What to expect from the local church
When it comes to popular American Christianity today, Christians in America have often been misled by popular contemporary expressions of the Faith with unrealistic, and at times unbiblical, expectations of the local church.
So, what should a Christian expect from a faithful, Bible-believing local church?
First of all, Christians should expect to be spiritually edified by the life and worship of a faithful church. The faithful preaching of God’s Word, the right administration of the holy sacraments, and the fellowship of believers, are all designed and ordained by God to edify and build up His people in the Faith.
But Christians should not expect to be entertained at church. While the fellowship and worship that takes place at a faithful local church should certainly not be “boring” and should strive to edify the believer, at the same time the local church was not designed by God to serve as a religious entertainment center.
When we go to such events as musical concerts, sporting events, movies, theatrical shows, and so forth, we rightly expect to be entertained, for that is what such events are designed to do. But when we go to church, we go to hear the Word preached, to receive the forgiveness of our sins through Christ, and to express our gratitude to God for His grace in our prayers and praises. Church is about the worship of God and the edification of God’s covenant people. It is about feeding Christ’s sheep, not about entertaining the devil’s goats (Matt. 25:31-46). So expect to be encouraged and edified in your faith at a faithful local church, but don’t expect to be coddled, flattered or entertained.
In addition, Christians should expect to be warmly welcomed and embraced at a faithful local church. The church is a congregation of redeemed sinners who have tasted of the Lord’s grace and goodness, and therefore Christians visiting a new church should expect to be warmly welcomed and embraced as brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, the church is a community of redemption, where all sinners seeking forgiveness in Christ and deliverance from the bondage of sin are warmly welcomed.
But professing Christians should not expect to be affirmed and celebrated if they are living in open, unrepentant sin. Instead, professing believers who find themselves living unrepentantly in what Scripture identifies as sin should expect a faithful church to lovingly yet firmly call them to repentance and amendment of life, and to earnestly warn them of God’s judgment should they persist impenitent in their sin.
A faithful church is a holy church which strives to maintain the holy standards of God’s moral law revealed in His Word, however imperfectly it does so. Furthermore, any “church” that lets you live comfortably in unrepentant sin is not a truly loving church, for a faithful church will love you enough to call you out of a life that alienates you from God and will show you the way to be unshackled from the bondage of sin. Remember the proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”
Also, Christians should expect Jesus Christ to be present by His Spirit in the corporate worship services of the church.
Jesus promised to be present in a special way where even two or three are gathered together in His Name (Matthew 18:20), and the Epistle of Hebrews indicates that the gathered assembly of God’s people in worship involves a coming to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12:22-24, ESV) In the corporate worship of the church, heaven touches earth and God’s people are drawn by faith into the very heavenly presence of the Triune God Himself. This is true even if the congregation is small and meets for worship in humble surroundings and with little outward fanfare or “razzle dazzle”.
But Christians should not necessarily expect to have a rousing, powerful, moving worship experience every time they attend church. God dwells among His people, and Jesus is present with His gathered church whether or not you “feel” His presence.
Again, this is not to say that experiencing a powerful sense of the Lord’s presence during worship is a bad thing. But it is to remember that the reality of Christ’s presence with His people in corporate worship does not depend upon our own subjective mood or emotional state. Rather, it depends upon the objective biblical fact of God’s promises. So instead of looking inside yourself to experience Jesus, look outside yourself at the Word and sacraments. The Word (read and preached by the minister), water (holy baptism), and the bread & wine (the holy supper) are outward signs of God’s Kingdom and of Christ’s presence. Where you have a community of faith confessing Christ together, and gathered around the Word and sacraments, there you have Jesus Christ present in saving grace and power. (Indeed, there you have all three Persons of the Holy Trinity, who come to dwell among God’s people.)
Finally, Christians should not expect perfection from a faithful church. Since the church is a gathering of redeemed sinners, there continues to be sin among God’s people (though that sin is in principle pardoned and put to death in Christ). And while Christians do have the right to expect that they will be edified, welcomed and encouraged in a faithful church, even the most faithful churches on earth fall far short of meeting all these expectations to a perfect degree. So, while this is not an excuse for churches to fall short of living up to their God-given calling, at the same time Christians who expect to find a perfect church this side of glory will find themselves greatly disappointed.
However, for all of its shortcomings and imperfections, Christians should expect a church which strives to be faithful to the Word of God to be striving after the goal of being an edifying, welcoming and encouraging community of faith where Jesus Christ and His gospel are central and where Christ is present by His Spirit in Word and sacraments.
Are your expectations of the local church realistic and biblical? And are we, as a local congregation of God’s people, striving toward ever greater faithfulness to our God-given calling in this world?