Does Your Church Have This Reputation

Thabiti Anyabwile
A little while back, one of the Ref21 bloggers began a series I'd hoped they would continue.  It was a periodic quote from someone in Presbyterian history, modeled I think on Pyromaniac's daily dose of Spurgeon.  I'm no scholar of Presbyterian history, but this morning I read a wonderful sermon from James Boice on Romans 1:8 entitled, "A Reputation Worth Having."  Boice's final section seemed to me a needed tonic for so much wrong-headed evaluation and misplaced reputations ailing the church.  It's a lengthy section, but it will repay our prayerful reading and pondering the questions Boice raises.  Do we Christians and our churches have this reputation?

From James M. Boice, Romans, v. 1, pp. 74-76.

Faith: The Central Item

The last reason why the reputation of the Christians at Rome was worth having is that faith, and not some other attainment or virtue, is the essential item in life.  Faith in Jesus Christ is what matters.  Knowledge is good; Christianity considers knowledge quite important.  Good works are necessary; without them we have no valid reason for believing that an individual is saved.  The fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23)--is what we want to see.  But faith alone--faith in Christ as Lord and Savior--is essential.  For "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6a).  Without faith no one can be justified.                     

I wonder if we have the spirit of the apostle at this point.  Is this the way we actually evaluate other Christian works and testimony?

Here is what I think we do.  I think we evaluate other works first on the basis of size.  When we hear of a church that has ten thousand members, we are ten times more impressed than if we learn of a church that has only a thousand members.  What of a church with a congregation of ten?  Let me be clear.  I am not against large churches.  I am glad for them.  I have often said that large churches can do things smaller churches cannot do--launch specialized Christian ministries, for example, or have prospering subgroups that focus on the specific concerns of only some members.  Moreover, large churches are often the result of a strong expository ministry, as are some of the largest churches in Southern California, or of strong faith and piety on the part of their members, like the exceedingly large Korean churches.  But we must not think, just because the blessing of numbers is good, that a small church is therefore not as favored by God or is not bearing as faithful or strong a testimony.  What about the house churches in China, for example?  Or the struggling church in North Africa?  We may thank God for numerical growth, but what we should be especially thankful for is strong faith.

Is that what we modern Christians are thankful for?  Strong faith?  Is our faith, like the faith of the Roman church of Paul's day, spoken of throughout the world?

Another thing we do is evaluate Christian work on the basis of programs.  The more the better!  Or, the more original the better, particularly if the people involved can write a book about it!  Again, I am not against programs.  Right programs are for the sake of people and rightly minister to them.  But is this the proper way to evaluate churches?  Do programs prove God's blessing?  You know the answer to that.  I do not think the fledgling, first-century church at Rome had many programs, certainly not the kind of things we mean by programs.  But it was a famous church--and rightly so.  For it was known for what was essential, which is faith.

Is that what we are known for?  Do people say of us, "How strong is their faith in God and in Jesus Christ?"

I think we are also impressed--perhaps we are most to be pitied here--by big budges and big buildings.  Again, I am not against either budgets or buildings.  Without adequate financing many worthwhile Christian works cannot be done, and without adequate meeting spaces much important activity is hindered.  Even in countries like Romania, a chief concern of the thriving Christian congregations has been the repeated attempts of the Communist government to destroy the church structures.  Still, a proper concern for budgets and buildings is quite different from evaluating a work on the basis of how large the budget is or how spacious and modern the church structure has become.  The Roman church of Paul's day probably just met in people's houses.  Yet it was a church whose faith was known throughout the world. 

Are we known for that?  Or is the best thing that other Christians can say about us is that we have a seven-figure budget or impressive church structures?

Faith really is the essential thing, not numbers or programs, not budgets or buildings.  It is by faith that we "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).  The apostle John said, "This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:4).

I will tell you the kind of reputation I pray we might have at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  I pray that Tenth Presbyterian might be known as a church where people believe what God has told us in the Bible and then actually try to live by what they find there.  I want Tenth to be a church known for strong faith in Jesus Christ, where people speak often, lovingly, and fearlessly of him.  I want our church to be known for faith where God has placed us, not in some theoretical time or setting, but in the city of Philadelphia, demonstrating that Jesus is the answer to the city's problems and the problems of those who live here. I want Tenth to be rock hard in faith, in adversity as well as in prosperity, when praised as well as when persecuted.

Is that too much to ask?  I think not.  I think that is a reasonable goal and reputation worth having.