I’ve been thinking lately upon the existence of the local church. Specifically within Southern Baptist polity, the local church has autonomy and can, for the most part, conduct ministry as it sees fit within its community. This seems to do wonders, especially when it comes to reaching out to audiences who are engulfed in different cultures worldwide. If this were the only detail for consideration, the local church would become a necessary part of the movement of Christ’s Gospel.
I have often likened the ministry of the Church to the conquest of a righteous army being just in its war. There is one ruling authority who has given authority to others, who give authority to others, who give authority to men in different regions. Those regional officers take their men into battle for the immediate purpose of conquest. These officers may have other officers under them who focus on specific parts of the battle (communications, support, artillery, etc…), and still others who lead different groups of men within the same category (one group may have several scouting teams lead by different men).
It seems that, given the Church’s role in a fallen world (to represent Christ and to advance the kingdom of God in the hearts and minds of men), the local church begins as this type of frontline entity. In essence, all local churches begin as missions to the community in their region. Even on his missionary journeys, Paul would stay for years until he thought the local church that he planted was capable of continuing God’s work without him. Then he would move to another region and plant another local church. What, then might we deduce about what an effective local church looks like? How should the local church conduct its ministry?
In his letters, Paul dealt with issues that were specific to each church context. It seems a combination of the culture surrounding that church and sets of issues particular to each church created a local church environment that looked different from other local churches. The same seems true in our current local church context. Each church operates differently and relates to a different immediate culture. Because of this, we should consider some action as we choose a local church to be a part of.
Living in context
Each efficient church that I have been a part of has this in common; it succeeds in reaching the community surrounding the church. The leadership in the local church seems to always live within the community that the church is reaching out to and most of the church’s members, if not in the immediate community, live close to the church building. I would be cautious in attending or becoming part of a local church where that church’s leadership is not local. For, how can anyone reach a community if he is not part of that community? To my fellow ministers of the Gospel, if we are to legitimately serve in a leadership role within a church to reach the community surrounding the church, we must be dedicated enough to that service to live and to serve daily within a community. The Gospel will not be heard from our churches if we do not hold this conviction or live by it. This would almost be as silly as asking a resident of New York to hold the mayorship in Chicago. He simply would not be able to perform the necessary duties of the office. The same might be true of the leadership within the church. We must live in context.
Living on mission
Furthermore, I am forced to consider the reason for the existence of the local church. It seems the only valid reason for its existence is the evangelization of the community surrounding that local entity. As Paul went from city to city planting churches, he went with the expectation that those local churches would continuously reach their cities. Even when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he emphasized that God had given certain influence to the church and that his desire was for his area of influence through the church at Corinth would be enlarged (specifically in the context of his boasting in the Lord). It seems that when the members of a local church see fit to boast internally, or about themselves, they work against the mission that Paul desired for the local church of his day. The local church should not boast in itself so that it can focus on gaining a greater influence in its community, so that it can boast about Christ among people who have possibly never heard the correct Gospel. The mission of the local church literally is to gain a greater influence in its region so that more people will hear the good news of our Lord, Jesus Christ! It seems that biblically, as well as practically, and local church that concerns itself solely with internal matters will never gain influence for the spreading of Christ’s gospel. A local church that is not actively concerned with reaching those in its community is a local church that is either dead or dying. Considering this, I am not sure that I would want to be a part of a local church that goes any serious timeframe without seeing someone come to know Christ as a result of its work. I often think of these words from scripture when I see a local church that is not bearing fruit in accordance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit… I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.“
There seems to be a warning here not only for the individual as he lives for Christ, but also for the group of individuals who meet as the local church.
- We are here to produce fruit. Many times that fruit takes place in our own moral action or in our line of thought and in our tendencies as reflected specifically by the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. That fruit is fruit for the individual and appears more often as the individual grows closer to Christ. We are also urged, in the same passage, to keep in step with the Spirit who primarily reveals God and convicts sinners on this earth. This means that we, the local church, are to concern ourselves with seeing this fruit not only in the our own personal lives and those of fellow members, but within the community as a whole. Since the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts people, the fruit seen should be the expanding influence of the local church and its growth in number of members. If the local church works to reach people in a God-honoring fashion, it will grow numerically. This is one of the evidences of a fruit-producing church.
- If a church does not bear fruit, it becomes the branch that will be trimmed away. I often refer to the letters John the Revelator wrote to the churches as he looked across the see from Patmos:
- “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
- Every church that does bear fruit, God will prune it so that it can bear more fruit.
Finding a local church
In this brief contemplation, then, I would like to urge my brothers and sisters in the faith to find a local church that is living on mission for God, whom it claims to worship. Doctrine is important, but when that is the only concern of the local church, it will not complete God’s work or bear fruit according to the Gospel. In the same way polity, administration, expansion, social services and event planning are all important, but a local church environment must be conducive to the work of the Gospel. Evangelism in a local church context is key and practical measures must be taken to reach communities with the Gospel. Follow ups must be made! We must visit families who are unchurched and possibly have never heard the Gospel! We must live in the community we are trying to reach! If our churches are not truly living on mission, we must either demand that our church begins to live on mission, or find a place where our service will actually matter in God’s kingdom.
Furthermore, I recommend finding a church where the leadership lives reasonably close to God’s mission center (the local church) of that particular community and is involved within the community. I recommend becoming a member of a church that you live reasonably close to. Finally, I recommend looking for a church that is actually working to reach people with Christ’s Gospel and producing fruit according to Christ’s Gospel. We, God’s people who are to be concerned with the things God is concerned with, should settle for nothing less in a local church that we will call home.
For my friends
There are several friends I have who are parts of churches that do not seem to be producing fruit and that are seemingly concerned with only internal matters. I know that you desire to reach people with the Gospel and I know of some of your ill feelings. I want you to know that I am praying for you and for your churches. If you are one of those who find yourself in leadership at one of these, do all you can to help the church to produce fruit. If the church refuses, or if someone in authority over you refuses, God may have another place of service for you. Be careful, though, only to do what God wants from you. For those who are members of fruitless congregations, I pray that you will continue to work to bear fruit according to the Gospel of Christ and to encourage our brothers and sisters to do the same. If you are dealing with leadership that is not conducive to the work of the Gospel, pray for them. Be sure that you are doing as God wants and then approach them with your concerns. If they do not work to understand your concerns, chances are they will probably not listen and continue on a path to the destruction of the local church. My heart breaks for you who are in this particular situation. In any event, we should all pray that God reveals a correct and righteous course of action. Our number one priority is reaching our communities with Christ’s Gospel. If there is any way that I can pray for you, or help in any way, please use the contact form or reply in the comments. Always remember that God is with you!
 “But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you. For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you. For we were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ. We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another’s area of influence. Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:13-18 ESV).
 John 15:1-2, 5-8, 16-17 (ESV)
 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11 ESV)
 Not all churches that are growing numerically are fruit producing churches, but it seems that fruit producing churches will produce fruit.
 The branch that is being trimmed away means simply that the local church will not have an influence for God. There are scenarios where local churches have grown with Satan’s influence rather than God’s. Believers must be careful of getting involved with a church that only appears to be about God’s business.
 Revelation 2:1-7 (ESV)