I’ve never forgotten a question a young woman asked me in the first few months after we had begun our church. She couldn’t understand why, when there are churches all over town, some of which are more than half empty on a Sunday morning, we were starting something new. She looked and me and said “do you really think Little Rock needs another church?”
Honestly, her question prompted a bit of soul searching. What exactly was it I was looking for in a local church? What did I think God wanted from us as we began our work?
A pastor in Washington DC, Mark Dever, has famously come up with what he has identified as the Nine Marks of a healthy church. His list is helpful, and it’s something we come back to regularly as we ask ourselves how we can excel still more in ministry.
But early on, there were five characteristics of a local church that I was praying would become increasingly true about us. These were the five:
I said that I wanted us to be a church that takes the Bible seriously. That digs deep. That knows and loves and studies God’s word and sees it for what it is – the very word of God for us!
I wanted us to be a church where all of us participate in heartfelt, passionate corporate worship. I want us to individually and corporately express our love for God in ways that stir in us a fresh passion for Him and for His glory in the world.
I wanted us to be a church where people experience real fellowship and genuine, authentic, transparent community. As we’ve said many times, I wanted our relationships with one another to be grace based, Christ centered, intentionally intrusive and redemptive.
I wanted us to be a church where we are serious about our mission as a church, to spread the gospel in our city and around the world. As we said Sunday, I want us to all be people who, like John the Baptist, bear witness to the Light.
And I wanted us to be a church where everything is centered on Jesus and the gospel. Where we keep coming back to Him and to the good news of His death, burial and resurrection.
I believe all five of those characteristics are vitally important for any healthy church. All five are important. But only one of the five is ultimate.
How am I defining “ultimate?”
The word comes from two Latin words that literally mean “to come to an end.” When something is ultimate, we mean that that thing is at the end of a series. The ultimate thing is the greatest possible thing, the most extreme thing, the most superior thing. If something is ultimate, then in that category, there is nothing higher or greater or more significant.
So again, I’m suggesting that we need to be committed as a church to taking the Bible seriously, worshipping God passionately, loving one another faithfully, proclaiming Jesus regularly and centering on Jesus and the gospel in all things.
All five are important. Only one is ultimate.
Spending time learning and studying and memorizing and meditating on God’s Word is vital. It’s essential. It’s critical.
But it’s not ultimate. In fact, Bible study and Bible knowledge can become an idol. If we see pursuit of truth and right doctrine as an end in itself, we are in danger.
Tim Keller says “If you are resting in the rightness of your doctrine rather than the work of Jesus, you have an idol.”
The Pharisees had made an idol out of God’s word. Their supposed knowledge and understanding of the law gave them power over others and made them superior. They loved the Bible because they loved themselves.
AW Tozer says “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word.”
Focusing on how we worship God can become an idol too. Again, we were made to be worshippers. Worshipping God in Spirit and truth is what we’re called to. God inhabits the praises of His people. But there are people who are “worship junkies,” who evaluate their times of corporate worship based on how effectively their emotions were stirred. And there are others who have turned their worship style preferences into mandates. I think those folks are in for a rude awakening when we’re gathered around the throne of God one day…
The experience of genuine community can also become an idol. Spending time with others, loving, caring for, bearing with, forgiving, encouraging, and admonishing one another – all of these things are vital. We were created for community. But again, living in community is not God’s ultimate purpose for us. If we start to think that hanging out and doing life together in community is what church is all about, we’ve missed it. It’s essential. But not ultimate.
What about our mission as believers? The great commission is what we’re here for, right? It’s our primary assignment, right? Can evangelism and reaching the world for Christ become an idol?
I think it can.
Tim Dearborne agrees. He wrote an article years ago called “Confessions of a Recovering Missions Fanatic.” Here’s an excerpt.
“To set mission before the church as its essential reason for existence is to risk focusing devotion on an idol. In our age of human-centered pragmatism, where our focus is easily fixed on the fruitfulness of our own labor and where our worth is measured by our successes and failures, we dare not make something we do the justification of our existence.”
“Lack of interest in mission is not fundamentally caused by an absence of compassion or commitment, nor by lack of information or exhortation. And lack of interest is not remedied by more shocking statistics, more gruesome stories or more emotionally manipulative commands to obedience. It is best remedied by intensifying people’s passion for Christ, so that the passions of his heart become the passions that propel our hearts.”
So here’s what I’m suggesting.
The Bible is vital, but not ultimate. The Bible can become an idol. Worship is vital, but not ultimate. Worship can become an idol. Community is vital, but not ultimate. Community can become an idol. And missions is vital, but not ultimate. Missions can become an idol.
You know what can’t become an idol? Jesus. He is the ultimate.
We love the Bible because it reveals Jesus and the gospel to us.
We love worship because it brings us into the presence of Jesus and directs our heart and mind to declare His worth and His triumph on the cross.
We love community because we are members of one another in the body of Christ. Jesus is with us, making us one in Him and transforming us through the power of the cross.
We love missions because we get to tell others about Jesus and His work on our behalf.
The Bible and Worship and Community and Missions are how we express our love for and how we serve the One whom our heart loves.
So at Redeemer, we want to make sure that we don’t ignore the important things – the Bible, community, worship and missions. But we want to make sure they always point our minds and hearts and hands and feet to the ultimate thing – Jesus and His gospel.
If you missed the Women’s Fellowship night on Monday, you missed some great food and great fellowship!
Next week, on Monday evening and Wednesday morning, the Women’s Bible Study begins. There is still time to sign up and get your materials. Let Jen Gurney know if you’re interested. Her email is Jenglies1@yahoo.com.
And don’t put off signing up for the women’s retreat, which is now just three weeks away!
Make sure you’re up to speed with all that’s happening for women at Redeemer this fall. If you’re not currently getting emails about women’s events, let Jen know. Again, her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jesus’ first public encounter happened when He came to His cousin John and asked to be baptized. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the details of that event. But John’s gospel gives us the rest of the story. And we’ll see it on Sunday.
See you in church!
Soli Deo Gloria!