What makes a great church?
A church might try to encourage you to belong to it by telling you it is a 'great church'.
But I often want to say that Grace Church is an 'alright church'. It's not too bad. In typical English pessimistic style, it could be worse!
Certainly, no church is perfect. That's because it's made up of self-confessed bad people.
In fact, in some senses you could expect a church to be worse than many institutions, clubs and societies, because in a church people ought not be trying to impress through their good behaviour. After all, the gospel tells us that we aren’t getting to heaven by being good.
However, a real church will also desire to grow to become a great church ("grow up… into Christ", Ephesians 4:15).
It's just that, like the painting project on the Forth Bridge, it'll take a long time and we'll never be finished (this side of heaven).
A great church
So what does a great church look like?
In Acts 20:17-38 the apostle Paul gives us a window into what church life was like when he spent three years as part of the new church in the ancient city of Ephesus (Acts 19:1-41).
He describes how he preached and taught the whole truth of God, found for us today in the Bible (vv 20, 27). He didn't just tell them the nice bits. He didn't give them a spiritual tickle on a Sunday. Because a Christian knows that the gospel tells them that they are worse than they ever imagined, but at the same time more loved by God than they ever dreamed, they can accept the hard things without being totally crushed. At Grace Church you will hopefully find that the Bible is open a lot, and that you'll hear both the hard news as well as the good.
Paul shows us that he had real ties with others in the church. He was actually with other Christians (vv 18, 20). In our modern culture, genuine friendships across boundaries of age, skin colour, language, wealth and so on are hard to come by. In the age of social media, people are increasingly lonely.
And we choose to self-isolate in our homes, hardly needing to connect with anyone, since everything we need can be delivered to our door.
But the gospel is the great connector, because it tells me that I am inseparably and graciously joined together with anyone else who trusts in Christ Jesus for their acceptance before God. So I, a thirty nine year old white man, instinctively sense that I have more in common with a sixty year old Nigerian Christian woman in my church, than I do my white next-door neighbour.
Acts 20 also shows us that in a great church can show the tears (vv 19, 37). In other words, we can be real with each other.
Social media utterly prevents this, because the connections we think we have with people through it are largely fake, because we only get to know the version someone chooses to portray of themselves. Humans long to be known by others deeply - and yet at the very same time we dare not let anyone else know us, because we secretly know that we are bad.
But the gospel gives Christians the resources we need to be able to open up. We know that however bad anyone else thinks we are, God knows that we’re even worse! And yet he completely forgives me because of sacrificial Christ’s death on my behalf (1 Peter 3:18). So I am free to show my bad side, or my weak side, since I don’t feel a need to impress. I can be real with others - and they can be real with me.
What will build a great church?
What’s the common denominator across these three aspects of a great church: the truth, the ties and the tears?
The gospel. Paul calls the Bible the ‘word of God’s grace’. God builds his church through the gospel of grace (v 32). It is the gospel message, applied by the Spirit, that empowers a church to become a truly great church.
Not if the music is ‘banging’, or classical. Not whether the parking is good. Not whether or not it has house groups, or a creche.
It is if the gospel of God’s grace to us in Christ is proclaimed, loved, and lived. And we hope that, in God’s goodness to us, this gospel will continue to build us up into the great church God wants us to become.
The headings ‘the truth’, ‘the ties’ and ‘the tears’ are taken from New York pastor Timothy Keller’s sermon “The Gospel Ministry” https://podcast.gospelinlife.com/e/the-gospel-ministry/