As 2014 draws to a close and 2015 comes into view, my thoughts are drawn to a subject dear to my heart—the church. I’m not just talking about First Baptist Church in Atlanta, but the body of Christ, which is composed of believers throughout the world. With so many internal and external threats confronting churches these days, it is my prayer that local congregations will be strengthened so that they can continue to be beacons of light in a dark world.
But what makes a church strong? You can’t tell by looking at the building or even at the number of people who attend. When I was traveling in a strange city several years ago, I saw three different church buildings that had been converted into a bank, a library, and a store. I couldn’t help but wonder what had caused them to close and how we might prevent this from happening to more churches. So let’s consider how we can make our local churches the kinds of places through which Christ can do His work.
The first characteristic of a strong church is the presence of doctrinally-sound teaching based upon biblical truth (2 Tim. 4:1-3). Now this doesn’t mean we will always agree on the interpretation of every passage, since no one can claim absolute clarity on all issues. However, there are enough clearly revealed truths upon which we can agree. Your responsibility is to examine what is being taught and compare it to God’s Word. This will protect you from deception and help you recognize if a message is doctrinally sound or based merely on feelings, opinions, or preferences.
Second, a strong church emphasizes faith and prayer. Every Sunday while I preach, a group of men gather to pray for the service, asking the Holy Spirit to empower me and work in the hearts of those who attend (Eph. 6:18-19). When a congregation is filled with people like this who know God’s Word and believe He will do what He’s said, their prayers become effective and powerful. But this isn’t just a group endeavor; it’s also a personal one. As we each walk by faith and commit ourselves to prayer, the power of the Spirit flows through us. And as a result, the churches we attend are strengthened.
A third essential feature of a strong church is God-exalting worship and fellowship. Although we can worship privately, there’s something special about gathering with other believers on Sunday mornings to sing praises and to focus on the Lord and His Word (Col. 3:16). However, we all have a responsibility to prepare our hearts beforehand and come with a prayerful and teachable attitudes, ready to hear what the Lord wants to say.
The fourth quality of a strong church is a people who serve in the strength of their spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has given special abilities to believers that enable them to serve the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-7). We need each other in order to function properly. When we discover and use our spiritual gifts, we’ll not only be more effective in our service but we’ll also experience the joy of doing what we were created to do.
To see how this works, let’s consider an everyday example using some of the spiritual gifts Paul mentions in Romans 12:6-8. Suppose I invite a group of people to my house for a nice dinner, but during the meal I accidentally knock my glass of tea to the floor. The person with the gift of mercy immediately says, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” The one with service responds by cleaning up the mess. The guest with leadership advises me on how to handle the situation, and the person who’s a giver offers to buy me a new glass. The one with the gift of prophecy tells me the consequences of my mishap, and the exhorter suggests I put the glass further from the edge of the table next time. That’s how we should function in the church—all working together in our own unique ways to accomplish God’s work.
Fifth, a strong church is united in spirit. Although the body of Christ is composed of people with various opinions, preferences, and convictions, we are called to live in unity based upon our common faith in the Son of God (Eph. 4:13). That’s why we must guard against letting individual differences divide us. No matter how diverse we are, our goal should be to love, help, and strengthen each other (Col. 3:12-15).
Finally, the sixth characteristic of a strong church is a vision for a lost world. When the body of Christ is committed to this task, the Lord provides opportunities for His children to share the message of salvation and make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). More than 35 years ago, I would never have imagined that the gospel we preach would reach around the world through In Touch Ministries. Yet today we exist to offer the truth of Scripture to everyone who wants to hear it. And as we look ahead, our goal is to translate the message of Christ into as many languages as possible.
As you contemplate your goals for the coming new year, would you make a commitment to strengthen your local church by personally applying each of these qualities to your own life? Not only will you be transformed, but God will honor your commitment and use you to inspire and motivate others. A strong church doesn’t just happen; it begins with individuals like you.
Charles F. Stanley
P.S. In Touch truly values and appreciates your faithful support as we seek to strengthen both churches and individuals. Enclosed are a few examples of how the Lord has used our ministry to transform people’s lives. There’s something about seeing His past faithfulness that inspires us to trust Him for the future. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to what God will do in 2015.