When looking for a church, there are many things to consider. Perhaps you are presently feeling real pressure to lead your wife, kids, or even young adult children into a solid church and when this is the case, you are likely asking yourself a few certain questions. How is the preaching? What is their worship style? Are my friends there or will I be able to make friends there? Is the basic doctrine conservative or too conservative?
All these considerations (and several more) may be necessary but there is one category that is equally if not more important and lies underneath the surface behind what is happening at any church, and this is called a church’s philosophy of ministry. At first this concept of a church having a philosophy of any sort might sound somewhat esoteric or academic. Still, I want to assure you that every church has one (whether they know it or not) and that the POM of any church is the most practical thing about it. A church POM defines how it functions because it sets the course for all its goals and drives the direction for how it will achieve them.
On the face of things, most Christian churches with very little variance often publish very similar doctrinal statements (denominational and secondary issues aside). Churches usually have a boiler plate of beliefs about God, Jesus, the Spirit, the Bible, and the like. Nevertheless, when visiting different churches, you will find a wide diversity in how each goes about preaching, singing and worship, as well as its programs and priorities.
The reason for that is its POM. So, how do you discern what any particular church has as its POM, especially when it is not written down? I’m glad you asked because unless a church in fact has it written down, you probably will have a hard time pinning anything down in short order. I want to suggest a different approach than taking on the role of an investigator. Instead of first looking on their church website (which is still a good idea), first look to God’s Word and study up on how a New Testament church is supposed to function. Answer from God’s Word what its goals and priorities should be so you are able to recognize these things in any church you evaluate. In a sense, you take the Bible to the church instead of the church to the Bible. So, where in the Bible should you begin? Let me further suggest you look for someone most qualified to define the POM for every New Testament church. Look to the Apostle Paul who penned his POM when he introduced his New Testament letter, Colossians. I am confident that I know Paul’s POM because he wrote it down in a single succinct verse.
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Col 1:28 ESV)
- Proclaiming Christ
Paul gives four steps to reach one main goal. The goal is for everyone to be “mature in Christ,” and how someone gets there comes by way of these clearly defined ministry priorities. The first step is proclaiming Him, specifically Christ. The priority of preaching Christ might seem obvious and normal to anything claiming to be a church – but as they say, “not so fast!” There are many churches that say they are preaching Christ when in fact they preach a lesser Christ. A Jesus that makes you comfortable instead of accountable. When preaching the Christ of Scripture, the effects will always both draw and repel people at the same time. We know this because when you read about Christ’s preaching in the Gospels, a certain dividing line is drawn where people choose to either follow Jesus with their whole heart or wholesale reject Jesus altogether. In Jesus' ministry, he always came full of grace and likewise truth, being all-loving and all-holy all at the same time. This same approach is always found in preaching that is biblical.
Often people will preach the easy version of Jesus who is only gracious, while neglecting his harder discipleship statements where he demands holiness and self-denial from true followers. Preachers can preach many good, practical, and even biblical truths, but if they neglect preaching all of Christ, they will end up missing the proverbial ball by not truly preaching the whole Christ revealed in Scripture.
The word for “proclaim” makes preaching three-dimensional in that Christ is the “message” (kataangelos) or the literal point of every message. I recently heard how people who claim to preach expository sermons, while first explaining the content of the Bible, will then tend toward either preaching theologically or applicationally as its emphasis. Like anyone, I appreciate hearing a sermon that is built around practical applications, but I find that my preaching tends toward being theological and I am sure this has to do with how I was trained to preach. But more than that, it is my POM that drives my study and preaching because I have a passion for people to come face to face with Jesus from the preached Word. I preach with this goal in mind because I know that when sermons go vertical, people must deal with their sins. Being face to face with Jesus, like nothing else, initiates heart repentance even when people must come up with their own life applications.
- Admonishing the mind
The second step is “warning everyone,” or a better interpretation, “admonishing everyone.” This is where a church, as its culture, makes its aim to regularly guide and even redirect people’s thinking within the fellowship. Often people choose their church because it offers a certain kind of experience or emotional lift as its POM, aiming to inspire. Now there is nothing wrong with wanting people to feel better emotionally from attending church, but this goal can never upstage the biblical goals for any church as defined by God’s Word. Yet in most churches the tail of emotional manipulation wags the dog. I grew up in a church in Virginia Beach, Virginia where in its days was touted as the fastest growing church in the state. It certainly was an exciting place to go Sunday mornings, but its Bible-substance was lacking.
Starting Bible college freshman year, in New Testament I struggled to answer a question about telling the difference between who John the Baptist was versus John the Apostle. I quickly self-corrected as I progressed in my studies but came to realize that my Bible knowledge was in deficit and that Bible teaching had been swapped out for motivational speeches. Last week I noted a FB post from a lady who had been a prominent member of my home church who was lauding Joel Osteen (premier motivational speaker promoting a false self-help gospel) as a great man of God. Osteen may be motivating but he’s not admonishing people’s mindset with Scripture.
Think of God’s great commandment of Deuteronomy 6, “To love the LORD God with heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Loving God with your mind should be an integral part of your Christian development. A.W. Tozer famous quote is appropriate: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” This is true because everything you think about in the world, what you value and prioritize, comes down to your mindset or worldview. Our minds are in constant flux between worldly and spiritual thoughts – this to say we are either operating by the Spirit or our flesh. The way back from the flesh is by renewing our minds (see Romans 12:1-2 “…be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”). This is where everything rises and falls in your spiritual life, and this is where a healthy church comes into play as the agency for transformation. The songs, conversations, sermons, relationships at church all take part in this ministry of admonition. Hebrews 10:25 clearly warns people not to forsake the assembling together as some were in the habit of doing. The whole reason we come to church is to keep our minds from drifting and this comes by way of gathering. Your church can and should serve as an emergency break that is engaged inside a car parked on a steep hill. Cars left on an incline often roll backward when the emergency brake is left disengaged. When people leave their cars vulnerably parked, they can slip out of gear and crash, what can happen to you when not attending a church willing to admonish your mindset.
- Teaching God’s Word
With this focus to redirect someone’s mindset, this third step of “teaching” makes logical sense. I recognize that not every believer is gifted to teach but every believer is nevertheless commanded to teach. Do you remember Christ’s great commission to his disciples (which by implication includes every believer since) to go out into all the world and make disciples of every nation? Do you also remember that his commission specifically defines this mission in terms of teaching. Jesus called everyone of his followers to go and make disciples by teaching others all that he had commanded them, meaning everything he taught while on earth (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). So, at some level every believer is called to take up God’s Word and teach it to someone else.
It has been said that all you must do to start teaching the Bible is to learn something from God’s Word that someone else has not yet learned and just teach it to them. Why teach? Teaching is both good for the student and the teacher because both teacher and learner grow from this operation what could be called the discipline of teaching. People often encourage regular Bible reading as a discipline in and of itself such as using a formal Bible reading plan. I confess that I have taken up Bible reading plans over and over again, and I am certain that using a plan works for many people, but it does not work for me. Reading plans tempt me to read a chapter of the Bible to check it off the list and in so doing, I miss the necessary work of meditation. You can accidentally read the Bible as a legalist, by believing you are achieving favor with God by the chapter you just read. Likewise, you can read yourself into licentiousness by reading God’s Word as “God-credit” that you later spend by freely sinning.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t practice the spiritual discipline of reading the Bible for personal edification. Hardly. I am appealing to your motive for taking up the Bible to read it. Reading the Bible to check the box will leave you in a spiritual deficit while reading the Bible to study the Bible with the motive to teach the Bible to others will leave you enriched. Paul makes a clear reference to this blessing by saying Christians are to teach, “with all wisdom.” Wisdom assumes the wisdom of God’s word, what is spiritually wise, inspired by the Holy Spirit (Ps. 19:7-11, Prov. 17:27; Rom. 11:33-35). Again, the emphasis for studying God’s Word is to both edify yourself and others. I love what the late RC Sproul is known for saying over the years: “Don’t read the Bible, study the Bible!” In other words, study as an approved workman to impart it to others.
- Investing in others for their Christian growth
The fourth and final step is to “present everyone mature in Christ.” Maturity as this goal is defined in terms of sanctification or personal holiness. To be mature (telos) is the end of sanctification for every believer and ultimately will not be realized until the believer is glorified (cff. Rom. 8:28-29; 2 Cor. 3:16; Phil. 1:6). This process of spiritual growth has been called progressive sanctification, where believers during their lifetime become more and more like Jesus. Sanctification is the journey of life where, through all the ups and downs and bumps and bruises along the way, believers are moving upward and nearer to being like Christ. Yes, life is a series of taking two steps forward and three steps back, but it is through this life as if running a marathon that Christians grow.
The great truth behind Christian growth is that growing is never meant to be done solo. No, we are called to grow within the context of a community of fellow believers. Every young man like Timothy (from the New Testament) should have someone like Paul (from the New Testament) as his mentor. Every young woman should have a Titus 2 woman as her mentor teaching her how to love God more and, if married, how to love her husband and children more. Women are integral in developing godliness in other women.
Paul’s whole life was given to this mission, bringing men and women along on their journey toward heaven, so that one day, he can present every man he influenced as an offering to God, “complete in Christ.” Paul’s life’s aim should likewise be the clear mission of every church. Churches calling its flock to make disciples, to mentor others in Christian sanctification, with clear passion to present every man complete in Christ. What this means is that whatever else you do with your life, you should do this very thing. You live to invest your life in the lives of others for the express purpose to one day present as an offering to God those you have influenced to become complete in Christ.
Paul’s POM is succinct and hopefully easy to remember: Proclaiming Christ, Admonishing the mind, Teaching God’s Word, Investing in others for their Christian growth. My hope is that this is helpful for you as you consider where you choose to worship and why you choose to worship there. Please understand that I am not telling anyone to leave his or her church. In most cases, God would need to make it abundantly clear to you as to where you attend and become a member.
What I am calling you to is to be equipped in your thinking and to be clear in how to direct others to be part of healthy local churches. They are out there, but usually people do not know how to distinguish what makes one church more on target than another. Again, let me underscore that I am not calling for you to be a church snob – anything but that! I am a church snob. I have been blessed in a variety of churches in my lifetime: some big, others small, some which emphasize biblical obedience while others which emphasize spiritual experience. I have learned from theological preachers and applicational preachers and have been blessed by each. There are no perfect churches and things will not be perfect until heaven. We know that.
Still, understanding Paul’s POM and taking it at face value should be a healthy exercise in becoming clear on how you are being fed at your church and how you can participate in your mission. And, as I said before, your job as a Christian is to point people to be part of healthy churches – take this challenge seriously.