The Ingredient Needed for a Genuine Church


We’ve had an interesting conversation here this week about church planting. A few other blogs have picked up the conversation and continued it. I felt I had a couple more things to say, both as clarification and expansion.

Clarification, first.

I am very much in favor of planting churches. It’s part of the life of the Church as a whole to plant churches.

What bugs me is the way we often do it here in the United States. Overseas, it’s less of a problem because, historically, there have been fewer churches. When I’ve talked to missionaries who plant churches overseas, their language, vision, and goals are just…well, different. Over here, though, too many times the talk sounds like advertising and marketing. It’s got a sheen of calculatedness that seems distant and makes the whole enterprise sound like a business deal. And then the final product, the actual church itself ends up being cool, calculated, and often run like a business, with all the trappings of that kill-or-be-killed world. That’s no way to start new churches.

Has my brush been too wide? Sure. Talking about big problems means using generalizations. They can’t be avoided. Some church planters avoid the pitfalls I speak of and some don’t. My personal experiences with this have shown far more planters to be falling into the pit. Your mileage may vary.

Now, onto the expansion.

Looking over the comments so far on that church planting post, a few themes emerge, one of which is the qualities of a good church. Some people have mentioned a strong emphasis on the Gospel, meeting the cultural needs of the attendees (cultural relevance), and so on. Having a nice coffee bar wins a few points too.

But at the risk of alienating a few folks who will not see their favorite emphasis mentioned in what follows, I want to share what I think makes all the difference. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating.

I’ve been a Christian for more than 30 years. I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go. I’ve been in churches with superb preaching, soul-stirring teaching, cultural awareness to the nth degree, globe-spanning mission programs, and on and on. But here are a few questions I think create the dividing line:

When I am in the hospital, who from that church will come visit me?

When someone in my family dies, who from that church will attend the funeral?

When I celebrate a great victory, who from that church will call to congratulate me?

When I get in trouble or need someone’s expertise, who in that church will come help me?

When I am dying, who from that church will step forward to help my surviving family members?

Think about those questions for a moment.

If the answer to those questions is no one, then you’re better off hanging out at your local bar. At least people there will show some interest in you. Lost people are, sadly, sometimes more genuinely helpful and loving than people who claim to know the God of the universe.

If the answer to those questions is a church elder or deacon, then you’ve made it to the lowest common denominator of church life. Nothing thrilling here, but it’s better than no one.

If the answer to those questions is the church pastor, then you’ve actually done slightly better. See, too many churches today have celebrity pastors who don’t really mingle with the nameless, faceless people. Your average megachurch operates this way. It’s a lot like a business where the people who insert Flange A into Slot B out on the production floor never see the CEO.

If the answer to those questions is friends from church, then you’re doing even better. Some people, though, never make enough friends from church to get to this stage. Some try to make friends, and some don’t. Some are unsuccessful, even when they try. So having church friends is a good thing. It at least shows that the church is friendly.

If the answer to those questions includes all of the previous folks, plus people you don’t know all that well or don’t normally associate with in the church, you’ve hit the motherload. When you’re recovering in the hospital and the elders, pastor, friends, and that old lady who sits three pews behind you who you think might be named Eunice come to visit, you’re blessed with a good church.

You see, it’s so much about loving other people. Jesus summed it up: Love God; love people. And one way that you can show you love God is by loving people.

I don’t care how well the pastor preaches. I don’t care that the church’s doctrine is perfect. I don’t care that the church has the best fair-trade coffee bar in ten counties. I don’t care that the music rocks (or doesn’t rock, depending on your preference). I don’t care about much of what accounts for a passing grade doled out by people shopping for churches.

Do the people love each other? And most of all, do they love you?

If that’s missing, you can pack that church with every whiz-bang, trendy (or untrendy, depending on your preference), doctrinal, self-aware, truth-filled reality and it will still be a poor representation of what heaven will be like. And being a slice of heaven on earth is what the Church is supposed to be.

That begins with love. And if we don’t have love, it’s all clanging gongs and crashing cymbals. In other words, noise.

And folks,  too many churches planted in the United States today are nothing but noise.

17 thoughts on “The Ingredient Needed for a Genuine Church

  1. I couldn’t agree more. In my younger years, I thought doctrine divided the healthy churches from the toxic. I’ve come to learn, though, that doctrines come and go (or my _opinions_ of doctrines come and go), but behavior (as evidence of genuine love, graciousness, honesty, appropriate boundaries, integrity, etc.) is what determines if a church will be a soul-scarring experience or not.

    As we thought about starting a family, our priorities in what we looked for in a church changed to reflect that. We were a bit stunned when a church we attended a few times brought us food (prepared by people we’d never met) when our baby was just a few days old. The minister said they know what it’s like to be living far from family.

    After several disappointing church experiences, it’s amazing to find one where we enjoy the preaching, the music, and the sense of community. Staying away from mega-churches increased the odds of finding a place like this, I’m sure!

  2. Your post is valid, but I would reverse the point of view. In every question, I would replace “when I” with “when someone else;” then replace every “who” with “will I.”

    It’s not about me, it’s about them.

  3. Peter P

    “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.”

    I’m sure someone really important said that!

  4. I like Luther’s definition of genuine “church”.

    It’s where the gospel is given in it’s purity (no strings attached…none) and where the sacraments are administered in conjunction with that gospel.

    And where people believe it.

    There…is the church.

  5. Brian


    I’ve been wanting to say some things about my walk and I have had no place to just say them. Getting it out is cathartic. So I’m going to do that here.

    I was saved at a mild mainstream church (Calvary Chapel) and spent about four years there. I was young and got involved with a girl in an unhealthy way. That eventually ended in disaster. I want off the deep end — drinking and what not. Of the few people I knew at that church, none knew me well enough to be considered close. When I stopped going, for me, it didn’t seem to matter. Not that I thought about them, but that no one knew me well enough to have my phone number, my address or anything.

    I call that deep-end time a dark time. But, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. God was with me. A great love for him was created in that time. My whole internal make-up changed.

    Coming out of that dark time I got involved in a charismania church. It seemed to match, what with all the emphasis on the love of God and all. It was a house church to start, with plans to grow into something larger. I had friends from that church. It was a small group so everyone knew everyone. But I moved for a job, joined a small relationship, community oriented church. it was nice, made some very good friends there which I still have to this day.

    Both those churches eventually dissolved. I followed some of my friends to a mega-church in the making. It was/is exactly as you describe in this post — programs, missions, places to “plug-in”, the coffee bar ministry, etc. I was repulsed.

    What I did not realize from the charismania church to then, was that my faith was crumbling, and crumbling fast. By the time I had hit that mega-church I was through with church. And in many many ways I was through with God. I attended that mega-church for a few years, not consistently. It was very VERY hard for me to go. I eventually stopped. Never really got to know anyone there. I think I only picked up one close relationship of someone who attended that church, but that was more by external circumstances than intentional.

    So here I sit. Empty and almost devoid of God in my life. Its amazing how much I know about church, God and spirituality and yet I know absolutely zero things that truly matter. In my universe there is no one that I can relate to. Which is why your blog and others are comforting to me. They provide me with a connection to people who don’t think I’m crazy.

    If I have a candlestick, its flame has been reduced to a smoking ember. But my hands cup it, and ever so softly and only frequently do I bow on it to keep that little ember present.

    Inside, I am digging down deep to find the foundation to build my house on. Post likes these make me feel like I’m headed in the right direction. God does not seem close to me, like he use to. I know this is really only sense and that he is as near as my breath. But that does not comfort my struggle. The struggle being that I am beyond repair and that there is a no future of perceived closeness with him. I need to know there is a future where my feet stand solid, like none other. That I have dug and found the bed rock. That I have been winnowed and removed of chaffe. That all the machinations of man have been removed from my view of heaven. And its that singular, laser-beam focus of him seated at the right hand that guides me in all my decisions and none other.

    I have been thinking in my head about a written statement. The statement is “My life mission statement: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” And as I think about this I know there are things this means. “If you love me feed my sheep.” “It that you have done it to the least of them, you have done it to me.” “The second commandment is like this, love your neighbor as yourself.”

    But this is where I am now. I have no earthly idea how to practically do this. Or do it in a God-felt way, if that makes sense. i can care for people around me, but it feels like me and not God is involved. Perhaps this is some out-moded artifact from charismania. I don’t know.

    But I am tired of words, I am tired of cliches and meaningless statements and beliefs. I want actions. I want heavenly reality.

    Thanks for listening.

  6. Must it be an either or proposition? I tend to overemphasize doctrine, but I will say that most fellowships I have been in have been long on doctrine (not always even good doctrine) and short on love. But we can be the most loving of fellowships but be leading people astray with false teaching, and that is not loving one another or God no matter how many times we visit someone in the hospital.

    Othodoxy and love must walk hand in hand. How can we love God if we don’t know who He is? How can we embrace the truths of the Gospel if we fail to love one another?

    • Suzanne

      I totally agree. I’ve seen far too many churches who hide behind doctrine. We have our word and sacrament, and we can never measure up anyway, so why try? We are forgiven, so, oh well. Don’t underestimate the power of the love of your fellow man. It’s key, which is why we are cautioned that we can’t say we love God whom we have not seen if we don’t love our fellow man, whom we have seen.

  7. “How can we embrace the truths of the Gospel if we fail to love one another?”

    Simple. He forgives us.

    No one loves God and their neighbor like they ought. No one.

    That is why He had to come.

    But He did come, and die for sinners.

    Thaks be to God!

    (that’s the gospel)

  8. I think the key ingredient needed for a genuine church starts with the following question: “Who in my church am I willing to go and visit in the hospital, or cook a meal for when they are having a baby, or invite over to my house when they don’t have a place to stay?” The question has to start with me. The key ingredient to a genuine church is my genuine love for others even if no one reciprocates (but they will…just give it time).

    • Nathan,

      You nail it!

      It has to start with me.

      When I hear people complaining about the church, I have to ask, “Well, what are you doing to resolve the problem?” Too many people want the guy next to them to get on the stick. It’s always the other guy, never themselves.

      When I was in my mid-30s, the chant among guys my age was “Where’s my mentor?” I know; I was chanting too. But then I started mentoring guys younger than me so that they didn’t have to experience what I was going through. I never found my mentor; truth is, I became one myself.

      • Bob Smith

        Trouble is, when you’re shy and you feel like you’re the only one making an effort. You have to go to people, no one comes to you. You have to share your own life, ask them about theirs. You have to tell them you want an invite to their party, they don’t invite you. You’re trying your best, giving and sharing, loving and caring, and one day,

        snap… You’ve worn yourself out and need a break because you realise that everyone who says they’re your friend, are just being friendly. They have no consistency. They don’t notice if you’re missing for a couple of weeks, they don’t get in touch to find out how you are, these same people who once invited you into their home for a meal, don’t come and visit you when you’re in hospital, or at home sick, or stretch out an arm to hug you, to hold you when you’re in pain. They are situational friendships, friends only when your face is in front of them. They have your number, but can’t wish you a Happy Christmas, New Year or Birthday. I can’t keep giving without receiving some energy back.

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