Am I In The Right Church?
Call it an itch. Call it human nature. Call it what you wish. But I think we’ve all witnessed or experienced a desire for a deeper worship excitement. Symptoms include dissatisfaction and boredom with the repetitive orders of service, longing for more “relevant” or “engaging” sermons and complaining to fellow congregation members about the church’s way of doing things. It divides congregations and leads Christians to become “church hoppers,” seeking to find the church that scratches their itch—for the time being.
But is that biblical? Is that the metric by which we ought to gauge the spiritual effectiveness or soundness of our church? I don’t think so. As I read through the Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, I do not see excitement, entertainment, or good feels used to describe God’s design for congregations. This may ruffle the feathers of some, but before you seek to crucify me for blasphemy, let me also say that there is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself at church. But I am saying that an emotional high or other feelings are not required for biblical worship.
Maybe you’re in that camp—bored, unengaged and seeking to jump the life raft in an attempt to swim to the cruise liner in the distance. But before you do, let me ask you a question. Does your congregation rightly handle God’s Word and correctly administer the Sacraments instituted in that Word? In our Lutheran Confessions (The Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, Art. XI, cf. Augsburg Confession, VII-VIII), we are taught that the proper use and administration of the Word and sacraments is the metric by which we must judge our church. It says that God “has preordained his Word and sacraments as the regular means and instruments for drawing people to himself,” and that through the Word and sacraments alone, the “merit and the benefits of Christ are to be offered, given and distributed to us.” This means if your church gets the Word and sacraments right, regardless of your feelings about it, God’s work is being done there. You’re getting Jesus. You’re getting the full meal.
So how do you know if that’s happening in your church? Consider the following.
Is your church rightly handling God’s Word?
What this means might surprise you. Many churches use the Bible regularly. But that doesn’t mean it’s being used rightly. In Matthew 4, Satan himself used God’s Word to suit his own purposes. Many “churches” today do the same thing. Similarly, many churches use God’s Word to bring up the person of Jesus only to present him as a good moral example or one of many paths to God. But again, even demons believe in Christ, yet they do not receive his benefits (James 2:19).
To rightly handle God’s Word is to use it to show God’s plan of salvation for his people. The Bible from start to finish tells this story. In the law it shows humanity how God’s way is the best way to live. That law exposes how we’ve failed to live according to God’s plan and have earned condemnation as a consequence. The Bible then speaks beautiful words of gospel which tell us that through Christ’s death and resurrection alone, there is no longer any condemnation for those who trust in him (Romans 5:1). The Holy Spirit takes God’s living and active Word and uses it to produce this faith in us.
If the Word is being rightly preached then it will mean that your pastor’s sermons are not a spiritual “how-to” manual on how to be a better <fill-in-the-blank> this week. If that’s the sermon’s main focus, you’ve only heard law—and a watered down version at that, since it implies that you’re able to achieve it. The law, preached rightly, will condemn us. It will show us how to live and guide us, but also how we’ve failed to do so. The Word preached rightly will magnify the gospel—the obedience and forgiveness of Christ on our behalf. Good preaching will leave us feeling comforted, not in ourselves, but in the promises of God for us in Christ Jesus.
Is your Church rightly administering the sacraments?
If the Word is being rightly taught, it will also follow that the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper)— instituted by God’s command in his Word—are viewed as gospel gifts, rather than law commands. They’re God’s work and gifts for us, not our work and gifts for God. In the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments, God’s Word attaches to the visible elements of water, bread and wine to form a vehicle of God’s grace to the recipient.
Some churches view baptism as a “work of obedience” whereby a believing Christian pledges his commitment to God. The biblical witness tells a different story. It compares baptism to a “circumcision of the heart” not done by hands, but done by Christ as through baptism he buried our old nature and raised us to new life (Colossians 2:11-12). Elsewhere it says that “baptism…saves you, not by a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21). The work of burying one’s sin nature, resurrecting a new righteous nature, saving and forgiving is the prerogative of God alone, and therefore baptism is a wonderful gift from him from which a Christian can gain enormous comfort.
Similarly, the Lord’s Supper is a gift of God. As God’s Word combines with the gifts of bread and wine, it IS (as opposed to represents, looks like or compares to) Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 26:26-28). In the gift Christ himself is really present in, with, and under the bread and wine. This means it’s not, as some churches teach, a mere symbolic remembrance of him, but Christ’s gift of himself, his forgiveness and his strength to the one who receives it in faith.
The bottom line: When the Word and sacraments are rightly taught and administered we have Jesus. We have life, salvation and forgiveness of sins. No matter how mundane or boring, seen for what it is the little life raft becomes worth riding knowing the shore to which it sails.