Recently, a megachurch pastor drew fire for saying, “Don’t attend a church that teaches your children to hate church.” The larger context of his statements indicated that smaller churches are the kind of churches that cause children to hate church. This pastor, who I will leave nameless, has since apologized for his disparaging comments. The quote above, however, is irrefutably correct: we should not attend churches that teach our children to hate church. Of course this maxim immediately raises questions such as “What makes a church attractive in the first place?” and “What kind of church teaches my kids to love the local church?”
There are a variety of considerations that may factor into a parent’s decision regarding which local fellowship of believers to join in membership. At minimum, however, there are at least three attributes that make a church attractive regardless of its size or the number of its programs.
God’s love to us
First, the local church is attractive regardless of its size when it centers its life and worship on the excellence of Christ and his gospel. In Matthew 16, Jesus polls his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (v. 13). The disciples answered, “John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (v. 14). But Jesus presses, “But who do you say that I am?” And to this question Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v. 16). Jesus then continues to explain that it is upon “this rock”—that is, this confession that will be proclaimed by his apostles and all disciples—that he will “build his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).
The excellence of Jesus Christ, “the Son of the living God,” is the foundation for the church. He is its cornerstone (Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:6–7). The church’s foundation is not its size or the number of its programs or something else. Jesus Christ, the supreme expression of God’s love to us (John 3:16; Rom 5:8), is the church’s foundation and its chief cornerstone. The church’s attractiveness and beauty are likewise found in him. Ultimately, it is the beauty of God’s love and grace to us in Christ that is attractive. Thus, our pursuit of a local church that is attractive to our children for all the right reasons is a local church that centers its worship and life on Christ and his gospel.
God’s love among us
Second, the local church is attractive, regardless of its size, when its members express the love of Christ one to another. Jesus tells his apostles, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). If the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ (God’s love to us), then its frame and substance is the love of God expressed to one another (God’s love among us). This love is shaped by the various “one another” commands in the New Testament.
For example, believers are commanded to “love one another” (John 13:34–35), “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50), “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14), “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:16), “live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12:16), “instruct one another” (Rom 15:14), “greet one another” (Rom 16:16), “wait for one another” at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:33), “through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13), “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2), “bear with one another in love” and this “with all humility and gentleness, with patience (Eph 4:2), “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave” us (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13), “submit to one another” (Eph 5:21), “in humility count others more significant than” ourselves (Phil 2:3), “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11), “always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thess 5:15), “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24), “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (Jam 5:16), “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet 4:9), “clothe yourselves . . . with humility toward one another” (1 Pet 5:5), “have fellowship with one another” as we “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7).
Conversely, believers are commanded not to “provoke” or “envy one another” (Gal 5:26), “lie to one another” (Col 3:9), “speak evil against one another” (Jam 4:11), or “grumble against one another” (Jam 5:9). The “one another” commands display the multi-faceted love of God that is to be characteristic of the local church. It is by this love that all will know that we belong to him.
It is hard to imagine an Awana program or program-rich youth ministry standing in for the qualities above. The simple fact is, they cannot, and we don’t want them to. Parents pursuing the question of this post should consider the respective church’s expression of love for one another. A church that loves “one another” in these ways is undeniably beautiful.
God’s love through us
Finally, the local church is attractive, regardless of its size, when its members express the love of Christ to the world. Disciples of Jesus Christ “adorn” the gospel of God’s grace through good works as well as a Christian work ethic (cf. Titus 2:10). Their good works bring glory to God. As Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
God has ordained that the grace he has given to us would flow through us in tangible ways to the world. Paul teaches in Titus that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Immediately after teaching the Ephesians that salvation is “by grace through faith” and “not a result of works” (Eph 2:8, 9), Paul makes it clear that while we are not saved by good works, we are saved unto good works. He writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8–10; emphasis added).
The love of God expressed in good deeds and practical ministry adorns the gospel and reveals its true character to all who see it, including our kids. While programs are not at odds with this key attribute, programs cannot substitute for it. Proper consideration of our children in selecting a church home prizes this gospel-adorning attribute.
What kind of church should I attend that will teach my kids to love and not hate the local church? If the beauty of the church is found in programing and the ability for our kids to have a fairly large pool of other Christian kids to grow up with and make memories with, then the answer is simply “go to a large church.” Large churches have any number of resources that small churches lack. If, however, the church’s beauty, as argued above, is found in God’s love for us, God’s love among us, and God’s love through us, then the answer is found in quality not quantity.
Before concluding, two qualifications are in order. First, no church is perfect. The bride of Christ will not be perfect until her bridegroom returns and glorifies her. In fact, she is currently undergoing an ongoing purification process (Eph 5:25–27). Therefore, we must evaluate the relative health of a local church with humility, and it is certain that as we do we will note areas of weakness. Where deficiencies exist we should be quick to acknowledge that on some level we are part of the problem! We must commit ourselves to pray and work for health in these areas (cf. Eph 4:16).
Second, we must also remember, that only the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16-17). Finding a church that is beautiful in the ways we have described does not guarantee our children’s salvation or long-term love of the local church. We must lead our children to see their sin and to see the excellence of our Lord and Savior through the light of his word (2 Tim 3:15). He is our only hope for their salvation.
Parents should consider their children when deciding what church they join. Anything less than consideration on the part of parents in this decision is dereliction. However, the core issues of parental consideration should be the love of God as it is celebrated in worship, manifested in fellowship, and embodied in practical ministry to the world. May the Lord give us wisdom to value the qualities that are most important, and help us devote ourselves to fostering these qualities in whatever local churches in which we participate.
In his classic work Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan described the church as “a stately palace . . . the name of which was Beautiful.” Further, he said that this house was “built by the Lord of the hill . . . for the relief and security of pilgrims.” When church members love “one another” as instructed in the NT, the best description of its fellowship is “beautiful” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 1, Stage 3 [on-line]; accessed 17 January 2016; available from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/bunyan/pilgrim.iv.iii.html) .