“How’s your church doing?”

Since we started Crossway Bible Church six months ago, people are constantly asking me the question: “How’s your church doing?”

Perhaps I could cleverly reply, “I don’t have a church – it’s God’s church,” and do so with some biblical warrant (see 1 Corinthians 3:9). But since they’re typically not asking for a lesson in fundamental ecclesiology, I feel like I should give them a serious answer to their question.

But it’s not always as easy to answer as it might seem. The common response might be to tell people that the church is doing well because a number of people are coming and new people and families are continuing to visit and stay. But there are places called “church” with tens of thousands of people who are not doing well at all in God’s sight, because they are not acting in faithfulness to God’s word. So mere numbers are no indicator at all of how a church is actually doing.

But when you know that numbers are no necessary indicator of doing well in God’s sight, what do you say? How do you know if a church is doing well? Is it measurable?

On the surface, our church looks mostly as it did the first month after we started. We meet in the same place; a few more people are showing up each month; nothing all-that-observable or extremely significant has changed in appearance. I don’t know the nitty-gritty personal details of everyone’s life and how faithfully they are walking before the Lord in their day-to-day life, though I try to take a great interest in this and find out as best I can how I might help people to do this.

But is the church doing well? What does it mean for a church to do well?

I’ve been forced to think again through what the Scriptures say about whether a church is in good or bad shape, and several things came to mind. There are more than the ones listed, but here are some biblical indicators of church health to measure whether a church is doing well:

  • Stability in the truth

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 3:6-8)

People continuing to believe the gospel without being drawn away from it is a sign that a church is doing well. In some ways, the most important thing that is happening is that nothing is changing at all on this front.

  • Humility before the word of God

For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

When people are receiving the word of God as the word of God, this is a reason for great thanksgiving before God, as it is an indicator of their true salvation.

  • Love and ministry toward one another

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more,” (1 Thessalonians 4:9–10)

…”for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;” (Ephesians 4:12)

When people are doing the work of the ministry – speaking the word of God in love and truth to one another, serving one another for the other’s good – then the body of Christ is being built up. Growth happens as the body works to help itself grow, by the power of God as he works through his word.

  • Growth in the knowledge of Christ

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might (Ephesians 1:18–19)

For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;” (Colossians 1:9–10)

Growth in the knowledge of Christ leads to growth in godly living. A church will grow, and is growing, when its people are growing in the knowledge of Christ, as they grow in their understanding of the truth of Scripture and apply that truth through wise and godly living.

  • Testimony to the world

For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:8–10)

But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (Acts 5:13-14)

A church that is “doing well” has a good reputation as godly and upright people in the sight of the world, even if others will not join with them due to rejecting the gospel and its demands. The word of God will be going forth from it so that people are hearing the truth of God, and they will look at the church as a faithful representative of the character and glory of Christ.

I believe that many of these things are going on at Crossway Bible Church, and for that I am deeply thankful. We have a wonderful group of people who are eager to learn from, grow in, and stand firm by the word of God; to serve one another; and to testify to others, both in their words and in their conduct, of the truth of Jesus Christ.

My hope and prayer is that this kind of growth will continue and that others may be added to the church with the same result. And if this happens, I should now have a better answer to the question: “How’s your church doing?”

 

 

 

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Podcast Roundup

At the end our recently-completed two-year men’s training course at Grace Community Church, one of the guys asked if I could send them some recommendations for podcasts and other audio to listen to and continue to grow in their knowledge of the Scriptures.

Since these are largely all helpful for anyone seeking to know Christ in a greater way, I thought it would be good to make the list publicly available. Here it is:

This one is currently at the top of my list to listen to. This a a two-year cycle of men’s leadership and ministry lessons and they are just absolute gold. I cannot commend them too highly. You can also check out all of their sermon audio as well – lots of good stuff here!

A ministry led by Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C. They have interviews with a number of people dating back over a decade. They are baptistic and congregational, and sometimes don’t deal with texts as directly and in as much detail as I would like, but there is a ton of great thinking on how the church should function. The last four episodes (as of today) have been especially good. Be sure to search the interview archive to find interviews by name of the interviewee.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with John MacArthur’s preaching ministry. There are a number of feeds, including the radio broadcast version and the weekly pulpit podcast.

Alistair Begg – insightful, theological, practical, and easy to listen to. What else do you need?

Tom Pennington just started preaching through the book of Romans a not long ago and is wonderfully helpful and clear in his expository preaching.

Shane Koehler is the teaching pastor at this church in Woodstock, GA, where I have several good friends and have visited many times. He is masterful in explaining the biblical text in a concise way and going no further than what the Scripture says.

No Compromise Radio – Mike Abendroth
Just like what it sounds. A half-hour radio broadcast that focuses on applying the Bible to current trends and thinking in the larger Christian world. Very insightful and easy to listen to.

Mortification of Spin
Their podcast logo is John Owen photoshopped as listening to their podcast; you can pretty much guess what you’re getting here. They come from a Reformed/Presbyterian point of view and there is not much direct exposition of Scripture, but where they already understand Scripture rightly (and usually they do) there are some really good insights into the Bible’s application toward contemporary Christian culture. A sizable dose of sarcasm and humor is thrown in for good measure.

And, of course, the podcasts from the two churches involved in the Shepherds’ Institute:

What about you? Which podcasts have you found helpful? Are there any you could recommend to me to grow in my knowledge of, and obedience to, the Bible?

“I believe” and the Basis of Faith

Every few days for the last three weeks, my social media feeds have seen a sudden spike of people shouting a common phrase together: “I believe!” This, of course, was the shortened version of a chant that has expressed the feelings of the supporters of the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) during their participation in the World Cup: “I believe that we will win!”

Yesterday that belief came to a screeching halt as the USMNT gave up two goals in extra time to bow out in the Round of 16. Players and fans were no doubt gutted. It was a difficult end to what had been a hopeful start.

On one level this is yet another example of the futility of placing one’s hope and satisfaction in those things which are uncertain. As one who spent his childhood heavily invested in a number of sports teams, I understand the pains of pulling for a particular team and seeing them lose. I understand the (short-lived) joys of winning and the utter dissatisfaction that comes with losing.

But on another level, the use of the phrase and its wrong prognosis on three out of four occasions during this World Cup – there were three games out of four that the USMNT most definitely did not win – raises an important point about the nature of belief itself.

Anyone is free to believe anything he wants to believe. I am free to believe that the moon will fall into the ocean tonight. I would be wrong, but I can believe it.

In the same way, everyone was free to believe that the USMNT would win. However, as is evident from the outcome of the matches, this belief was badly misplaced.

Now, I’m well aware that the phrase was not meant to indicate that people were firmly persuaded that the USMNT would win every match they played. I understand that the chant was just that: a rallying cry, not an actual definitive prognosis.

But at the same time it raises an interesting and crucial point: What should we actually believe, and why should we believe it?

This question has immense important in the realm of the Christian faith. To many, Christianity is simply something they “believe” as if it is simply their preferred way of moving through life. Others have their beliefs, and we have our beliefs. In these cases it is simply that one prefers to think in a particular way as opposed to another.

To others, especially those outside of Christianity, “belief” or “faith” is simply something that you decide that you want to be true and then you live as though it were. Forget the facts: you don’t really have grounds for it, but you believe it anyway. It goes a little something like this:

Bill: “John, a hurricane is coming through, you need to leave.”

John: ‘I’ll be okay.’

Bill: “But you live in a mobile home below the storm surge line and it’s a Category 5.”

John: ‘I’ll be fine. I have faith.’

This is the way that much of the world sees Christian beliefs. In essence it is no different than believing in Santa Claus or believing in the Tooth Fairy: It has no basis in reality, but someone wants it to be true, so he believes it.

Standing in contrast to all of this is biblical faith. When Christians “believe” in Christ according to the Bible, they are not making up what they want to be true and then deciding that it is true. In fact, far from making up one’s own understanding and believing it, we are called to deny our own speculations and to trust God and his word completely:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart

And do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)

Biblical faith is not built upon human ideas or things it wants to be true. Rather, it is confidence in a God who has made specific claims and promises and told us to believe him and his words.

Abraham, the prototype of saving faith, demonstrated this kind of belief:

Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Romans 4:19-21)

True faith does not invent its own things to believe. Rather, it takes God at his word because God is 1) trustworthy so as to perform what he promises, and 2) powerful so as to be capable of doing what he promises.

The essential elements of biblical faith, then, consist in believing what God has said, primarily in the gospel: that God is holy and righteous; that you are sinful, guilty, and deserving of his judgment; and that Christ is the Son of God who died in the place of sinners and rose from the dead, offering salvation for all who call upon him. And believing that, you cast yourself upon God’s mercy and turn from your evil ways to love and serve him.

If your faith is merely in your speculations or wishes, you are sure to be let down every time.

But if your faith is in the words of a God who is trustworthy and powerful, you will never be disappointed.

For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; 13for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:11–13)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Loving the Church

(Note: this review is from the Kindle edition and includes Kindle locations instead of page numbers)

The concept and title of the book Loving the Church, by John Crotts, is as foreign to most today as the concept of “loving going to the department of motor vehicles.” In fact, the thoughts evoked when the church is mentioned are often very similar:

  • It takes time away from other things you would rather be doing;
  • There are people there you don’t want to deal with (and who don’t want to deal with you);
  • It’s boring;
  • Those people just want your money;
  • You’re just a number;
  • Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just do all this over the internet? Why do you have to be there in person at all?

Though not every professing Christian has this view of the church, the sad truth is that many people do not share the Bible’s view of the proper place of the church in the world and in their lives. Some do not recognize the inherent value of the church; others may know what the church is in theory but have a bad taste in their mouths from bad church experiences. Many people have a less-than-proper view of the church, for a variety of reasons. In fact, no one perfectly values the church as highly as it should be valued, which makes the material in Loving the Church so needed for anyone who is willing to learn from it.

The framework for the book is a fictitious series of discussions by a group of people providentially brought together at a coffee shop. They all have had varying experiences with the church (mostly bad) but they decide to meet regularly to share what they are learning from the Bible on the subject of the church. In addition to making the book easy to read, this framework was a helpful reminder of the crucial importance of a right understanding of the church: when churches are not functioning properly, people who want to honor Christ by serving faithfully in the church are left wandering, like sheep without a shepherd. It is therefore critical for church leaders to cultivate a church that is easily lovable by those who are truly born again.

The book is divided into two sections: “What’s is God’s Family?” and “How You Fit Into God’s Family.” The first deals with the nature and value of the church; the second deals with more specifically practical elements of the church’s structure and function.

In the first section, the author demonstrates that though the church is not held in high esteem by many people, it is held in the highest esteem by God, whose house it is, and by Christ, who gave his life to purchase it. This low view of the church is reflected in a lack of participation in the life of the church: “While there are many reasons given for the small place the church has in their lives, the common denominator is that they all misunderstand the value of the church as presented in the Bible.” (Loc 202)

He makes an especially salient point concerning the place of the church – as the pillar and support of God’s truth – in missions: “God has established churches to study, know, do, and proclaim his Word in the world. Christians who seek to serve the Lord outside the bounds of a church are missing out on their mission. They are also putting themselves on dangerous ground, beyond the boundaries of those who are established to guard God’s truth” (Loc 394). The gospel does not go forth or stay pure in isolation, but rather in the context of churches that are established or being established.

He also shows that a biblical church is a church that is submitted to Christ as head over the church, and that he rules every inch of the church through his word, the Bible. Because of this, a church must be careful to subject all of its teaching and its practice to biblical standards in order to obey its head. The author urges his readers to remember that the church, and its leadership, must be fully committed to this standard, saying, “…it is not okay to do things differently than the Bible teaches and assume that Jesus doesn’t mind” (Loc 552)”

This is another way of describing the authority of Scripture. This submission to biblical authority comes as elders, deacons, and all other church members perform their proper biblical roles to the building up of one another, resulting in a church that is built up into the fullness of its head, Jesus Christ.

The second half of the book looks at how the church should be structured, arguing for the two offices of elders and deacons and explaining what each is to be and do. He calls for believers to invest themselves in the church 1) by living lives of personal holiness and 2) by making time with the church a priority on their calendars (both corporately and elsewhere during the week).

He urges pastors to equip all believers for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16) and for those believers to all use their various gifts in accomplishing the work of the church. He laments the standard practice of a new church being started to reach a new demographic, instead arguing that the church should reflect a diversity of backgrounds and gifts supernaturally coming together in striving for the same truths and the same purpose: “While some churches seem to short-circuit Jesus’ plan by targeting one single slice of the culture for evangelism and ministry, Jesus’ plan includes diversity” (Loc 925).

The book skillfully weaves these sections of explaining biblical texts on the church with words of exhortation to the reader. Though the author has clearly “done his homework” and much information is being conveyed to the reader, it is very obviously not a merely academic study. He constantly speaks to the reader of his need to follow in obedience to the principles and precepts described in Scripture concerning the church.

The author’s desire is clearly for churches that are everything that Christ desires them to be, both in what they state and what they practice. As that is being done, his goal is for Christians to learn both the supreme value of the church as well as how to function biblically within it. Following the biblical truths laid out in this book helps to accomplish all of these goals.

Loving the Church will be of special value to those who are disenchanted by the church and who are really not sure what to do next. But regardless of one’s prior knowledge of the church or degree of participation within it, the book will be of great value to all who take the time to read it.

Thoughts on a Year of Church Planting

One year ago today, June 16, 2013, a group of several families met in a home in Farragut for the first meeting of our Church Planting Core Group. Sent by Grace Community Church in Maryville, the core group consisted of ten families who were eager to see biblical ministry, built upon the exposition of God’s word, taking place in a new spot some distance from our current church.

Core Group Photo

At a core group meeting in June 2013

Quite a bit has happened in the last year! Here are some of the highlights:

We spent our core group meetings studying the doctrine of the church (“ecclesiology”) as a biblical foundation upon which to base local church practice. Along with this we enjoyed wonderful themed meals, singing together, and time in prayer for one another and for our upcoming church efforts.

The core group adopted the name “Crossway Bible Church” through the most convoluted balloting system ever invented (Confession: I invented it. I won’t be allowed to do it again). We are officially recognized by the government and everything, and even have a real website (When do we get to shed the “church plant” label and just be a “church”? My vote is for “immediately”).

CBC Logo Black

We saw the Lord answer our prayers for a Sunday meeting spot (Pellissippi State Community College), which has been as perfect of a location as we could have asked for. After meeting for eight months as a core group on Sunday evenings in a house, we had our first Sunday worship service on February 2, 2014. After a couple of “practice church” weeks, we opened to the public on February 23. In the middle of a brutally cold and very snowy winter – by Tennessee standards, at least – we were able to open on schedule without any weather issues, a wonderful answer to prayer.

Every family from this original core group has remained and has become actively engaged in serving, many wearing multiple ministry hats, as well as many serving in ways they had never served at all before.  Since we opened to the public, a number of families and individuals have been visiting, including many who have become regulars. Many of these are also becoming a part of the various areas of ministry of the church.

We have seen many elements of church body life taking place, including men’s and ladies’ Bible studies, Wednesday night small groups, Sunday night classes, and a budding Sunday night men’s prayer ministry. And, of course, not neglecting our GCC spiritual heritage, we have all-but-taken-over the local McDonald’s after our Sunday evening activities! These more formal things are in addition to the growing fellowship that takes place throughout the week as people serve one another and encourage one another according to their needs.

We have had a joyful time learning from the Scriptures together, including studies in the books of Philippians, Colossians, Jonah, 2 Peter, Leviticus, Matthew, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, as well the subjects of the Scriptures, God, and evangelism. God’s word continues to prove itself to be a bottomless gold mine, and an all-sufficient resource for the life and ministry of the church.

We are eager to see what the Lord will do in the next year and for many, many years to come, if he wills. For now, though, we can’t help but be immensely thankful for what he has done so far!  Soli Deo Gloria.