How can two churches claiming to have the same purpose look so different? Reaching out with the gospel to unbelievers is the cry of most evangelical churches, and yet the ways a church seeks to do this is vastly different. Most churches claim to want to build up Christians into maturity. What church doesn’t say that they emphasize worship? So why is it that these churches never sing the same songs in the same way as each other?
Some of these differences are just a matter of style. A church, for example, which has a younger congregation, may prefer more upbeat songs. Location could also be an issue. A congregation in the country may prefer a more personal style over a formal style of ministry. Other differences can also be attributed to denominational or church traditions. None of these factors, however, addresses my main concern.
Apart from all of these considerations, how can two churches in the same community, filled with the same types of people, and from the same or very similar church traditions still look and feel so entirely different on Sunday morning?
The difference springs from different underlying presuppositions. Even though two green stems claim to want to bloom into beautiful flowers, the seeds below the surface will make all the difference in the final product.
What is the purpose of the church? The Bible teaches that the purpose of everyone and everything is to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). The Bible reveals that the church glorifies God in three areas. First, the church glorifies God by edifying (building up) the saints. Ephesians 4:11-16 spells out the process. The Lord Jesus Christ gives gifted men to the church to equip the saints (all Christians) to do the work of ministry until every part of the body reflects the character of Christ.
Second, the church glorifies God by exalting the Lord in worship. In John 4, Jesus interacted with the woman at the well. Within that conversation he said, “…true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers” (John 4:23). The church is to be a body of true worshippers.
The Great Commission offers the third way the church glorifies God. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). The church gathers on Sundays to worship the Lord, and build up one another. The church scatters to reach out to unbelievers throughout the week.
While these thoughts are absolutely profound if you have never considered them before, many churches will affirm the gist of these biblical purposes. Though two churches may profess to be seeking to fulfill these exact purposes, their underlying presuppositions control the way they carry out the purposes. Two identical locomotives running on different sets of tracks will end up in two different locations.
An example of a controlling presupposition is a church’s beliefs about the Bible. Many churches affirm the Bible’s inspiration from God and the inerrancy of its original manuscripts (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Fewer churches, however, affirm the Bible’s sufficiency for all of life, and ministry. In other words, they fail to acknowledge that God’s book has all of what a church needs to reach out to the lost, as well as build up the saved. These churches often turn to psychological solutions to solve people’s problems, and marketing techniques to reach out to the lost. So now, two churches claiming to have the same purpose start to look entirely distinct.
More differences arise from a church’s view of God himself. While the Scriptures reveal God to be grand and glorious, some churches seem to have a much smaller god. The Bible speaks of God’s absolute holiness (Isaiah 6:1-8), his sovereignty (Psalm 103:19), his knowledge of everything, and his everywhere-presence (Psalm 139). Isaiah 40 says that God put all the stars in their places, and knows them all by name (verse 26). This is but a morsel of God’s greatness.
If one church believes in the big God of the Bible and another church believes in the “man upstairs,” profound differences will show up. Some churches appear to be trying to entertain an audience, instead of worshipping the true audience of One, God himself.
Following behind a right view of the Bible, and a right view of God, necessarily follows a right view of man. While everyone is made in God’s image, the Bible also reveals that we are desperate sinners (see Genesis 6:5 and Romans 3:10-23). We sin in our thoughts, attitudes, motivations, words, and direct actions. What’s worse is that we do these sins all of the time.
A church that takes sin seriously will look far different than one that candy-coats the disease. If people always leave the church service feeling pretty good about themselves, it is unlikely that the biblical view of sin is being upheld and proclaimed. The gospel is good news, but it is vital to hear the bad news before we can appreciate and appropriate the good news.
Many other foundational presuppositions could be listed (such as a clear understanding of the gospel and sound doctrine, dependence upon the Holy Spirit, the godliness of the leadership, and the personal holiness of the people) and their vast implications could be drawn out. My challenge to you is to do some homework. What is the stated purpose of your church? Can it be defended from the Bible? What are the presuppositions that direct the manner in which the purpose is carried out? Are these presuppositions the ones properly reflected in the Bible?
Perhaps you are not a member of any church. Seek out the best church in your area, and join with them in doing God’s work, God’s way. Don’t settle for just comfortable traditions and friendly folks. Search God’s Word to uncover his purposes and presuppositions for a church that honors him.
By John Crotts