4 Dos When it Comes to Small Group Ministry

View More: http://diprimaphotography.pass.us/grace-staff-picturesLast week on the blog I shared 4 Don’ts When it Comes to Small Group Ministry. This week I’m sharing 4 Dos. This list is definitely not exhaustive, but it does state some of the main ideals that we’re seeking to pursue in our local church small group ministry.

 1. Use the small group 

In my experience, you get out of small group what you put into it. Avail yourself of all that a good small group can offer. Use your small group as a platform for community, fellowship, Bible study, and prayer in the church. Develop intentional relationships with the people in your small group. As most small groups meet mid-week, seek to view small group as a special gift from Christ to your needy soul as you labor through a busy week. I have often found small group to be like an oasis in which I get to focus my thoughts and affections on Christ and his body. This is so necessary especially when you find yourself in the middle of a difficult week.

The Bible does not require that the church organize a small group program. However, if your church offers small groups, make them part of your weekly/monthly rhythm. Use these opportunities to lean in to life among the church body.

2. PRAY!

Small groups can serve many good purposes, but I think one of the very best uses of the small group time is for prayer. The small group environment is a context in which more intimate personal prayer needs can be shared. If a small group is limited to 10-15 people, it’s quite possible that every individual can share prayer requests. Not only that, depending on how the time is structured, it’s possible that almost every individual in the group can pray for someone else. Small groups also accommodate a natural environment for pursuing continuity in our prayers. It makes it easy to follow up on previous prayer requests that have been shared and to bring the same issues before the Lord on a consistent basis.

If your small group makes prayer a part of your regular meetings together, let me encourage you to consider designating someone to keep track of prayers that have been shared in the group that God has answered. As a general rule, we do not thank God for answered prayer as much as we should.

3. Open up

Most small groups are designed to provide some opportunities that corporate gatherings simply can’t provide. It is unlikely that every member of the church will get to speak in a worship service. It’s unlikely that every member will get to pray or share a prayer request at a corporate prayer meeting. In small group however, everyone can voice a prayer request, an edifying comment, or a thoughtful question.

Since facilitating intimacy among the group is one of the goals of small group ministry, don’t be afraid to be intimate. Open up with your brothers and sisters. Talk about what Christ is teaching you in your Christian walk. Talk about things in your life that are difficult or challenging. Share encouragements from God’s Word. Avail yourself of the opportunity to open up to your brothers and sisters in Christ.

4. Don’t lose sight of the goal

 A church I used to be a member of summarized the goal of their small group ministry as pursuing growth together. I think that’s an excellent summary of how small groups ought to be utilized in the life of the church. It should be recognized that this mission is not exclusive to small group ministry, but would apply also to corporate gatherings, Sunday school classes, one-on-one discipleship, etc. However, it ought to be stated nonetheless that this is indeed the goal of our small groups. We are seeking to grow together in our knowledge of God and His Word. We are seeking to grow alongside one another as followers of Christ. An effective and healthy small group ministry will never lose sight of this goal.


4 Don’ts When It Comes To Small Group Ministry

After some time away from the blog, I’m picking up this week with two posts related to our new small group ministry at Emmanuel Church.

photo-1424020128429-a60765861de1As of this week our small group ministry is fully underway. We currently have groups meeting regionally every other week. The groups are broadly organized around sermon discussion, prayer, and fellowship. They meet midweek either on Wednesday or Thursday and usually run from 7-8:30pm. Groups also occasionally share a meal together in which case they may begin their meeting a little earlier.

This is the first of two posts on what I’m calling “4 dos and don’ts when it comes to small group ministry.” Today, I take a look at 4 don’ts. 

4 Don’ts When It Comes To Small Group Ministry

1. Don’t allow your small group to become a church within the church.

We’ve all either seen it happen, or heard of it happening…a small group can so easily become a functional church in and of itself. The members of the small group look to the group exclusively to fulfill the “one another” passages of Scripture. They look exclusively to the small group for community. They look exclusively to the small group for personal help, encouragement, and hospitality. The small group can almost become a sacred sphere of people within the church, and it’s only within that sacred sphere that we allow ourselves to live out church life in its fullness.

Small groups can certainly embody a more intimate sphere of fellowship within the church. However, they must never be seen as embodying the totality of church life. Every member of the church needs every other member of the church, and that means people in the church who are outside of our small groups. We owe our covenant commitments to each member of the body.

This is one of the reasons we at Emmanuel are committed to rotating small groups every couple of years or so. This allows the long-term member at Emmanuel Church to experience a smaller more intimate fellowship group with every single member of the church over the course of several years.

2. Don’t allow your small group to displace corporate gatherings.

The church in its fullness is the church gathered. The term most often used term for the church is the ekklesia or the assembly. Gathered worship services of the church represent the fulcrum and climax of church life.

However, in this day and age, small groups can often displace corporate gatherings. Many feel more comfortable in small group environments than they do in the corporate gatherings of the church. Pastors and leaders must labor to promote the glories of the public gatherings of the church. It is to these corporate gatherings of Christ’s people that the Lord directs some of His most wonderful promises. It should be noted that a detailed study of the relevant passages would lead one to conclude that many of these promises pertain only to the gathered church body, and not to small groups within the church that may choose to meet throughout the week.

Small groups can represent a vital aspect of the church’s ministry, but they cannot replace gathered worship.

3. Don’t allow your small group to become a substitute for the personal intentional pursuit of community among God’s people.

Having participated in a number of different small groups over the last 10 years or so, I’ve become a big fan of small group ministry. Over the last 10 years, I’ve found myself regularly looking forward to meeting with my small group. Part of the reason I love small groups so much is because they provide a more intimate time of fellowship, prayer, and Bible study with a limited number of people in the church.

However, one danger to be avoided is allowing your small group to become the end all be all of your experience of community in the church. An every other week small group cannot replace showing regular hospitality in the home. A small group cannot replace pursuing a needy brother or sister in the church for one-on-one coffee or breakfast. A small group cannot replace spontaneous opportunities to spend time with other Christians within the body of Christ for mutual fellowship and encouragement.

The Bible would seem to advocate a daily experience of community within the body of Christ (Acts 2:46-47; Heb. 3:13). This does not mean we need to physically see our brothers and sisters in the church every day. Praise God for the ability we have in this day and age to text, email, call, and skype one another. But the fact is, gathering intentionally with others in the church for an hour every other week will not cut it. As Rosaria Butterfield has often put it, the church in America is on “a starvation diet of community.” An every other week small group is no substitute for engaging in regular Christian community throughout the week.

Small groups are best utilized as a help toward fostering community in the church, but not the end all be all of the church’s practice of community.

4. Don’t allow your small group leader to replace your pastor.

This “don’t” applies to those churches who choose to have non-pastors lead their small groups (which I personally recommend if you have mature members in the church who possess the ability to lead a small group).

A lot of small groups nowadays designate their small group leaders as “shepherds.” I think this is a big mistake for a number of reasons, not least because, biblically speaking, they’re not shepherds. Ephesians 4:11-12 tells us that Christ gives pastors to His church for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry. These pastors, according to 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1, and 1 Pet. 5 have unique qualifications and roles within the body of Christ. Small group leaders ought to be mature individuals who can organize and lead a small group time effectively, but they should not be viewed as those having official pastoral responsibility over those within the small group.

Because of the intimacy that small groups typically engender, it is possible for one to think that his or her small group leader is the best person to go to with a serious pastoral concern. However, it’s best if the distinction between a small group leader and a pastor remains intact. There are certain shepherding gifts and responsibilities that are unique to a church’s eldership. A good small group ministry should reinforce this idea, and not confuse the issue by allowing small group leaders to function as pastors.

Check back in tomorrow as I share 4 dos when it comes to small group ministry…

It Takes More Than a Name

You’ve decided you want to plant a church. You have a target area picked out. You have a name. You have a website. You have a budget. You have an enthusiastic group of people who are interested in a church plant. What more do you need right?

Well, a lot more.

Planting a church certainly involves methods and strategies, websites and budgets, and a certain number of interested people to get started. But there ought to be a bit more to the equation. Church planters should look for indications of God’s blessing and affirmation on their work. Church plants should seek evidence that Christ himself is forming them into a church. It’s possible to gather an enthusiastic group of entrepreneurial people and slap the name “church” onto it. But church plants should desire more than this. Church plants should look eagerly for the conspicuous leading of Christ in the forming of a new church.

That all sounds great, but what exactly does this look like? Here we have a group of people who all like each other. We listen to the same kinds of preachers and read the same kinds of books. We all like what the lead guy is saying. But how do we know that Christ Himself is making us into a church?

ECWS_BlueRevH_SocialThere are many ways in which that question could be answered. Today I’ll just share six things that we as a group at Emmanuel Church are looking for as evidence that Christ is forming us into a true church.

1. Unity of vision and purpose

The longer we talk as a church planting team, the more I appreciate the importance of unity in the church. As we talk, study, and pray together as a group, we are looking to see God work real unity of vision and purpose among our group. We want to see God working in us common ideals, common goals, common burdens, and common love. As a group, we want to be united in our vision for what the church is and ought to be. We want to be united in our purpose together – to glorify God by loving men and women through the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Christ is indeed forming us into a church, this kind of unity must be present.

2. Like-mindedness

In addition to unity of vision and purpose, we want to see a certain measure of like-mindedness among our group. We want enthusiastic agreement in “the things most surely believed among us” (Lk. 1:1). We want to see a mutual love for and commitment to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). One of the ways we’ve gone about promoting like-mindedness is by affirming a confession of faith together, in our case the Abstract of Principles. But we recognize like-mindedness in doctrine is not sufficient. We want to be like-minded philosophically. This is one of the reasons why we’re spending several months having small group discussions together before we launch as a church. We want to spend as much time as is necessary nurturing like-mindedness together. We want to see in our church plant what Paul wanted to see in the Philippians, “that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).

3. The Holy Spirit’s presence

It could be said that the sine qua non of a church is the presence of Christ Himself by the Holy Spirit. I’ve thought often of the warning that Christ gives to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:5, that He would remove their lampstand if they did not repent and return to the love that they had at first. I personally believe that the lampstand refers to the presence of the Holy Spirit. I also believe that if Christ is the one who removes lampstands He is also the one who supplies them. If Christ is with us, we are looking for Him to supply the influences of His Holy Spirit on our gatherings together as a church plant. We are hoping that this will be seen most clearly in our corporate meetings. If we as the church are called to be the temple or house of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:22; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:5), God has to dwell there!

4. The emergence of leadership

We know from Ephesians 4 that Christ gives gifts to His church. He is the one who supplies the church with pastors and teachers. He is the one who supplies the church with deacons. If Christ is to make us a church, we expect leadership to emerge and that, in time, the church would formally recognize such leadership. We would not expect that Christ would call together a group of disciples as a church if He was not willing to provide them with leaders.

5. Behaving like a church

There is no reason for a church plant to wait until the launch date to begin behaving like a church. One of the things you would expect to see as evidence of God’s blessing on a church plant is that the dynamics of inner-church life begin to emerge, even before the church has constituted. I was once talking to a pastor about how to identify qualified deacon candidates in your church. One of the most valuable things he said to me is that you should expect those who are called to serve as deacons to behave and serve like deacons before they are actually formally recognized as deacons in any official capacity. The same holds true with a church plant. If we aspire to be a church, and if God is indeed calling us to be a church, we would expect that we would begin behaving like a church. This will being to show itself in a multitude of ways including our relationships with one another, our mutual love for the truth and for the body of Christ, our commitment to serve one another, and our enthusiastic participation in the worship services and meetings of the church.

6. Covenant

Finally, if God is calling together a group of disciples to form a new church, we would expect that He is calling the individuals to join in covenant together. After all, what is participation in the church if not a mutual and voluntary commitment to be the church together. This would include committing to perform the “one anothers” of the New Testament toward each other. It would include a commitment to submit to the church’s leadership. It would include a commitment to participate in church services and to worship God corporately with one another. In many ways, a mutual covenant among disciples of Christ is at the heart of what it means to be a local church.

There are other evidences we can look to that God is forming a church plant into a church. These six are just some of the ones that we at Emmanuel Church are looking for as we meet together over the next few months.

C.H. Spurgeon: Church Planter

maxresdefaultCharles Spurgeon (1834-92) was the ‘Prince of Preachers.’ He was without question the greatest preacher in England during the Victorian Era, and arguably the greatest preacher in the world since the Protestant Reformation. Spurgeon preached regularly to crowds of thousands of eager listeners, both in his own church in London and all over the U.K. He preached weekly to roughly 6,000 people at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and once preached to a crowd numbering nearly 25,000. It has been said that the only thing more impressive than Spurgeon’s ability to attract such massive crowds was his ability to hold them for nearly 38 years of ministry in London. Spurgeon was no flash in the pan. He was perhaps the most consistently faithful and fruitful minister England has ever seen.

Much has been said about Spurgeon the preacher. A lesser known man is Spurgeon the church planter. Throughout his years at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon planted over 200 new churches in Britain alone. Through his famous Pastors College, he oversaw the training of over 900 men during his lifetime. Though many of these men took up pastorates in established churches, a large number of them were sent out as church planters and missionaries all over England and around the world.

“Advance Onward”

Spurgeon’s vigorous commitment to church planting was founded on strongly held convictions about the gospel, the church, and the vast needs of the world. In an 1865 issue of his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, Spurgeon wrote,

The Christian church was designed from the first to be aggressive. It was not intended to remain stationary at any period, but to advance onward until its boundaries became commensurate with those of the world. It was to spread from Jerusalem to all Judaea, from Judaea to Samaria, and from Samaria unto the uttermost parts of the earth. It was not intended to radiate from one central point only, but to form numerous centers from which its influence might spread to the surrounding parts.

We can observe in these words from Spurgeon a few general principles that informed his vision for church planting. In the first place, Spurgeon argued that the church is never to be static but should always be progressing and advancing. This is the pattern we see in the book of Acts as the gospel spread from Jerusalem to Judaea to Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth. The second general principle is that the church should not seek to concentrate the preaching of the gospel in one central place, but should seek to establish numerous preaching centers. We might say Spurgeon’s vision for the church was not merely “come and see,” but “go and tell.” A third principle is implied, and that is that the work of church planting will be ongoing until, as Spurgeon puts it, the church’s boundaries, “become commensurate with those of the world.”

“A Missionary Church”

308a9884Spurgeon practiced what he preached when it came to church planting. Not only was the Metropolitan Tabernacle the largest protestant church in the world during the mid-to-late 19th century, but it was one of the most productive churches in the area of church planting. We can see this from the very inception of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. When Spurgeon was first called to the church in 1854 (at the age of 19), the name of the church was New Park Street Chapel and was located in a less than ideal site in Southwark. As the church grew under Spurgeon’s ministry it became necessary to erect a larger building to accommodate the thousands of eager listeners who constantly had to be turned away from New Park Street Chapel. Thus the Metropolitan Tabernacle was conceived—the same church but with a new name, a new location, and a new building. At the laying of the foundation stone of the Metropolitan Tabernacle on August 16, 1859 Spurgeon addressed the gathered crowd who had attended the historic ceremony in the life of the church,

I look on the Tabernacle as only the beginning; within the last six months, we have started two churches—one in Wandsworth and the other Greenwich—and the Lord has prospered them; the pool of baptism has often been stirred with converts. And what we have done in two places, I am about to do in a third, and we will do it, not for the third or the fourth, but for the hundredth time, God being our Helper. I am sure I may make my strongest appeal to my brethren, because we do not mean to build this Tabernacle as our nest, and then to be idle. We must go from strength to strength, and be a missionary church, and never rest until, not only this neighborhood, but our country, of which it is said some parts are as dark as India, shall have been enlightened with the Gospel.

I read this quote five or six times before I actually thought to investigate the distance between the site of the Metropolitan Tabernacle and these two church plants in Wandsworth and Greenwich. Both sites are only about five miles in either direction (east and west) from the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Spurgeon actually used church planting as a local outreach strategy. He was not only sending church planters to distant parts of the country, but was seeking to plant churches not far from the Metropolitan Tabernacle. There are many churches in and around London today that can trace their origin back to Spurgeon’s church planting agenda.

There is a great need in our day to recover Spurgeon’s “missionary church” vision. The local church should not be concerned only with the internal ministry of the church, but should also look outward. Spurgeon told his church, “we do not mean to build this Tabernacle as our nest, and then to be idle.” Spurgeon was ever looking to the frontiers. He wanted to plant churches in needy sections of London. He wanted to send church plants to the rest of the country “of which it is said some parts are as dark as India.”

“We Want Sinners”

spurgeonsurreyUltimately, Spurgeon planted churches in order to win converts. He did not want to plant churches that merely attracted Christians from other churches. For Spurgeon, church planting was a strategy for reaching the lost. This was something he sought to build into the DNA of his own church from the outset of his ministry in London. We see this in an interesting episode from Spurgeon’s early days when the church was meeting in New Park Street Chapel. Within about a year of his coming to London, the Chapel in Southwark had to be enlarged in order to accommodate the crowds that were coming to hear the then 20-year-old preaching wonder. Within a couple of weeks after the reopening of the newly renovated Chapel at New Park Street, Spurgeon began to notice that crowds of lost and needy Londoners were being turned away while the Chapel was filling up with Christians from other churches. Spurgeon decided to address this situation in a sermon on June 3, 1855. Speaking to his congregation that morning he said,

This one thing I ask—never come here to gratify your curiosity. You that are members of other congregations, just consider it your duty to stay at home. There are many stray sheep about. I would rather have them than you. Keep to your own place. I do not want to rob other ministers. Do not come here from charity. We are much obliged to you for your kindly intentions. But we would rather have your seat than your company if you are members of other Churches. We want sinners to come—sinners of every sort. But do not let us have that sort of men whose ears are everlastingly itching for some new preacher—who are saying, ‘I need something else, I need something else.’

Did Spurgeon want to provide a healthy church for needy sheep without a church home? Certainly. But did Spurgeon want to rob other healthy churches or satisfy itching ears? Absolutely not. Spurgeon did not want his church or the churches he planted to simply attract curious members of other churches who were just looking for the next “new” thing. He wanted to draw lost people to hear the gospel.

This is ultimately why Spurgeon planted churches.

His great aim was to win souls.

Emmanuel Church Fall Update

After a few weeks away from the blog, I’m pleased today to bring some exciting and encouraging updates for our church plant to Winston-Salem. September has been our most busy month so far, and we believe that God is blessing our labors.

photo-1424020128429-a60765861de1I announced back in August that we would be starting up small group interest meetings in Winston-Salem that would run through the fall. We had our first meeting on Saturday, September 10 in the home of one of our families in Winston-Salem. We had 19 adults present! Had children participated we would’ve had about 35 people!

God blessed this meeting. We began our time by going around the room and introducing ourselves. Then Pastor Robert Fisher from Grace Reformed Baptist Church (our sending church) addressed the group for a few minutes. He assured the group of Grace’s commendation of the church plant and also articulated their desire to support the group in any way possible.

Pastor Robert turned it over to me at that point and I spent the rest of the meeting casting vision for the plant and fielding questions from the group. We discussed the vision for these meetings over the fall and also plans for the winter and spring. I also briefly presented some of our ideals for what we hope Emmanuel Church will be. Our meeting ended a little late, but I was especially glad we were able to spend some moments in prayer together.

All told, it was a very encouraging start! It feels like God is increasing the momentum of this work. We look forward to our next meeting this Saturday, 9/24 at 7pm. We’ll be meeting in the same location. If you or someone you know might be interested in attending don’t hesitate to email me (alexjdiprima@yahoo.com). We plan to discuss expositional preaching at this next small group meeting using Mark Dever’s helpful book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Please pray for our group this Saturday.

I’m also excited to announce today the official launch of our website! Check it out at www.emmanuelws.com. The site is a work in progress, but we hope it will be helpful in putting Emmanuel Church on the map, at least as far as the internet is concerned. I encourage you to explore the site as we share some information on who we are, what we’re about, and how you can partner with us. Also please feel free to pass the website on to friends, especially those who are in Winston-Salem and are looking for a healthy church. We hope that this will be a means of raising our profile in the community and further acquainting people with our church plant.

Small Group Announcement

photo-1445445290350-18a3b86e0b5aToday I’m excited to share a big announcement for our church plant! Beginning Saturday, September 10 we will be starting up a regular small group meeting in Winston-Salem. This small group will meet biweekly (every other week) on Saturdays at 7pm in the home of a family in Winston. The purpose of these meetings is to get to know each other better, to cast vision for the church plant, to hold important discussions together, and to pray with one another in order to seek the Lord’s will for us. Our hope is that God will use this small group to begin forming a new church.

IX MarksThe plan is to hold these meetings every other Saturday evening through the fall. As a stimulus to our discussion we plan to utilize Mark Dever’s excellent book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. We expect that this book will lead us into fruitful discussions together and will be a help to us in promoting common vision for church life together.

We welcome anyone to these meetings who would like to come and learn more about our church plant. If you live in Winston-Salem we would love for you to participate. If you have friends in Winston who would be interested please feel free to pass this information on to them.

If you are interested in learning more about these meetings please email me at alexjdiprima@yahoo.com and I’d be happy to share more information including the location for our meetings.

Finally, please be in prayer for us as we meet together in Winston-Salem throughout the fall. We have high hopes for how God might use these small group meetings. We long to see this church planted and a faithful and fruitful ministry established!

Our Logo


We’re excited to share the official logo for our church plant! This logo was developed and designed by Gary Voigt. We had Gary design the logo for Grace Reformed Baptist Church and were so pleased with his work that we asked him to design the logo for our church plant.

I have written a little bit about the rationale behind our church name here. Today, I just want to briefly share the rationale behind our logo. Though the process of developing a logo may seem like a small thing to some, it wasn’t small to us. We chose this particular logo for a reason.

In the first place, we were sure we wanted to include our name in our logo. It is such a great joy and privilege to be identified with Christ and his church that we want to claim this name whenever and wherever we can. We are currently a church plant. We’re not yet an established local church. However, we view this name and this logo as something to which we aspire. We are praying (and I hope you pray with us), “God, we ask you by your power and grace to make us into Emmanuel Church of Winston-Salem!”

Secondly, we wanted to include the image of the cross. We gave Gary plenty of input, but the finished product is his, and we couldn’t be more pleased. We chose the symbol of the cross for a number of reasons:

1. The imagery of the cross is vital to the gospel. The cross is a symbol of our salvation. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of his people. For 2,000 years the cross has symbolized redemption in Christ for all those who believe on him.

2. The imagery of the cross is vital to the Christian life. Individual Christians are commanded not only to believe in what Jesus did through his death on the cross for sinners, but they are called to self-consciously identify themselves with the cross as disciples of Christ. We are to take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24; Lk 9:23). Each of us individually ought to follow Paul’s example of boasting in the cross, by which the world is crucified to us, and we unto the world (Gal. 6:14).

3. The imagery of the cross is vital to the church. Cross imagery features prominently in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. The church is to proclaim the message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:2). It is the cross that forms the focus of the church’s message to the world.

4. The imagery of the cross is a symbol of hope to those who are lost and outside of Christ. We as Christians can point to the cross and tell lost people that if they would only believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he died on the cross for sinners, they too can experience redemption in Christ. The cross shows us that sin can be decisively dealt with, and we sinners can be reconciled to God through Christ’s work on the cross.

I’ll just say a quick word about the particular design of the cross in our logo. We actually looked at a number of different crosses, but chose this particular one for two main reasons. First of all, we wanted something simple. This is a simple symbol that conveys a simple message. We did not want something elaborate or complex. We wanted a very simple and understated logo. We believe the cross in our logo captures the simplicity, significance, and singularity of our message. Secondly, we wanted something that looked ancient and historic. This particular cross is fashioned after many of the cross symbols that appeared in the early church in the first centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection. We as Christians have a rooted and historic faith. We preach the same “cross-message” that our Christian forefathers preached 2,000 years ago and have preached on down to today. It is our highest honor and privilege to carry this same cross and to declare this same message to this generation. May God, by his power and grace, help us as we endeavor to proclaim it!

Six Things to Look For in a Church

In God’s kindness, I grew up in a Christian home and was always in a healthy church as a kid. Of course, until I was an adult, I was in churches that my parents chose for me. Though my parents invited my input and feedback with regard to the churches we joined, I don’t think I ever had much “say so” as to where we would go to church. I was the kid, they were the parents, they made the decision for the family, and that’s how it went.

As an adult, there have been two times when I’ve had to make an independent decision about what church I would join. Thankfully I have no regrets about the churches I chose. However, having gone through the experience, I appreciate just how significant the decision of choosing a church can be. There are so many factors to consider. You want to make sure God is honored by your decision of where to join. You want to make sure your needs are met at the church. If you have family, you want to make sure your family’s needs are met. You want to be sure you’ll be able to serve and participate in church life. You want the church environment to be welcoming so that you can invite friends. You want to be able to plug in and utilize your gifts within the context of the church’s ministries. These are all legitimate concerns and factors to weigh when choosing a church.

Today I want to suggest six things to look for when seeking to find a church to join. My intention is not to list all of the factors that could legitimately be taken into account when choosing a church. I simply want to hit on what I think are six big ones. These six factors were in my mind in the past when I’ve had to consider the churches I would join and I often encourage friends to consider these factors as well when choosing a church. I list these points in no particular order. I hope you find them helpful!

1. Solid Preaching

View More: http://diprimaphotography.pass.us/mebaneI grew up in a context in which preaching was considered primary. I still believe it’s right to think of preaching in this way. The preaching of God’s word by called men of God is utterly vital to the health, growth, and preservation of God’s people. We need the Word of God. We need to have it taught to us consistently and faithfully by qualified preachers. A solid preaching ministry in a church is simply irreplaceable.

When I was looking for a church, I was aware that I needed to be regularly fed from God’s Word. I have always believed that when a man of God stands up to preach the Bible and does so faithfully, it is as though God himself were speaking his Word. If this is true, why would any Christian ever want to go without this?

I have often found myself encouraging friends that no matter how good the music is at the church, no matter how welcoming the people are, no matter how great the kids’ ministry is, if the Bible is not faithfully preached you need to find another church. I have a background in finance and economics. I’ve studied classic “trickle-down economics” pretty carefully, and though I’m presently not 100% sure, I think it probably works. Though my faith in “trickle-down economics” is a little shaky, my faith in what I call “trickle-down preaching” is not. I firmly believe that if God’s Word is faithfully preached, applied, and appropriated, it will usually trickle down and impact every aspect of the church’s life.

2. Biblical Community

The church has the exclusive claim to being THE Christian community. I’m convinced that all long-term attempts at seeking to find one’s primary Christian community outside of the church will ultimately fail. The Bible points believers to the church for the full experience of true and lasting Christian community.

Healthy, biblical community ought to be a major factor in the minds of Christians looking for a church to join. When evaluating a church, one should ask, do these people love God and one another? Do they seek to build one another up in love and good works? Are they striving toward unity and accountability with one another? Do they work to see their lives and the lives of others shaped by the gospel? If I join this church, will I be helped and encouraged in my walk with Christ by this community of Christians? These are legitimate questions to ask when looking for a church to join.

3. God-Honoring Worship

View More: http://diprimaphotography.pass.us/grace-staff-picturesWorship (and I’m thinking primarily of music and singing here) can very quickly become a difficult issue when choosing a church. This is sad because it really doesn’t have to be so difficult. When you choose a church, you’re not choosing a Pandora station or your favorite Spotify playlist. You don’t have to choose a church that perfectly lines up with your musical preferences. The question should not be, “Is this my favorite kind of music?” Rather, we should ask, “Is God honored by this worship?” Do you see the difference? The first question is selfish and man-centered. The second question is humble and God-centered. Which of the two ought to be the disposition of the professed worshipper of God?

I appreciate how John Piper conveys what churches ought to aspire to in their worship services. He encourages churches to aim for “gravity and gladness.” Gravity involves a sense of seriousness, weightiness, and transcendence. We ought to feel a sense of gravity when we come to worship God. Gladness captures something of the ethos of the worshipper’s experience of God in worship. Christians ought to be glad in God’s presence.

4. Faithful Leadership

Can I trust these leaders? Can I respect them and submit to their leadership? Are they faithful in their shepherding and oversight of the church? If I join this church am I willing to have these men shepherd my soul and those of my family? Do I trust that these men have the awareness that they will give an account to God for how they lead the church and shepherd the souls of God’s people?

I fear that sometimes this point is underrated. Make no mistake, when you choose a church you are voluntarily choosing to come under the leadership of that church’s pastors. Therefore, you should carefully evaluate and observe a church’s leadership. Experiencing faithful leadership in a church can be one of the greatest blessings and joys you will ever know. Conversely, experiencing poor leadership in a church can lead to some of the most difficult and heartbreaking experiences of your life.

5. An Environment for Christian Growth and Discipleship

View More: http://diprimaphotography.pass.us/grace-staff-picturesThe church ought to be the environment in which Christians can mature in their faith and grow as followers of Jesus Christ. It is legitimate to consider whether or not you can grow in a particular church. Any number of factors can influence whether or not you are growing as a Christian. The fact is, not every church is best suited to serve every type of person. I think it’s legitimate for people to take personal stock of their needs as disciples of Christ and to make decisions about where to attend church on the basis of personal needs.

Of course, we must be careful to keep our felt personal needs in check and never allow them to eclipse the objective needs we have for things like sound preaching, biblical community, etc. Also it should be said that Christian growth and maturity will usually lead to less focus on self and more focus on serving the needs of others. Often times what Christians need in order to grow is to have plenty of opportunities to give rather than just to receive.

Ultimately, Christians should pursue joining a church that will help rather than hinder their growth in the faith. Ask, can I a grow as a disciple of Christ in this church? Will I be encouraged in the spiritual disciplines here? Will I be shown how to follow Christ more faithfully?

6. The Biblical Context for Fulfilling the Great Commission

It is a personal mission of mine to help Christians appreciate that the Great Commission was given to the church as whole. It is not something we can each fulfill individually. It is a mission given to the church, and each member, by contributing to the life and health of the church, plays a role in contributing to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

So we should ask, is this church actively seeking to play a role in fulfilling the Great Commission? Are the people here burdened for evangelism? Do they pray for and work toward the salvation of the lost? Are they seeking to promote the spread of the gospel throughout the world so that men and women from every tribe, tongue, people and nation will come to know Jesus Christ and glorify him as Lord?

In conclusion, I should mention that I recognize this post is perhaps suited primarily to an American context, where, by God’s grace, we often have a number of options for churches we might join. Many brothers and sisters around the world don’t have the luxury of choosing between a number of good church options. Some Christians are in places in the world where there are few, if any, healthy churches to be found. This awareness should cause us to pray for God to help our fellow Christians in these places. Also, for those of us in the west, this awareness should make us thankful that God, in his providence, has placed many of his people in places where there are many good churches to be found even within a short driving distance from where we live.

We want Emmanuel Church of Winston-Salem, by God’s help, to be marked by these six characteristics. Should God be pleased to plant us, we will endeavor to be this sort of church. We do so not out of an effort to establish our own brand or to compete against other churches, but because we want to be and do as a local church everything that we believe the Scriptures call local churches to be and do. May God help us!

Building a Church

“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18b)

This is the battle cry of the church planter. The Lord Jesus is the one who builds his church. And though Satan will try to prevail against it, overcome it, and destroy it, Jesus will unfailingly build his church.

View More: http://diprimaphotography.pass.us/mebaneIt is, of course, true that Christ makes use of means in the building up of his church. One of the means by which he builds his church is through the sending out of his servants to plant churches. Christ does not depend on church planters to build his church, rather he chooses to use them. Church planters have the joy of being used of God to participate in his work of building his church. This should be viewed as a wonderful privilege and a grave responsibility.

Recognizing that it is ultimately Christ who builds the church and that he uses men and women to do it, how do we as a church plant actually expect to build a local church from the ground up? Many have asked us this exact question. How, practically, do we intend to go about planting one of Christ’s churches in Winston-Salem? This is a good question that deserves careful attention. The thoughts I convey here are general and speak broadly to our church planting strategy. These thoughts are not meant to be prescriptive for all church plants, though I hope they may be helpful to some. There are many ways to plant a church. This is simply the approach we’ve chosen.

There are three major pillars to our approach. In answer to the question, “How do you expect to plant a church in Winston-Salem?” We respond,

1. By planting with a core team

Have I said yet how thankful I am for having such a wonderful and exemplary sending church? Actually yes, right here! One of the most helpful things a sending church can do is to fit a particular team together for the work of church planting. This is a major pillar in our church planting strategy. Though it may be legitimate in some cases to send a church planting couple out on their own to hold an evangelistic Bible study seeking to build a church entirely through new converts, it is often wise to send out a small team instead.

The church planting team is often more effective in the work of evangelism and discipleship than just one couple would be on their own. In order to be effective, this team should be made up of Christians who are mature in the faith, outward in their orientation toward others, and passionate about the church. Because evangelism, discipleship, and Christian service are such large parts of church planting, the church planting team is most effective if each of the individual members of the team possesses gifts in one or all of these areas.

Additionally, a core team can provide much needed stability for a church plant. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says,

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 10 For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. 11 Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn part.

This is a precious text. I think a general principle we can draw from it is that there is strength in numbers. Church planting can be a lonely affair. But when there is a team that is in the work together, there is a special measure of stability and strength.

It’s also tremendously helpful to have partners in ministry with whom you’ve spent significant time and who know you well. Many church planters can grow lonely even when they see great fruit from their ministries. At such times it’s helpful to have a familiar friend(s) by your side who has history with you and can speak into your life in a way that new friends simply cannot.

Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., has offered some helpful thoughts on how to assess whether or not one should stay in a local church or go out with a church planting team. If you’ve ever wrestled with this question yourself, or know someone who has, I highly recommend his blog post here.

2. By partnering with brothers and sisters in the target area

winstonsalemAnother pillar in our church planting strategy is our effort to recruit interested contacts in the Winston-Salem area. We recognize that there is great value in planting in a new area with people who know that area well and who, like us, would also like to see a healthy church raised up there. For this reason we’ve sought to raise the profile of our church plant so that others in the Winston-Salem area who are passionate about church planting can join us.

The goal is not to pull Christians out of healthy churches where they are already serving and are needed, but to attract people who are legitimately looking for a home church and would like to join us in raising one from the ground up.

In God’s providence we have connected with a number of brothers and sisters like this who have been praying about the prospect of joining a church plant. Christians like these, who are local, who know the area well, and who are passionate for the work of church planting are just the sort of people we wish to see join our church plant.

3. By engaging in evangelism and discipleship

Perhaps the most obvious and important thing we can do in church planting is to evangelize the community. I think I can safely say that we would not be planting a church if we didn’t have hope that we would actually be able to reach lost people. Church planters long to see the church grow through conversions.

From where we sit now in Mebane as we prepare to plant, it is very difficult to be active in evangelism in Winston-Salem. However, as we anticipate moving to the Winston area, we expect evangelism to be one of the most important things we do as a church plant. Thus evangelism and the discipleship of new converts is the third major piece to our overall approach to church planting.

These are the three pillars of our church planting strategy. They’re not flashy. They’re not novel. They’re not complex. These are simple things we’re doing that we hope the Lord will bless. We look to Christ to build his church and then we get to work building ourselves, knowing that if Christ is in our labors we cannot fail.

A Confessional Church in a Confessionless Age

One of the very first questions we wanted to address in the beginning phases of our church plant is whether or not we would be a confessional church. Though I come from a confessional background, confessionalism in general has fallen on hard times. The age in which we live might be called a “confessionless age.” There exists in the culture at large a general aversion to making absolute propositional statements. Sadly, this aversion is present in some churches that avoid “going on record” with their doctrinal viewpoints for fear of being held accountable to those viewpoints or offending those who might disagree.

In this confessionless age, we as the church ought to be confessional. We should not be in the least bit ashamed to declare “those things which are most surely believed among us” (Luke 1:1). We should thank God that in this confessionless age, we as the church have a confession to declare.

Before I share the reasons why we desire to be a confessional church, I should probably define what I mean by confessionalism in reference to the church. What I mean by the term confessionalism is an orderly and unified statement of biblical doctrine that a particular church affirms or confesses as a help in regulating and organizing the theology and life of the church. A confession can be long or short. It can be narrow or broad. It can be original or historical. These details must be worked out by each individual local church.

It should be noted that confessions are by no means inerrant. They are human documents. And yet, a good confession can still be helpful in summarizing core biblical doctrines.

Not a baptist confession being written here.

Thankfully, there are a number of great Baptist confessions out there. Personally, I think the Second London Baptist Confession (1689), the Philadelphia Confession (1742), the New Hampshire Confession (1853), and the Abstract of Principles (1858) are all good choices for Baptist churches depending on your particular convictions. We as a church plant have opted to adopt the Abstract of Principles as our primary confession of faith.

There are at least eight distinct advantages to being a confessional church, and we gladly commend these for the consideration of other churches:

1. A confession of faith gives voice to sound doctrine.

If churches are to be biblical, they ought to be attentive to and passionate for sound doctrine. Paul urges Timothy to “follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13). Paul encourages him to put sound doctrine before the church (1 Tim. 4:6). Paul also lists the ability to give instruction in sound doctrine as a qualification for elders (Tit. 1:9). Titus is later told to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1) and to live a life that adorns the doctrine he teaches (Tit. 2:7, 10). We’re also told that the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42).

A good confession of faith gives voice to sound doctrine. It states in writing a summary of what the church believes and declares. It would be an overstatement to argue that the Scriptures mandate that all churches adopt a written confession of faith. And yet, by adopting and utilizing a confession of faith, churches are in step with what appears to be a biblical pattern of “following,” “teaching,” and “devoting themselves” to sound doctrine.

2. A confession of faith guards the church from error.

A confession can help in defining theological parameters. Heretical or heterodox doctrines can be checked against a confession of faith. If a church’s doctrinal convictions are left nebulous, false teaching is much more likely to creep in. A confession of faith can help churches determine what sorts of doctrines are “in bounds” and “out of bounds.”

3. A confession of faith is a means of church unity.

The New Testament if full of directives that Christians be of one mind and strive for unity (Rom. 15:6; 1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:2). Voluntary subscription to a confession of faith is an excellent means of promoting unity in the church. When brothers and sisters can come together and collectively say, “we stand together for the truths expressed in this confession,” the unity of the church is strengthened.

4. A confession of faith is a tremendous discipleship tool.

ConfessionBooksBanner-960x277A good confession of faith can be a great teaching tool in the church. I know many churches that will actually teach through their confession of faith in a Sunday school or small group environment. The church throughout history has stressed what was called “catechesis,” which is the systematic teaching of doctrine for the purpose of informing Christians in how they ought to live before God. Using a confession of faith as a discipleship tool represents continuity with a rich Christian tradition of training the saints in sound teaching.

5. A confession of faith protects future generations from theological drift.

Sadly, church planters often don’t think beyond the first few years of a church plant’s existence. Planters ought to labor in the early days of church planting to position the church for longevity. A strong confession of faith can help to sustain the church’s theological fidelity beyond the tenure of the original elders. There is a stability for churches in a tried and true confessional document that can be embraced and affirmed generation after generation. Pastors, how do you know that future leaders of your church will teach in a manner consistent with your church’s current doctrinal standards? I suggest you can do this by requiring all future leaders to subscribe to a confession of faith. This doesn’t guarantee doctrinal fidelity, but it sure does help.

6. A confession of faith can provide legal protection for a church.

In an age that is increasingly litigious and increasingly hostile to Christian perspectives, churches would do well to state clearly and effectively what they believe on a host of important issues. For example, if your beliefs on issues like marriage and sexuality are not stated in an official capacity, you might be leaving yourself vulnerable to legal action down the road.

7. A confession of faith can place a church within an historic tradition.

President Al Mohler overseeing the signing of the Abstract of Principles at Southern Seminary Convocation

There is great value in churches identifying with a tradition that is bigger, broader, and older than themselves. We as a church plant want to swim in the stream of Christian orthodoxy and heritage. By adopting an historic confession of faith, the church effectively says, “We are not alone, but stand with Christians of the past. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

8. A confession of faith can be of help to visitors

Not every visitor will be interested in reading your confessional document, but the fact is that many will. And there have been studies that indicate that visitors are much more inclined to trust the church’s leadership if the church affirms a statement of faith. I have found this to be one of the best ways of introducing our church plant to interested contacts. I love to put our confession in their hands.

There is no command from God saying, “Thou must adopt a confession of faith.” However, there are a host of advantages to doing so. I hope that my generation will be known for a return to historic confessionalism and will learn how to hold fast to a confession with grace, humility, and love.