The evidence is weighty and difficult to explain away—the institutional expression of church is hurting. Westernized churchianity is losing steam, its moral authority and influence are fading, and its congregants are disengaging. While the conversation is incredibly complex, I believe the overarching cause is more straightforward than most pastors want to admit.
In 1 Corinthians 2:3-5 The Apostle Paul says, “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Paul knew a truth that churches and pastors have seemed to miss:
What you win people with is what you win people to.
While the Apostle was terrified to win souls with the wisdom and charm of man, many churches have made it their modus operandi—from scripturally impoverished keynotes presented as sermons and barn wood wrapped stages to church-owned coffee shops and even on-campus skateparks. Many churches are desperate to win people with just about everything except the Gospel, the Bible, and a covenant commitment to the body of Christ.
Furthermore, the problem with winning people with flash, production, and amusement is that the moment it all stops so does the attendance. As a result, thousands of church leaders must continue “the show”—a frantic effort to keep their sheep from leaving by layering on more and more creative, yet extra-biblical ideas. For some churches, it’s a professional worship band and a slick coffeeshop/bookstore; for others, it’s a new Creative Director and expensive landscaping. But whatever it is, it doesn’t take long for a biblical Christian to realize that little of it has to do with the Bible. If they are the investigative type, they might even notice these additions are suspiciously similar to the type of marketing seen in a corporation and that their Sunday mega-service feels oddly like a conference or evangelistic outreach.
So while pastors can’t seem to debunk the cause of their dwindling flocks, millions of homesick Christians are revealing it for them: Extra-biblical practices, predictable programs, and man’s wisdom cannot sustain the soul.
In other words, watered-down, oversized, uncommitted, spectator church is much like a pasture filled with Astroturf—to a sheep it looks amazing, but in reality, there’s not much to eat.
In my opinion, the solution to creating a devoted, loyal and faithful local church isn’t to add more fluff but to take it away. To oust much of the church’s well-intended but non-biblical practices and return to the simple gathering experience represented in the New Testament.
But that’s easier said than done. Because Western Christianity has altered the church experience to such a cringe-worthy state, the average Christian can’t even determine what portions of the Sunday gathering are biblical and which are just inventive ideas. To be honest, most Christians are so scripturally illiterate they authentically believe the idea of seminary or Sunday school or a worship leader or a senior pastor is somewhere to be found in God’s holy book.
It’s clear, innovation and renovation have become the current church formula. Consequently, we must ask ourselves if we have innovated ourselves to a territory beyond the Bible. We must evaluate if what we are doing as a church matches us with what God is saying in His Bible. Having said that, I have listed four biblical elements many churches have simply erased from their gatherings. Elements that, in a variety of ways, have been pushed out, labeled as archaic, or simply don’t fit within the Americanized anatomy of church. With that said, I encourage you to evaluate my points, because my experience has taught me that the life-long, soul-sustaining, fruitful, and committed church experience many of us long for cannot occur without them.
1. The Raw, True Gospel
First off, let me remind you that the purpose of the church gathering is not for non-believers to hear the Gospel. Churches who actively invite non-believers to the meeting of the saints have, in many cases, have turned church into an evangelism outreach event. This incorrect emphasis on Sunday-sanctioned Gospel outreach forces many pastors to adopt a “lowest common denominator” style of teaching that focuses on feeding the guest instead of the committed.
In the Bible, the preaching of the Gospel is recorded as an outside work for the lost while the church gathering is as an inside work for the found.
Having said that, every church should participate in the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). In doing so, let us avoid the emotional presentation that has been adopted by many churches and instead preach the raw, soul-saving Gospel:
“You are a sinner and have broken God’s laws; for that reason, you are currently under God’s wrath and destined to eternity in hell; but God loves you so much He sent His Son Jesus to die and his blood has paid the debt of your sin. If you believe in Jesus and that God raised Him from the dead and you make Him Lord over your life, you will be saved.“
We must remember following Jesus always ends at a murder scene—a cross waiting to kill our flesh. Many churches have attempted to market Christ and Christianity in a way that omits the raw truth about the Gospel (Matthew 10:39). In connection with the church, we must ask ourselves how many of today’s Christians are leaving the church not because they don’t like the preaching or the worship music but because they were never won to the true Gospel? In other words, what if the people who are leaving never actually came?
2. Biblically Qualified Elders
The “elder board.” A common, but extra-biblical idea. The practice of seeking out experienced businessmen, influential community leaders, generous donors, and theologically inclined individuals to join the oversight of a modern church. Over the years, I’ve met several “elders” from popular Christian churches; people who are incredibly gifted, talented, brilliant, but biblically unqualified.
You see, many churches have ditched the biblical qualifications for leadership and have adopted their own. Today, you can be young or female or single or even homosexual and land a seat on the elder board of many of today’s popular churches.
But the Bible has a different opinion on the matter.
In 1 Timothy 3:2-7, the Apostle Paul says, “A bishop (elder) then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover, he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
It requires some significant mental gymnastics to reject that the Bible is calling for elders who are: Men, morally above reproach, married and not previously divorced, has the spiritual gift of teaching, is a father to obedient and orderly children (not child), has an ordered home life, is mature in the faith and is respected even by those outside of the church.
The Bible does not call for brilliant entrepreneurs or wealthy CFO’s or associate pastors or celebrities. That being said, a church whose overseers do not fit the Bible’s qualifications is at great risk of spiritual misdirection.
Much of today’s sheep are lost not because they wandered off, but because their unfit shepherds simply led them astray.
As biblical Christians, we should seriously and actively evaluate if our elders meet God’s criteria for church leadership. If you do not know your elders, you’ve revealed a problem. If your church is too large for you to meet with your elders, you’ve revealed another problem. God did not intend his local churches to be led by shepherds who are unknown by their sheep. If you’re longing for a biblical Christian community, then look for a church whose elders are close, known, and qualified.
3. Multi-Teacher And Dialogue-Centric Church Service
How would you feel if you went to a community meeting and instead of a fruitful and orderly dialogue between the members, one person spoke the entire time? Welcome to almost every church service in America. We’ve turned the meeting of the saints into audience Christianity—and it has nothing to do with the Bible.
In 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 Paul writes, “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets (teachers of truth) speak, and let the others (other teachers) judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first (teacher) keep silent. For you can all prophesy (teach truth) one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets (teachers) are subject to the prophets (other teachers). For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”
This is the order, structure, and blueprint that Jesus Christ calls us to observe when His church comes together. Now, you might be thinking, “Didn’t Paul write 1 Corinthians and not Jesus?” That’s correct. But just four verses later (vs. 37), Paul pens a sentence that should cause each of us careful consideration.
He writes, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.”
Now, you can argue with this passage if you’d like, it looks as if the Apostle even expected resistance by people who thought they were a “prophet” or “spiritual.” Nonetheless, our feelings do not change the fact that these directives are God’s commandments for how the church should gather.
For me, the heart of this passage is quite beautiful—Paul is instituting a format that is foreign to almost every church in America—an unpredictable, dialogue-centric, Holy Spirit led, and communally-governed gathering. From the prophets (those individuals with the gift of forth-telling truth inspired by the Holy Spirit and whose teachings align with the doctrines of the Old Testament, the teachings of Jesus, and the writings of His Apostles) to the those who simply come with a psalm to sing or personal revelation to share.
If you’re a quick thinker, you’re probably recognizing the difficulty to carry out this every-member-functioning arrangement inside a church building with hundreds of people. Herein lies the problem. In almost all instances, the modern church has unquestionably erased this doctrine and practice from its operations. While there are no scriptures which speak directly to church size, there are many biblical doctrines aimed at the church (like this one) which become impossible to fulfill within the current headcount of a large gathering. As a church-going Christian, this should pose a question: Are you looking for a consumer experience filled with passive spectating similar to a conference or are you looking for a contributor experience where you can bring your spiritual gifts to the meeting, be known by your community, and find your purpose among God’s people?
4. Active and Accountable Church Discipline:
For a moment, I want you to imagine if we took all the unrepentant fornicators, adulterers, drunkards, addicts, sexually immoral, and liars that are in the church today and placed them on an island. Let’s just say that it equaled 10 million people. In five years, what do you believe the culture of that island would become? Would it become more righteous or more carnal?
Now let’s imagine for a moment that we, as the Church of Jesus Christ, allowed the population of that island to be imported back into 100,000 Christian churches (1,000 people added to each church). What do we expect will happen to those 100,000 churches? Will the church’s native population be able to correct the behavior of the newly joined members? Will the church, regardless of the presence of these new congregants, not be changed and continue as is?
The Apostle Paul says certainly not. In speaking to immorality in the church and the exercising of church discipline, 1 Corinthians 5:6 says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” In other words, Paul is telling Christians that a little bit of tolerated immorality in a church will eventually destroy the entire body and also tarnish the name of Christ.
The church who does not practice church discipline but tolerates the presence of known habitual and unrepentant sinners is a sinful church.
But this isn’t Paul’s idea, Jesus himself calls for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 with, “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”‘
Anyone named a Christian who’s walking in habitual sin, whether that is viewing pornography or choosing to get drunk each weekend, or is living with their boyfriend or girlfriend should cause us to mourn. We are to be so troubled with the existence of unchanging wickedness in our church body, that we will obediently but not enjoyably carry out the removal of it.
This once again, is a church doctrine which becomes challenging to fulfill when within a large gathering filled with strangers. As a result, many of our churches are wallowing in their sin. Pure and righteous sheep are standing side-by-side with sin-loving goats unwilling to make Jesus Lord and walk in the freedom they have to be obedient to God’s Word.
Ultimately, we have many brilliant, creative, exciting, and unbiblical churches. A church absent of the raw Gospel, led by unqualified leaders, silenced by an audience format, and intoxicated with immoral members. We have taken far too much liberty in the innovation and addition of ideas that we have sped past the formational framework that upholds the heart and health of a local church.
However, let us tread carefully. We cannot forget that when Jesus was confronted by His Apostles and their frustration with outsiders who were casting out demons (Mark 9:38-40), Jesus’s response was, “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side.”
While many churches might have an incorrect doctrine or be walking in unknown immaturities, we mustn’t forget that they are on our side. As mature believers, we must not elevate our doctrine above the brother or sister before us. In John 17, Jesus’s prayer is that his Christians might be one as He and the Father are one. Church correction and personal spiritual course correction are sensitive matters. We are not perfect in our execution of God’s Word and we must be wary to expect others to be.
In closing, the most fruitful and life-giving expression of local church is a biblical expression. For us, the home has proved to be the best environment to support these biblical truths. But wherever you gather, your heart should be homesick for a place and a community of people who are crying out for God’s truth. There are many places to look for ways that we could do church but there is only one place to look for ways that we should do church—and that is the unchanging, immutable, and all-powerful Word of God.
Was this article helpful for your journey? Do you have any questions or thoughts? If so, let me know in the comments below.
Biblical church and how to get started.