Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 8 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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It is often said that the Holy Spirit gives birth to the church. I’ve said such a thing on Pentecost Sunday, and there’s a large measure of truth in this statement. But it could also be said that the gospel of Jesus Christ gives birth to the church. On the first Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out upon the disciples, and this drew lots of curious onlookers. But what got these folks to put their faith in Jesus and thus be joined to the church? The preaching of the good news by Peter.
Without the gospel of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no church. Oh, to be sure, there are some so-called churches that don’t believe or communicate this message (Unitarian “churches” for example). But, from a biblical point of view, the church comes as a response to and an outgrowth of the gospel. This is true, not only of “the church” of Jesus Christ, but also of individual churches. How did the Pauline churches get started, for example? Paul went to a certain city and began speaking about what God had done in Jesus. People who accepted this good news not only “got saved” and “became Christians” (our language, not Paul’s), but also were joined to the church of Jesus Christ, broadly speaking, as well as to the specific church that met in their city.
One of the primary callings of the church is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ so that those who believe it already might be encouraged and so that those who don’t believe might have a chance to do so. Every single Christian church should preach the gospel regularly and faithfully. Many, perhaps most churches do. But others seem to assume the gospel and proclaim many other things instead. These other things can be good things, like how to live obediently or how to seek justice in the world. But these activities find their true goodness only as a response to and reflection of the gospel. (Photo: A sanctuary of an Anglican church in London at dusk. Churches need to shine outward with God’s light as well.)
There are actually some churches, ones we’d usually call “liberal” though they might prefer the label “progressive,” that do not preach the good news of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus because they don’t actually believe this. They have replaced this gospel with another, perhaps “God loves and accepts everyone, period” or something like that. Such churches ought to consider something Paul said about the gospel when writing to the Galatians:

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. (Galatians 1:8-9)

There are other churches that preach the good news of Jesus, yet don’t live it. Remember, I’ve already said that there are no perfect churches. This means that no church lives the gospel without lots of mistakes. Nevertheless, churches should both preach and live the gospel. So, for example, if a church preaches the good news of Jesus, but then uses legalism to get people to shape up, this church falls short of the standard. Or if a church proclaims the gospel but then treats certain sorts of people with contempt (gays, liberals, etc.), this church is missing the boat big time.
One of the guiding documents of my denomination (the Book of Order of the PCUSA) includes a statement of “The Great Ends of the Church.” These are:

The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

Notice that the first great end is “the proclamation of the gospel of the salvation of humankind.” This is consistent with what I’m saying about finding a church that proclaims the gospel. The last great end, “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” refers to living out the gospel, though using different language.
How can you tell if a church “proclaims and embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ”? The proclaim part is relatively easy. Listen to what is said in worship, especially in preaching. Soon you’ll know. I don’t believe that every single sermon needs to be specifically evangelistic, complete with an altar call, though this would surely be the proclamation of the gospel. But every church should regularly speak of the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection as well as its implications, both for this world and the next.
Whether a church embodies the gospel may be harder to determine. You can look for evidence of outreach and mission. Is the church making a major effort to help others hear and respond to the good news? But you’ll also want to sense the way people relate to each other. Does grace abound in this church? When people wrong each other, do they reconcile and forgive? It will take time for you to know whether a church that proclaims the good news also walks the talk.
Again, I’d encourage you not to look for perfection. You won’t find it. But you’ll be well served by a church that regularly speaks of what God has done through Christ and seeks to embody this message in the way they live, both with each other and in the world.

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