Is the Church Alive Worth the Drive?

The below article is from Kingdom Notes a newsletter from Highlands Ministries and R.C. Sproul Jr. The article from James McDonald asks the question: How do you find a church alive? I’ve inserted some indented italicized paragraphs in the various sections to address our view and position. I trust you will find this helpful.

Is the Church Alive Worth the Drive?
by James McDonald

I am blessed to serve a wonderful church full of many unique and gifted households. While there is great diversity in our congregation, we also share many important commonalities and goals, one of which is to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. This is fulfilled in the success of the Great Commission. This common goal impacts the way we worship, the way we fellowship, and even the way we teach our children.

While Providence is indeed a glorious church; it is not the Church; and it is not the only church. We are a part of the Church universal, which spans from the gates of Eden to the gates of the city known as New Jerusalem. And we stand united with other groups of Christians across the country, indeed across the world, in the glorious Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. These churches, as a whole, are often called the church visible. It is to this church that God has given His charge and His Word. He ordains this Church to call sinners to repentance and to see the converted grow in the image of Christ.

But that certainly begs the question, if all churches make up the visible church, then why not go to the church that is closest to your home? Perhaps the little white building just down the street? Why should you consider one church over another?

This is an important question for a church like Providence. You see, we are a church that has a vision for community. We desire to be there to help one another, to bear each other’s burdens, and to develop close, long term friendships. It is our prayer that there will even be marriages within the church families and that our great-grandchildren will be faithful members of Providence.

We, The Church of Charlottesville share this same vision of community. Community is not showing up once a week for a couple of hours and listening to a sermon. Community is about intimacy, love and togetherness…no matter our idiosyncrasies, minor theological and philosophical differences. 

Yet, our church has an interesting attribute – we are somewhat geographically challenged. Some families travel almost two hours one way to come to church; and they come faithfully every Lord’s Day! Some are more consistent in their attendance than those who live just minutes away. Why do they make the drive? Why did they choose Providence over the churches in their local communities?

We, The Church of Charlottesville wouldn’t encourage anyone to travel that far for a long period of time. The fact is you just aren’t close enough to really be part of the community. What we would endeavor to do is to help you plant a like-minded church in your area.

It all comes down to finding a church alive. I’m going to offer a few thoughts. As I do, note that I will be approaching this from the biased viewpoint of a Reformed (the biblical system of doctrine that was systematized during the Protestant Reformation) and Presbyterian (the biblical church government comprised of a plurality and parity of godly officers called elders) pastor. However, I believe these principles can prove helpful to other doctrinal positions as well.

We, The Church of Charlottesville have many Reformed attributes and agree that the local Body of Christ is to be overseen by a plurality of Spirit called, biblically qualified, plurality of elders.

So, how do you find a church alive?

Teach The Whole Counsel Of God

As the church has been given the command to spread the Gospel, the first criteria should be a commitment to sound doctrine. We could call this orthodoxy. Any candidate church must strive to teach the whole counsel of God. This is why we typically teach in an expository fashion. We work through whole books of the Bible, trying to understand the Word in context, and not skip over the troublesome points.

We, The Church of Charlottesville emphatically believe in teaching the whole counsel of God and are definitely in favor of sound expository preaching. However, we go about in a different manner.

While expository preaching is important, it is not and should not be the only form of preaching and teaching when the church is gathered. Preaching and teaching can be gospel oriented, expository, topical, and just simply sharing the truths of God and His Word.

Because we seek to have a plurality of elders who can and do teach as well as other gifted men that teach, we have a variety of teaching styles.

It is important to also find a church that proclaims biblical truths as foundational regardless of the shifts we may see in our culture. I encourage people to ask probing questions, such as:

What is your position on Creation versus evolution?
  • Do you believe in a literal Hell into which those who reject the call of the Gospel and/or God’s revelation of Himself in Creation will be cast for eternal punishment? YES WE DO!
  • Do you believe in the virgin birth, sinless life, and bodily resurrection of Jesus? YES WE DO!
  • Do you believe that there is no salvation for anyone apart from faith in Jesus Christ? YES WE DO!
  • Do you believe a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from good works? YES WE DO!
  • Do you believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, the authoritative rule of faith, and practice for all of life? YES WE DO!

In other words, is the candidate church a church of the Word?

We, The Church of Charlottesville most definitely see ourselves and strive to be a church of the Word.

Being Ambassadors For Christ

The second area of focus should be the life of the body. We could call this orthopraxy. Sadly, there are many churches that hold to the tenets of the Christian faith, but whose members seem to forget that they are to be ambassadors for Jesus in their everyday lives. You can often sense the spiritual commitment of the members through observing the children and the youth. Adults can put on a good Sunday game face far better than children. And, if that which is taught from the pulpit is not reinforced at the kitchen table, the mission of the church, indeed the spiritual life of the next generation, is compromised.

We, The Church of Charlottesville find it crucial as well as biblically commanded to not just be Sunday Christians. One principle we believe in is: As ambassadors for Christ, then we should be using our homes as an embassy. This means discipling our own families in our homes, having our homes be the center of each families ministry to those around them, using our homes for hospitality with our neighbors, unsaved friends, family, co-workers and strangers. A genuine Christian community will gather not just on the Lord’s Day but throughout the week as well and each member will seek to reflect the character of God and minister to those within and without the Body of Christ daily.

New Testament Style Worship

A third area of focus, at least for me, would be worship. Does the candidate church view worship as something that is for man or something that is for God? The answer to this question will be seen in the approach to worship. Ask yourself these questions when you visit a church:

Is the worship participatory or does it seem more like a performance?
  • Is the Body encouraged to worship corporately, or is the focus on me as an individual? Yes we encourage corporate worship. We desire for our gatherings to be participatory (not just a one man show) and intimate.
  • Does the worship service exalt Jesus, promote solid doctrine, and portray the reality of the Gospel? That is our desire.
  • Is there an emphasis on what seekers want or is there a focus on the biblical reasons behind how we worship? We are not a seeker sensitive church. We would argue that any church that is, is in fact not a genuine New Testament church. When the church gathers it is to for believers to worship God together, celebrate the Lord’s Supper and edify one another. It is not for appealing to and pleasing seekers. The Lord’s Day gathering is for the saints. But we don’t close our doors to the lost. We welcome all who are seeking the Lord, we just don’t tailor our gathering to please them.
  • Does the worship service convict my heart and point me to the Cross, or is the focus on feelings and emotions? We trust through the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, the testimonies and prayers of the saints gathered that not only will our hearts be convicted, Christ be magnified, but that will be “feeling a sense of awe” when we gather.

Vision and Mission

Lastly, I think it is important to consider the vision of the church. Where is the church heading? What does the church see as her mission? Is there more of an emphasis on evangelism than on discipleship? Are children viewed as covenant blessings or are they treated as vipers in diapers? Are households strengthened or separated? Is there a desire to plant new churches in other areas, or is the church striving to join the ranks of the mega-churches?

Vision: We, The Church of Charlottesville have a distinct vision for a New Testament church and that is part of our mission.

Mission: In addition, we desire to build each other up to the “full stature of Christ” so that we can reflect the Body of Christ to the world.

Our emphasis: Is maturing spiritually, having an intimate membership, reflecting the character of God and displaying the Body of Christ to the world around us.

Children: Are to be brought up in the training and admonition of the Lord. It is the parents…especially the fathers duty to shepherd his children, reflect Christ to them and point them to the cross. Our children are part of our gathering and are not shoved off to the unbiblical practices of children’s church and youth ministry.

Households: Individual households and families make up our church family. We encourage each family to use their home as an embassy and for men to shepherd the flock within their homes.

Church Planting: It is our desire to raise up elders and qualified individuals to go forth and plant New Testament churches. Our desire is to grow to about 150 people (25-40 families) and then send off some to plant churches and then rebuild and send forth again. And duplicate this within each church.

Based on the points above, I consider Providence a church alive. I suppose that is not too surprising. But can a geographically challenged family experience real community? The answer to this is a resounding –maybe. It depends on how the family integrates themselves into the life of the church, specifically on Sunday. For this reason, we have intentionally made the Lord’s Day a full day of fellowship. It starts with worship at 10:00 am, followed by a fellowship lunch at 12:30 pm, and officially concludes after a time of teaching and singing at 2:30 pm. Throughout the rest of the day there is plenty of time for fellowship and ministry.

We gather in the late afternoon and have a time of fellowship, praise, prayer and then celebrate the Lord’s Supper with a full meal and then have a teaching time. So we typically gather from around 3:30 till 8 or 9 o’clock.

This is when practicing hospitality is important. Inviting families out for the evening—or even for the weekend is a good way to get to know one another. We have invited families who live far away to spend Saturday with us, so that we can head to church together on Sunday morning.

In addition, there are many technological resources available today that make distance fellowship possible. This includes email loops and virtual community portals. And there is also the telephone. As the old commercial jingle said, “Reach out and touch someone.” This is so much easier today than ever. Video calls, the dream of just a few years ago, is today’s reality. While there are certainly limitations for the remote family, such as mid-week meetings, developing solid relationships and fellowship is more than possible.

Also, it is important to remember that in the days of old, it was common for congregants to travel well over an hour one way to church. While the distance from the farm to the meeting house may have been shorter, the fact that travel was often done on foot or with horse and buggy would mean a long trip. Just like then, families today spend the time singing together, memorizing Scripture, or learning Bible stories. Except we get to enjoy air conditioning!

Long distance church families may have to get a little creative, but fellowship can happen, and close relationships may become even closer because of it.

There are two other points to consider with regard to a church alive. One is the prospect of moving closer. If you truly feel called to the fellowship of a good church, but the drive is a challenge, the Lord may lead you to relocate. While this is not an option available to all, it is certainly something worth praying about. Also, you may want to talk to the church leadership about starting a mission work in your community. Mission works require prayer, investment, leadership, and time, but most churches that adhere to the points above would be very open to seeing how they could help.

At the end of the day, decisions regarding where to place your church membership must be bathed in prayer. Seek the counsel of the Lord. And consider the impact a church alive can have on your household. You may face extra sacrifices because of the distance, but after considering your options, you may indeed find that the church alive is worth the drive.

Rev. James McDonald, husband to Stacy, father to ten, grandfather to two, is the pastor of Providence Church in Morton, IL. James lives with his family on a couple acres of heaven just outside the middle of nowhere Illinois.