“6 Characteristics of a Praise-Worthy Church”
There may be no book of the Bible more relevant today for the church of Jesus Christ in these United States than Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.
That’s a big statement, but I mean it. The church at Corinth is where we find ourselves in the United States today. Their struggles are our struggles; their failings are our failings. But I also believe that their strengths are our strengths too. Listen to this—this is a description of the Corinthian church written by an author around thirty years ago. The author begins talking about how populous Christianity has become and then says:
It was full of cliques, each following a different personality. Many Christians were very snobbish: at fellowship meals the rich kept to themselves, and the poor were left alone. There was very little church discipline: a lot of laxity was allowed, both in morals and in doctrine—an all-too-common combination. They were unwilling to submit to authority of any kind and the integrity of Paul’s own apostleship was frequently questioned. There was a distinct lack of humility and consideration for others, some being prepared to take fellow-Christians to court and others celebrating their new-found freedom in Christ without the slightest regard for the less robust consciences of fellow believers. In general, they were very keen on the more dramatic gifts of the Spirit and were short on love rooted in the truth.
(David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians, in “The Bible Speaks today,” ed. John R. W. Stott, IVP, p.19).
Any of that sound familiar?
Though Christians make up over 70% of our population, the American church has been infiltrated by cancerous schisms that undermine what is common to us all: the gospel of Jesus Christ. (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/)
Though we follow the Jesus who breaks the chains that divide and destroy us, Sunday morning remains “the most segregated hour of the week,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed many years ago. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/6367/most-segregated-hour.aspx)
Differing economics continue to divide churches from communities, as well as within churches.
There is an incredible amount of blowback on pastors and churches who attempt to speak about moral issues, and God have mercy on any pastor who teaches against what someone learned on the History Channel or what they think they were taught 30 years ago as a child in Sunday School. Such actions typically lead to personal attacks and smear campaigns as their authority (or any authority) is challenged.
Humility and consideration for others are qualities that are no longer associated with those practicing the Way of Jesus. Quite the opposite: we are seen as arrogant, self-righteous, and self-involved—unconcerned with the plight of anyone but ourselves.
Christians attack other Christians with a ferocity that is unmatched by unbelievers, while the faith of each is considered such an individual affair that no concern for community or building up of one another is even considered.
We have become very big on our displays of self importance and very weak on demonstrating love rooted in truth.
Welcome to the Roman Empire, citizens. This is Corinth.
And yet somehow—proving (in my book) once and for all that Paul really does have a pastor’s heart deep down inside somewhere—he also looks at the Corinthian Christians and sees the foundation of a tremendous church, a great church, the best church.
Because he (like any good pastor) truly loves this church, Paul is able to see it through the eyes of Christ. And after the description I read a moment ago, this might feel jarring—but it’s true. Despite the massive failings, self-sabotage, and undermining of the message of Jesus Christ that is going on at Corinth, there are six characteristics that they already exhibit that can save it. Six characteristics of a praise-worthy church that the church of Corinth—and these United States—needs to live into in the coming months and years.
(these start in v.4)
1. Rooted in grace
First: the church is rooted in grace.
This is the first and most important of these characteristics. As Christians, the grace of God available to us because of Jesus Christ is to be the cornerstone of everything we are and of all that we do.
If we are not rooted in an awareness of the grace we have received, nothing we try will succeed.
If we are not rooted in an awareness of how that grace has changed us, no one will hear.
If we are not rooted in an awareness of why we need God’s grace, we won’t just fail to be a praise-worthy church—we will fail to be a church at all, regardless of what is on our sign or in the phone book.
The church of Jesus Christ is rooted in grace—grace is at the heart of the gospel, so grace must be at the heart of who we are.
2. Is mature
Second: A praise-worthy church is mature.
This is a place where our American church fails—we are (to use Paul’s language) like 30-year-olds who are still drinking milk out of sippy cups and bottles. We never matured. We never grew up. But the Christian life is something that matures.
For too long, churches and pastors in this country have thought our job was to “get people saved.” Everything we did—missionary work, evangelistic outreach, worship songs, emotionally manipulative sermons, alter calls—everything was focused on getting someone to say a prayer, get baptized, and join the church. After that, they were SOL.
We didn’t expect their growth; we only cared about church growth—statistics.
We didn’t watch for the endowment of gifts or their expression.
We wanted the credit for their name ending up in the Book of Life, and once it was there we moved on to some other poor soul.
No wonder so many became restless with the bottle-fed milk of spiritual immaturity that we were forcing on them.
No wonder those who remained began to think worship and church was all about meeting their own needs.
No wonder the church has little voice of consequence in the public arena.
If we do not nurture and grow our Christian faith—if the Christian churches of this nation cannot ditch the bottles and diapers—then no one will take us seriously enough to consider that we might have something of importance to offer.
3. Embodies its giftedness
Third: a praise-worthy church embodies its gifts.
Did you know in Greek the word for gift is connected to the word for grace? These spiritual gifts are “graces.” I find that really ties all this together.
The gifts we are given are graces that we are expected to share in community—we are to embody them for the benefit of others.
Think of the Parable of the Talents. That’s weird, y’all. God gets all harsh on the dude who plays it safe. It’s the polar opposite of how most of us live out our faith. But if there’s one thing that’s clear it’s the moral of the parable: God wants us to use the talents we are given.
Later on in Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul stresses that we are gifted uniquely so our unique gifts may be shared to edify the community of faith. That is their primary purpose. When we insist on only using our gifts outside the church, or when we do not pursue the necessary discernment, prayer, and conversation to discover what our gifts actually are, we handicap God’s community, God’s mission, and God’s kingdom.
One further reminder here: Paul is not speaking to individuals but to a church—a community. No individual will “be enriched in every way” and “not lacking any spiritual gift.” It’s just not possible for an individual person. But it is more than possible for this to be the case within a group who are sharing their graces with one another—this is the way God designed us and this thing called “church” to work.”
4. Is oriented/motivated by Christ’s return
Fourth: a praise-worthy church is oriented to and motivated by Christ’s return.
The return of Christ is a polarizing thing among Christians. For many, having a proper understanding of an “end times” timeline is fundamental to salvation—at least that’s what I’ve learned the many times I was told I wasn’t saved because I didn’t believe the right things.
But, you know? I just don’t see too many Christians motivated to action by this though. Their complicated manipulations of the biblical text don’t just lack an appropriate regard for context—they also fail to help people live more like their Savior Jesus.
In contrast, a praise-worthy church is one that orients its mission toward Christ’s return. Their focus on the coming of Christ leads them to deeper and more passionate engagement, as they sense an urgency in the work that has been entrusted to us. Genuine belief that Jesus is coming back drives such a church into more and more radical displays of grace and love as we enact God’s justice here on earth—the justice that lifts up the lowest and least of our world, remembering that “just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”
5. Has a sustaining spirituality
Number 5: a praise-worthy church has a sustaining spirituality.
More than ever before, Christians are burning themselves out and destroying their faith communities in the process. Churches, to be honest, bear a big part of the blame for this—it has been we who manipulate and guilt-trip people into overcommitting, serving far outside their giftedness and calling, and (all the while) expecting more than ever before.
I have known many Christians who flat refuse to join a church as a matter of self-care. Their experience of joining a church involves guilt-laden commitments, a burden on their family’s schedule, and a host of other unhealthy realities. So they self-censor these things from their lives by never joining.
I have known countless others who aren’t even sure they’re Christians anymore. They have witnessed selfishness, divisive behaviors, greed, and hypocrisy to the point that they have become disillusioned, unsure that there even is a God if even God’s own people can’t do better than this.
In both groups, these people have become burned out or they’ve been burned as others flame out. Involved are people who were never taught that Christian spirituality is one that sustains, not drains. The model for our lives is to be Jesus, yet Jesus has no problem repeatedly taking retreats and times of prayer to balance out those public engagements and challenging experiences. This pattern is seen over and over in his ministry, yet we as his followers are overcommitted, stressed beyond belief, and running on fumes.
The praise-worthy church knows its members can’t burn a candle at both ends for long—that is not the way of Jesus, and it is not to be our way. Our way is a way of embodied and sustaining spirituality that nurtures, heals, and unites.
6. Correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice
Sixthly and lastly, a praise-worthy church correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice.
While I know from a broader reading of 1Corinthians that this is a sixth and vital characteristic of a praise-worthy church, I admit it is a bit of a stretch here. But when Paul says in v.9 that “God…has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” this is considerably more involved than being Facebook friends.
If God has called us into “fellowship” with Jesus, God has called us to be co-laborers with Christ, participating fully with him in the advancement of God’s agenda of grace and love. That agenda—that mission—involves being in active pursuit of the same justice Jesus pursued:
justice for those on the margins of society
those who are sick—and who are preyed upon because of illness
those who fall between the cracks of bureaucracy
those who do not have enough
those who are without hope
those who are victims of themselves or others
those whose only way out they can see is in a body bag
and those for whom everything is just that much harder.
When the Bible says “justice,” it isn’t talking about the kind of elementary school fairness where everybody gets a candy bar. It’s talking about upsetting the entire system—taking food from the rich kids and giving to the ones who only get peanut butter sandwiches, punishing the bully and encouraging the bullied, nurturing students instead of boosting test scores.
The testimony of the Bible is that God loves an underdog. And if we are going to be a praise-worthy church, we’re going to get pretty raucous in pursuit of God’s kind of justice too.
The funny thing about all of this—when we really think about it—is that it all comes down to love. Everything has a way of doing that, when we talk about God. In fact, while I was writing this sermon my oldest daughter wanted to help. So I had her get out her Bible and read the verses a few times to herself, I told her to listen really, really hard for what God might be trying to tell us. Listen for what God might want someone else to hear. After a few minutes of uncanny quiet and still, she replied: “Dad, I think I heard God, and what he wants us to hear is “I love you.”
The grace in which we are rooted is on account of God’s love.
Our spiritual maturity grows because God loves us enough to engage us in friendship.
We embody our gifts because we have been loved by God and know the responsibility we have in passing that love on to others.
The Incarnation of Jesus came about because of love, as will the Return of Christ our King.
Our sustaining spirituality was modeled by the Jesus who loves us so, and who continues to be our friend.
And God’s justice is intrinsically rooted in the love God has for us. I made the claim some time back that it is actually God’s mercy—what some translations call God’s “lovingkindness” that drives God’s pursuit of justice for the lowest and least in our world.
If you hear nothing else this morning, hear this: The voice of God, echoing in your innermost being: “I love you.”