclaimed can it really be said that there is a church of Christ? My aim is to plant biblical churches all over the place…in every community.
Maybe its time for believers to just leave the liberal, traditional, legalistic or eccentric churches and get on with being the Church of Jesus Christ, the pillar and foundation of the truth, wherever we are. If a local Church does not proclaim the Gospel in all its fullness then not only will it die, it deserves to die. Let the dead bury their dead. Let us get on with proclaiming the Word of Life to all without fear nor favour.Lets forget the traditional models that we are clinging on to, or the modernist unbiblical concepts of church. Lets not give in and become ‘churchless Christians’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one!). Lets avoid spiritual prostitution, even if we call it ‘witness’. Lets be bold, follow Christ and be his beautiful bride!
Isaiah 8:20 Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.
Hebrews 10:23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.