In a conversation over coffee with a couple friends, the question was raised, "What was the purpose of the early local church, specifically the Acts churches; and what is the purpose of the local church today?" One friend said, "To be Jesus." The other answered, "To experience God" and then added "in community." But these are the kinds of answers that can't remain unexplored. They're too ambiguous. What do these answers mean in real life? Then and Today? What do these answers look like in practice?
What is the purpose of the local church? How do we know when a church is successfully achieving that purpose?
I believe my friend's answers were correct; and when we see church communities getting it right, we say of them what my friends said about local churches. But I'm still hesitant to put some kind of bullet-point list together (for good reason). For example, if I say "friendly," I can find friendly in the grocery store, the Church of Scientology toxic scanning booth at the state fair, and in any number of other non-Christian environments. If I say "charitable," I can find this among atheistic philanthropic groups. Some Churches even go to the extent of using the number of attendees or the annual count of baptisms as their way of measuring success, but I don't think I need to get into that issue here.
So if we can't make a clear list of what successfully being the local church looks like, how do we know if a church is getting it right?
When the US Supreme Court was trying to answer the question, What is obscene?, Justice Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it" (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). I think this might be the only way we can identify a local church that's getting it right.
For two months, our new friends coming from Portland to plant a church in Salt Lake City spent their Sundays sampling the local flavors of church in Salt Lake City. Being local, Lisa and I took this time to visit Holladay Baptist Church in Holladay, Utah (an area just Southeast of Salt Lake City proper). We had never been there but we know one of the pastors and thought we'd check it out. After the first visit we liked it so much we went back a second and third and forth and fifth time. There we celebrated Good Friday and Easter. We are joyfully anticipating our return this Sunday.
Indeed, the people at Holladay Baptist Church are friendly, and not just the ones that are assigned to say hello at the door. It seems the general idea is that everybody is happy to approach an unknown person, saying "I don't believe we've met" and then strike up a conversation. Most of them ask if they can pray together. Not often does someone simply say "How are you?" in passing, only allowing enough time to hear the answer, "fine." After dropping my son off at his Sunday school class (which he loves), an eight or nine-year-old girl said to me, "I don't think I know you, I'm so-in-so." And nobody seems to leave when the service is over. Instead, everybody stands around chatting with each other, and us. If the local church should feel like family, from the beginning this local body of believers says to people, "you are welcome in our family."
Another thing is that this community of believers prays. It's not uncommon to have the pastor encourage the congregation to silently pray for the people sitting to their right and left and even those not present. And the pastors typically pray that God would speak through them, bringing forward God's will and word, not their own. The service is filled with times of prayer. Sometimes they even have mid-week gatherings designated purely for prayer and worship (in addition to their "family/community meetings" and classes). And this church encourages a program they call "Pray and Watch" where it is expected that people will be praying for their neighbors by name and faithfully watching for God to move.
The people helping with the children are amazing servants! Unlike any church I've previously attended, they change diapers and feed babies. (Obviously this is not the best system in small groups or certain environments, but for the Sunday services, these dedicated servants want to provide some uninterrupted time for parents to seek the Lord.) I'm not aware of a paging system and there's no number screen to continually check my tags against. So parents are not paged for every little thing, instead personally sought out for any major issues. And my eldest son loves his teacher and his class. He gets along well with the other kids and actually is learning stuff in the lesson time. He brings home fun projects too.
I get the feeling that I would easily fit in with this body of believers because their family has young and old, men and women, hip and not-so-hip, educated and uneducated, and so-on, all worshiping together. The elderly believers seem happy to be imparting wisdom and knowledge to the younger, up-and-coming leaders; and the younger men and women appear grateful.
I could go on-and-on, but here's the most important thing: They love the Lord and together they earnestly seek to be close to him. They teach from the Bible, working through passages of Scripture, not avoiding specific books or difficult texts. The Bible is their bottom line for everything The preaching is not a feel-good message, but instead it teaches, rebukes, convicts, and encourages. There's honesty from the pulpit, and love, and truth. The Holy Spirit is moving among these people. The pastors seem extremely happy to be reflecting Jesus, as is every person serving. And many, many among the congregation are earnestly striving to use their lives to point to others to Christ and serve in love. This church is reflecting Jesus in all that they do; and in doing so, they are wonderfully experiencing God. . . in community.
Dear Holladay Baptist Church,
May God continue to grant great blessing upon your church. Thank you for your example.