Earlier today I came across a quote from someone that went something like this:

“If you are attending a church where the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be alive and on fire, then you need to find a new church. God doesn’t want us to be dragged down by ritual and religion.”

That’s not a direct quote (I’m trying to spare the person who said it), but it’s close enough that it conveys their sentiment quite accurately. It troubled me for a few reasons.

First, it throws around words like “religion” and “ritual” without explaining what they are or why they might be bad. True, Isaiah reminds us that the LORD detests feasts, assemblies, and offerings empty of meaning (1:12-15), but many outside of the church might consider the Lord’s Supper or baptism a “ritual”, and those are things that Jesus Christ specifically instructed us to do as a gathered covenant community. So if people start throwing around words like “religion” and “ritual” in disparaging or derogatory ways, ask them what they mean by those terms.

Second, there’s this notion that we should be looking for the Spirit to be “alive and on fire”–which sounds invigorating and profound and spiritually mature–but is open to some very problematic misunderstandings.

What does it mean for the Spirit to be “on fire” in a church? For many people, this simply means that they walk out feeling energized and inspired because they had a “powerful worship experience”, which can usually be boiled down even further to meaning that they got to hear their current favorite worship song/anthem/ballad.

If you are basing your assessment of your church’s fidelity to Jesus Christ and his mission on something as shallow as whether or not you got pumped up during a time of worship, then you are swimming in some dangerously subjective waters. I’m not suggesting that this person intended all of this with their comment, but it is open to great misunderstanding and problematic implications.

How does the Spirit work in the church, and what should you look for in a church?

church steeple

Reformed theology has long emphasized the biblical understanding that the Spirit works through “ordinary means”, i.e. the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. These are the divinely appointed means of grace through which Christ is building his kingdom. Certainly the Spirit can be active in powerful ways in a church, and do mighty things through her, but we need to be clear that the Spirit’s presence is made evident through more than just personal feelings of elation.

The ‘marks’ of the church, then, not motivated members, energized worship, or numerically successful programs. John Calvin very famously expressed it this way:

“Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (Institutes, IV.1.ix).

Years later, John Knox, a student of Calvin’s, would help to augment this in the Scots Confession of 1560, which helped to establish Scottish Presbyterianism. It says:

“The notes of the true Kirk (Church), therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; second, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst.” (Chapter XVIII)

What this means, in practice, is that you should not look to leave a local church because you don’t like the new minister, got tired of the old one, didn’t get your music requests honored, or didn’t think that the Spirit was ‘on fire’ enough for your tastes.

If and when the time comes to leave a local congregation, it should be because the Word is ignored or profaned, the sacraments abolished or trivialized, or the sense of mutual encouragement and obligation to repress vice and nourish virtue eliminated.

It’s never a bad thing to reflect upon the character, conviction, and actions of your local congregation. But do not judge its worth on things like whether or not it is contemporary, traditional, edgy, creative, lively, or prestigious enough for your palate. Instead, ask:

Is the Word being preached with clarity and conviction?

Are baptism and the Lord’s Supper celebrated and annexed to the promises of the Word?

Are believers (especially elders and ministers) encouraging and exhorting, rebuking and refining according the Word?

If the answers are positive, then I would argue that there is no good reason to leave. Rather, pray for the leadership and laity, mission and ministry, faithfulness and fruitfulness of the gathered covenant community. Get involved. Help start the ministry you think your church is lacking. Help revitalize the work that you think has stagnated. Rejoice at the ordinary ways in which the Spirit is at work through the regular ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Calvin expressed it like this:

“The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults…we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions.” (IV.1.xii)

2 thoughts on “What to look for in a church

  1. Pingback: Calvin and Church Discipline | a pattern of sound words

  2. Pingback: The true Church | a pattern of sound words

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