According to some estimates, there are roughly 350,000 churches in America, representing over 40,000 denominations. While it is true that thousands of churches are started every year, thousands also close.
Most congregations go through a life cycle of birth, incline, recline, decline and death.
Western churches usually begin with a small group of visionary-believers who network and unite in order to fill a particular void they feel. The original cause(s) that bonded the progenitors of a congregation will usually continue to be the main undercurrent that gives them purpose and identification.
The churches that are in greatest risk of dying are those who’s main purpose is to be a denominational outpost or refuge for any social cause such as: race, culture, or trend. Since these realities often change with the demographics of a society, churches that are founded upon these are usually affected once the need for their existence diminishes.
Anyone who becomes acquainted with the New Testament will readily begin to suspect that there is a great chasm between the early Church and what we call “church” today. Oftentimes, those who become fully aware of this difference, will either choose to conform to the existential pattern of today’s churches, or begin to earnestly yearn for a deeper Christian life and church experience.
In order to experience true Christianity, we must be willing to detach and completely empty ourselves from the presuppositions that we’ve inherited and the external personal preferences that restrain us from experiencing the power of the Christian Faith in this plane of existence.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, the Apostle Paul refers to the local congregation as a microcosm of the greater Church, which is the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” The following “pillars” help us to identify a true church according to the Biblical model.
Pillar #1- A Message of Liberation
When Jesus walked the earth, the concept of fate under-girded both the philosophies and religions of the day. From Athens to India, most schools of thought promulgated the idea that everyone was born with an unchanging reality that identified a person through life. In fact, society expected for persons to view their social condition as an unchanging, divine vocation that could only be changed once our lot (whether good or bad) had been fulfilled. The reason why Jesus taught that the Gospel came for the poor is because unlike the rich, they do not have the luxury of choice nor the ability to escape their condition due to lack of resources. (Luke 4:18)
Christianity at its core is counter-cultural and revolutionary. It does not accept the thought-patterns of a passing world-order. Christianity seeks to save humankind from the slavery and distraction of our sensual appetites (including our false ego), and make us partakers of the divine essence. (2 Peter 1:4)
With the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, not only was Christ victorious over our inherited fate, but also, we have received the promise and potential of a new, transcendent start. Christianity teaches that nothing is impossible for those who follow Jesus Christ. (Mark 9:23)
Through Christ’s willingness to accept his fate, he lured all the spiritual forces that enslaved humanity, and provided a means of escape for us. Through Christ’s death and bodily resurrection, believers have been transferred from Satan’s domain into God’s kingdom.
Colossians 1:13-14 (NIV) For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
The liberated in Christ has not only been potentially transferred into the Kingdom of Heaven, but also substantially transformed and made a partaker of a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17) Since external circumstances are temporary, they cannot define or limit the potential of those who have been emancipated by the Cross. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Christians are defined according to their ultimate existential condition in Christ, who sits at the right hand of God’s authority over all of creation. (Colossians 3:1-3; Ephesians 2:6) Because we are in Christ and qualitatively part of his body, we also share in his victory over all the limitations of sin and death. The Christian message is one of liberation.
Personal knowledge of the divine should lead the Christian towards the desire of wanting to experientially know God through a vibrant pursuit of Him. The assembly of believers should be a collective reflection of every individual’s personal desire to glorify God through everything they say and do. (1Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17)
The phrase “Glorifying God” or “giving God the glory” does not refer to the literal utterance of the word “glory,” but rather it points towards a transcendent communication between God and his created image. The Bible teaches that humankind was created in the “image and likeness” of God. (Gen. 1:26) This means, that we were created in order to reflect the person of God to entities of both spiritual and physical planes. When we “repent and turn to God” (Acts 3:19) everything that marred and disfigured us (sin) is cleared away. Worship is simply reflecting God’s beauty and awesome deeds back to him, like a mirror. Worship is reflecting God’s glory.
2 Cor. 3:17 (NIV)- “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
When a Christian church is filled with fervent believers who love and seek after Christ, then their communal worship of God will noticeably reflect the love, joy and blissful beauty that emanates from the One who is all attractive- Jesus Christ, Son of God. (John 12:32)
Whether a church is liturgical, traditionally structured or free-flowing, the focus of the congregation should be to gaze upon Christ’s majesty and reflect through worship the wonder of His Name.
Pillar #3- A Divine Brotherhood
A Biblical church is not a place where one anonymously goes to be entertained for an hour, and then go on our merry way to continue living our lives detached from other Christians. The Apostle Peter says:
1Peter 2:17 (NIV)- Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
Not only are Christians a “chosen people, a royal priesthood and a holy nation, belonging to God,” (1Peter 2:9) but we are also existentially and substantially brothers and sisters. Every Christian should realize that he or she is part of the family or “household” of God. (Eph. 2:19-20) Christians are a family because through faith in the Gospel we have all gained a Firstborn brother. (Romans 8:29) In fact, every time we meet a sibling in Christ, we’re actually meeting with a “part” of the body of Christ (1Cor. 12:27) and a habitation of the person of Christ (Eph. 3:17). If we love Christ, then naturally we must also strive to love the “parts” of his body.
A church that is filled with quarrels, jealousies, cliques and factions does not reflect the harmony and peace of Christ’s person. No Christian could ever claim to love God, while treating a brother or sister in Christ with contempt. (1 John 4:20)
A true church is filled with Christians who love one another in ways that reflect God’s own, non-prejudicial love through kindness and heart-felt concern. (1Cor. 13)
Pillar #4- A Transcendental Awareness
First of all, a healthy church emanates a personal knowledge of God through the person of Jesus. (John 17:3) An experiential knowledge of God leads believers to perceive obstacles as opportunities for spiritual maturation. This knowledge of God and His Kingdom, also serves to illumine believers into discovering what their individual and collective purpose might be. When a church becomes aware of its purpose in the kingdom, it begins to proactively work towards fulfilling its God-assigned mission.
A missiologically aware church is a congregation that transcends the stagnation of most churches and emanates life and hope in many ways, for the glory of God.
Spiritually-mature churches have a sense of existence that transcends the present. A true church knows that, regardless of its plight in the now, that its true reality resides in heaven. (Col. 3:1-3; Eph. 2:6) Our present life is like one who re-lives a distant past from a position of existential glory. Our experiential shortcomings are not what define us, nor do they reflect our true potential in Christ. (Eph. 4:12-13) Since our true lives are “hidden” in Christ, where we are seated upon God’s throne over all creation, then nothing that the church desires to accomplish can be either obstructed or detained. In fact, “the gates of hell” cannot prevail against us. (Mt. 16:18)
A church that is truly aware of this transcendent reality, becomes a powerful church.
Pillar #5- A Community of Disciples
Unlike the pervading consumer-oriented model of Western ministries, a true church is a congregation of believers who are devoted disciples of a main Teacher, Jesus Christ. Consumer-oriented churches espouse an underlying view of Jesus that is equanimous to the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon.
Interestingly, most congregations are assemblies of “devotees” to a divine Jesus that we invoke in order to receive special favors. But before His ascension, Jesus did not command the Apostles to go into the whole world and make “devotees.” He commanded His Disciples to go make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:18-20)
A disciple not only studies the teachings of a teacher, but also, seeks to proactively put into practice those teachings by imitating the life of the teacher. In the Church, God has established “Pastors and Teachers” in order to pass down the esoteric teachings of Jesus Christ. I use the word “esoteric” here in its original sense, as “knowledge that is likely to be understood only by a small number of people.”
During Jesus’ ministry on earth, he purposely preached to the masses in parables so that those who followed him for the wrong reasons, could never understand and reap the enlightenment and power of Christ’s teaching.
Luke 8:10 (KJV) And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.
A true church understands that its primary reason for gathering on Sundays is for worship and not in order to receive “the mysteries of the kingdom.” That sort of discipleship relationship occurs on a more personal level by spending time around pastors and teachers. A true church understands that it is made up of both spiritual “devotees” and disciples that quantifiably demonstrate an earnest desire to learn the deeper doctrines of Scripture. This knowledge always serves as the force that impels the disciples to joyfully make new disciples of Christ.