By Missionary Pastor David Cox
As I run around the country on deputation this time, I want to analyze churches. What I see among different churches that are great or elements that make them great. Let me just say that as a missionary I am in a lot of churches when I am on furlough. Advantages: I see different set ups, I see different situations, and can glean from them to report to you. Disadvantages: Many times I am not in a church long enough to really discern some important elements that may affect my views.
Big Churches versus Small Churches
I have been in some great big churches, and I have been in some horrible small churches. Being big or small has little to do with whether they are good churches or not. You may have some advantages in one, and disadvantages in the other depending on their size. But these disadvantages can be overcome, and the advantages can be worked around in the other. So this post is not about greatness in the sense of bigness, glamour, glory, influence, etc. It is more about being a really, really good church.
But the physical size and number of people that make up a church really has little to do with what the church is as far as essence.
Great churches are friendly
What I notice more than size is the friendliness of the people. Great churches have people come up and interact with me as a new person. (A lot of times I just “drop in” on a new church I am not familiar with, and don’t really tell them who I am unless they ask.) Great churches are always friendly. I notice the feeling of friendliness because people will not let me sit there alone for very long before those around me come up and engage me in conversation. This is especially true of people sitting in front of me, beside me, or behind me.
Evangelism is the motive behind friendliness. When you win people to yourself, it is much easier to share the gospel with them.
Great churches are evangelistic
Perhaps this is the single most dominating factor in making a church great, this and prayer. But there are certain key signs that I look for that tell me that a church is “really good” or “great”. The first thing is a constant appeal to the people, that maybe some visitor or some regular attendee is not saved and would like to know Christ as their Savior. This constant appeal is necessary for any church to keep a focus on evangelism.
Another issue is constant opportunities to talk with some personal worker about their soul. First of all, there has to be a public offer constantly repeating itself before the people. God works in different ways and times with different people. A really great church knows this and is instant in season and out. Moreover, there has to be trained personal workers, both men, and women. The pastor is key, but there should be a host of people about to lead a soul to Christ (using Scripture) at a moment’s notice. These people need to be both trained and experienced. The church needs to have regular identified and designated women to work with women, and women to work with young people and children as well as men.
The physical arrangement of the building needs to have areas where these workers can quickly take an inquirer off to the side and talk to them.
There needs to be a positive, pro-active plan of soul winning. By that, I mean that there are activities every week where people are witnessing. These need to be pushed from the pulpit and announcements. There needs to be a tract rack for those who witness in life’s walk, and they are constantly giving out more and more tracts.
Great churches are dedicated to prayer
Prayer is bringing one’s own life in alignment with God’s will. God’s will is that we pray for what we need, and God will give it to us. This constant talking with God about what one is doing, and the wherewithal one needs to accomplish what God is showing them to do is the key to understanding prayer. With that “back and forth” between the person and God, the key is God’s will. That person needs to discern God’s will, and they need to be walking in it. They ask God for their daily and non-daily needs. These requests are necessary before God will officially grant that person their requests. But that asking has to be conditioned on a humble spirit of seeking and obeying God’s will.
People pray and don’t get what they ask for because they ask amiss. These people eventually stop asking God for their daily bread, their clothing, for the roof over their heads. They break that daily back and forth with God, and after that, they distance themselves from God, and when something really important comes along, they have broken the divine rule of prayer. That rule is that God answers the prayers of the person that he usually is answering their prayers anyway. Sounds strange, doesn’t it. But this is how this works. People who live a daily life of supplication before God get their prayers for special things answered first and best by God.
So a really great church is one that has a body of people who are praying as a way of life. Their prayers usually get answered. Maybe not all of them all of the time, but they believe in prayer because they personally have seen their special prayers before God answered. When you get around a group of people like that, it is a blessing to be with them. It is an encouragement to your own faith when you see how they have problems, and everybody prays and miracles happen.
Great churches are social oriented
This is close to the friendly element. Being socially oriented to me is that they arrange events and elements within the church environment that allow people to engage at a social level. There are always events, one after another one, that seem to be designed to allow people to talk to each other and fellowship. Whether it is work in the things of God, or a social of a group in the church, or a meal, the church is constantly throwing people together for things where they can get to know each other and grow to love each other.
Some “not so great” churches seem especially strong in dominating their environment so that people cannot even talk to one another. They impose a silence curfew before and after the services, where they discourage this social interaction. Why? Is church only what you get from the pastor guru?
Here I am not talking about a social gospel, but a living gospel that seeks to be a blessing to others in every way it can. This needs to be instilled into everybody in the church. Small groups or niches are especially a problem for churches, and these small groups tend to destroy the friendliness of the church environment. The same people always get with the same people in the same groups and usually talk about those not in their group.
This has to be avoided like the plague. The interaction needs to be free fellowship that is not designed to ignore others in the group. When somebody in a church has something against a brother or sister, that festers and kills the Holy Spirit working in that group. Usually only the individual knows this, and he or she refuses to deal with it. We will live with these brothers and sisters in heaven, and if we cannot do a little bit of living together with them here, what will God do with us in heaven? (Answer change us from this sin to righteously living, loving, and reaching out in love to them.)
Great churches teach the Bible through skilled teachers
I have seen big and small churches with poor Bible teachers. I have seen great Bible teachers (very skilled and charismatic) but were lousy after analyzing things. They did not exposit Bible. They did not truly make people come to understand the message behind the Scriptures they read and talked about. I have seen these “great Bible teachers,” in their own eyes, lose their congregations slowly as people understand that they are great teachers, but they don’t give them that spiritual exhortation in life that they need to correct what is wrong, and keep on doing what is right. They leave the great Bible teacher to settle for something less but is more exhortational. I have even seen pastors that do teach Scripture, and they exhort, but they are clumsy about bringing the truth of God’s Word to bear on personal lives, and a lot of good stuff gives lost in the morass of unorganized, un-emphasized, unordered talk in their sermon.
Preachers are given the job to teach the people of God. Teaching means making the people understand, and it does not mean just putting out information and the people have to get it however they can. This is not teaching. You can teach calculus to third graders but for all your greatness, they are not going to truly understand what you are saying. You are just going through the motions, and if you were to test your students, they catch very little.
To be truthful, I am very discouraged as I hear other pastors preach. So many stand up and go through all the motions of giving a Bible message, but they have no point to their sermon, no spiritual application, no “takeaways” for the people to meditate on and take home with them. I would call those sermons “unremarkable”. You forget them mostly before you get through the door going home.
They do not spiritually challenge their people at all. To find a rebuke or exhortation in them is next to impossible unless you “interpret” and read into them a lot that was not really said. But some spiritual good is not the center focus, it is not what is emphasized. It is as if the pastor is fulfilling his obligation to talk until 12 noon, and then he has accomplished his one goal to get his salary.
I find very little or no challenge of sin in most sermons I hear today. The old preachers that were “reknown” for their challenges to sin like Billy Sunday, where his weeks of camp meetings preaching against booze would close down the liquor stores are unheard of today. That is because preachers like to fill time with facts “ABOUT” the Bible rather than grasp the Bible’s central messages, and drive those messages home in the hearts of those who are listening.
Most all preachers today that consider themselves “great” or “good” preachers measure a good sermon by how much accurate information about the Bible they convey. Yet information is dead, and it only puffs up the ego of the receiver. When we measure a good or great sermon by how it changes people to live a more godly life, then we see few of that kind of preaching around. Week after week of the same old sermons, and year after year, but the people listening never change their life spiritually speaking. They talk religiously enough, but they don’t live it. This is a failure.
A great church has sermons that drive down essential principles constantly. The sermon may not be lavish and intellectual, but the message is one that everybody “takes home” something from it.
Great churches understand and promote true worship
Worship is not man-centric, where man’s feeling is at the center of what these people consider to be “worship”. Rather true worship is giving glory to God, attributing to God greatness, goodness, faithfulness, etc.
When the music gets too jazzy, too spectacular, it brings a focus on the singers and presenters of this music rather than God. Praise is not about us feeling good, but about giving God what makes him “feel good”. A dependency on God is something that God desires. An acknowledgment that God is absolutely necessary for our lives for us to be happy, successful, and have what we need.
Worship is as essential as doctrine really when we understand what it is, and what it is supposed to produce in us. Praise is recognizing God for all the good things he has done (past tense) for us (and others). Worship is recognizing God for what he is morally, his essence. So worship energizes us towards God. It pulls us closer to him (very much like real praise does).
We come to church on Sunday to give God what he wants from us (a priesthood role), not really to get something from God. The blessings come when we give to God first. But people ignore giving to God worship, and they move the focus to what is not biblical, a good feeling. This is where churches go wrong. A great church is focused on God and what God wants from us, especially Sunday, but over all our life.
Great churches leave you wanting to come back
One of the main points of a great church is that when you are there, and go home, you really look forward to going back there. Some churches have people that are so toxic in their attitudes, so antagonist in their dealings with one another, it is a relief to get out of there. This is a bad church. A good church is one where people can truly say,
Ps 122:1 A Song of degrees of David. I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.