After writing a lengthy post on what NOT to believe in — that is, how to identify quasi-Christian movements that are NOT the real thing — a couple of people challenged me to take on a more difficult question: what TO believe in. In other words, how can you tell if the church or group you’ve come in contact with is the real thing?
Before venturing out to visit a church or Christian group, first turn on your inner BS-o-Meter. Then search for churches that reflect the following:
Authentic churches demonstrate God’s love. God isn’t a pushover and heaven doesn’t come easy, but the mark of true faith in God is love for God and love for one’s neighbor. Authentic Christian groups will have a reputation for kindness, generosity, and a willingness to serve others. When you visit the real thing, you will feel welcome and accepted.
Authentic churches preach and teach God’s Truth. Capital-T Truth exists, and God is its source, and God has communicated to the human race through the Bible and through the Holy Spirit. Authentic churches are led by people who teach Scripture in the power of the Spirit, and they develop Christians who can take a stand on God’s word because they know it’s true.
Authentic churches are inspiring. If you visit and leave feeling untouched or unchanged, something is missing. Authentic Christian groups have a certain “je ne sais quoi” about them… an atmosphere of expectation, an attitude of hope, a “glow,” a sense of peace… the presence of the Holy Spirit. God is not only real but He is closer than the air we breathe, and authentic churches are living proof.
Authentic churches open the door for God to turn your life around. The old-fashioned word is “repentance”. Authentic Christian groups cause people to confess their failures to God, but they don’t do it by accusing or judging… they do it by making people want what they have (as described above). When God’s love becomes a thing to be desired, when you know you’ve messed up big time, that’s when God steps up. An authentic church will teach you how to be straight with God and and how to hear His “I love you” in return.
Authentic churches have and teach a healthy attitude towards money. They will tell you money is just a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that there is such a thing as “enough”. They will teach you how to be wise about money and how to rule over it rather than allowing the desire for money to rule over you.
Authentic churches are uncompromising on God’s moral teachings, yet they’re compassionate towards imperfect people. The authentic church will tell you very clearly and without apology the teaching of Scripture. For example, God’s standard for human relationships is either celibacy or heterosexual marriage and there are no exceptions; but at the same time the church will acknowledge very few of us ever live up to that standard. The authentic church will tell you Scripture says the human body is meant to be God’s, inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and is holy. Therefore it is wrong to abuse one’s body in any way — whether by deliberate injury, or by smoking, drinking too much, or other addictions — but again the church acknowledges many of us fail to live up to God’s standard. The authentic church doesn’t make excuses for human failings but it treats broken lives with compassion and understanding and a gentle “hey, join the club” humility.
Authentic churches are wise in their use of power and prestige. A church that follows the above items will be popular and successful, and with success comes temptation, particularly the temptation to power and influence. An authentic church will use its good name to bring more and more people to GOD, not to the church or to the pastor or to the donor list. It uses its power in the political arena only to give a voice to people who would otherwise have no voice. It encourages its members to step up as individuals and small groups to work to make the world outside its walls a better place. It supports the ministry of its pastors and does not allow them to become isolated from the people or “protected” by yes-men but rather encourages them to get out among the people.
Well, that’s a start. An authentic church is a joy beyond words! I welcome others’ suggestions and experiences as I’m sure I missed a lot.