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What Makes a Church Great?

Matt Carter    /    Sep 07, 2008

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Matt Carter teaches on Revelation 2:1-5

Series: A Church For The City (2008)

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Sermon Transcript

I’ve never met anyone that wants to go to a mediocre church.

So we’ve got to ask the question what makes a church healthy, vibrant, and great?

We as Americans have a bad problem of defining the greatness of a church by how it meets our needs. People would probably give you a more idealistic answer, but when you actually hear them talking about what makes a church great, they generally talk about the worship, the preaching, if the church has some program they’re really into or whether or not the church puts in enough time, money, and effort into the ministries they’re most passionate about.

This is a dangerous way to define the worth and value of a church.

Scripture never defines the greatness of a church in this way. Jesus didn’t look at the seven churches in Revelation and say, “I checked you guys out, you have a great preacher, worship leader, and a rockin’ children’s program. You’re healthy!”

If we don’t begin to define church success on God’s criteria, instead of ours, then we run the risk of spending the rest of our lives completely missing the heart of God.

For the next seven weeks, we’re going to look at Scripture and see what it says about what makes a church healthy. Today, we’re going to look at three ways the Scripture defines a healthy, vibrant, and great church.

A church is healthy, vibrant, and great when:

  1. Jesus Christ is the first priority of the church both in word and deed.
  2. It is on mission.
  3. It becomes a great agent of transformation.

When Jesus Is Exalted

The person of Jesus Christ needs to be the preeminent thing in the church. God says His tangible and manifest presence will show up in a church where Jesus is exalted.

We all know God is omnipresent; He is everywhere, all the time. But we also know God does not manifest His presence at all times and all places. He doesn’t bless every church in America with His manifest presence. Have you ever been to a church where they’re talking about God, but you get the sense God’s not there? It happens.

Think about the word revival. What comes to mind? As a child revivals meant potluck dinners and going to church every night. Others think about them as having mass conversions with tons of people getting saved. Historically, neither of these are the purest definition of the word.

Revival has been defined as the overwhelming, tangible sense of God’s manifest presence on a people.

Jesus talked about how we will never experience this if He is not first in our church.

Do you know how easy it is for a church not to place Jesus first? Jesus warned us of this in Revelation 2.

“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. 2 “‘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. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 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. Revelation 2:1-5 (ESV)

The seven golden lampstands were the churches. They were real places. Jesus was reminding them that He’s the One that walks in the midst of their churches. He told them what they were doing well, but then also talked about things they weren’t doing so well.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Revelation 2:4 (ESV)

In Ephesus, there were some great things they were doing for Him, but Jesus wasn’t the most important thing to them anymore. What a sobering thing to hear.

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. Revelation 2:5 (ESV)

Jesus warned them that if He were not their priority, the most important thing in their life, He would remove His presence from their church. He would quit walking among their lampstand.

When We’re On Mission

Great churches are missional churches.

Our mission is God’s mission.

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14 (ESV)

According to Jesus, you and I have a job to do. There is work that needs to be done. Jesus is coming back, trumpets are going to sound, clouds are going to part, but the gospel has to be preached to all the nations first.

Does this mean we just get really, really focused on foreign missions? Yes, but it’s so much more than that.

A church is a missional church when the individual people inside the church start realizing one central truth and live by it. The central truth is we’ve got thirty or so years to make our mark on this world, on the Great Commission, on church history, and on this city. The generation behind us will then have their shot to do the same.

There’s a great scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society where Robin Williams walks his students to a bookcase and shows them an old picture of some boys that were once the same age as they were. He leaned in and asked a great question, “What is it that all those boys have in common?” He said that they were all worm’s meat. He then said, “Carpe Diem,” meaning, “Seize the day.” Then he said something we don’t hear much, but is so appropriate for today. He said, “Do not miss your chance to make your life extraordinary!”

Most people miss their chance to do something extraordinary with their lives.

I have an old photograph that was sent to me a few weeks ago. It was taken in Kemp, Texas around 1900. It’s a picture of a church’s baptism service. They look just like us at our family reunions and baptisms, full of life, their whole lives ahead of them. Every single one of them, both in the water and on the ground, have something in common. They’re all dead. They’re now a part of the great cloud of witnesses watching us today.

I bet you if these people could say anything to us, they might say something like, “Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary for Jesus!”

This is our time. We will never get another. Our generation gets no second chance. We’ve got one chance and we’re living it right now. Then it’s over and we pass the torch to the next generation.

A missional believer is a believer that lives everyday of their lives in the razor sharp reality of this truth.

We become a missional church when we’re full of missional believers that get this. We become a great church when we place Jesus first, no matter what. The presence of God falls on us in a manifest and tangible way and when we’re full of people living on mission.

When We’re An Agent of Transformation

I don’t think there’s been a great church that didn’t become an agent of influence and transformation in the spheres God placed them in. That’s why we’re calling this series, “Being A Church For The City.” The next few weeks we’re going to look at what God has called us to and how we’re going to be a church for the city of Austin.

I want to give us a picture of what this looks like historically.

When I was vetted to be a church planter, one of the things they kept asking me was what model I was going to copy to plant this church. Was it Willowcreek? Or Northpoint? Or Saddleback? Those three churches are great; I love them. But they’re cut out of the same mold; the mold of finding the growth of the city (usually the upper middle class), building a building, putting in a coffee shop and a bookstore and providing a place for those people to come and learn about Jesus. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Rich, white, upper middle class people need Jesus.

But God was doing something different in my heart. I told them my model was the London Tabernacle, in London in 1850. Charles Hadden Spurgeon pastored it. He was called the Prince of Preachers. He was amazing. With five thousand people filled into one room Spurgeon would stand in the pulpit and thunder about the blood of Jesus and the cross. But what made his church so unique was not his preaching. It was how it impacted London.

Spurgeon pastored the London Tabernacle during the Victorian era. It was a time of great industrialization in England. There was a decline of the rural, agricultural society and a rise of a mechanized society. People flooded the city, hundreds of thousands of people pouring in. The population of the poor in the city doubled within a couple of years. The homeless were rampant. Children were forced to live and work in appalling conditions.

When lots of other churches were turning a blind eye and running to the suburbs, the London Tabernacle made a decision. They would not run. They decided to not just be a church in the city of London, but to be a church for the city. They moved right into the poverty.

They completed changed the city. Besides having a church filled to capacity on Sundays, they built over a dozen low-income housing residents where people could live next to nothing until they could get on their feet and find employment. Before they built those, there only existed one in the entire city of London. They built seventeen fully funded homes for the elderly. They built a school for orphans, housing and educating over four hundred homeless and orphaned children. They started a ministry that provided theological books and education for poor, rural pastors. They began a ministry that housed, clothed, and equipped single mothers and their children. They started an organization that equipped and trained businessmen to go into the city and use their businesses to expand the kingdom of God. I could go on and on.

Because of the love for their city, they began to have influence in other arenas. Their fingerprints could be seen not just with the poor, but they also began to influence the rich as well as the British aristocracy. Their impact wasn’t just theological; it was social, economical, and cultural.

They made such an impact that if the London Tabernacle had closed their doors, the city would have grieved. It’s possible the city would have just fallen apart.

Would you want to go to that church? I would. That’s where I’d be, because it’s a great church.

We are going to be a church, not just in the city anymore. We’re going to be a church for the city.