Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why Church Matters, by Joshua Harris

Book Review by Chris Haven

Why Church Matters, previously published with the title Stop Dating the Church!, is a short and highly accessible introduction to what the church is and why every believer should be a part of its local expression.

In chapter one, Harris discusses what one misses when one fails to join the local church. The local church is God’s community, “the vehicle that Jesus chose to take the message of the gospel to every generation and people” (p. 10). He identifies what typifies someone who casually “dates” local churches rather than committing to them. “Church-daters” are portrayed as “me-centered” (what can the church do for me?), “independent” (avoiding meaningful involvement with people), and “critical” (having a fickle, consumeristic mentality) (pp. 6-7). In failing to become part of the local church, Harris says “you cheat yourself...you cheat a church community…[and] you cheat the world” (p. 8).

In chapter two, the church is presented as God sees and defines it. Harris makes the biblical distinction between the “big C Church” (the Universal Church) and the “local church.” The big C Church is described in Scripture as God’s bride. Harris then highlights three descriptions of the local church from the book of Ephesians; the church is portrayed as a family, a body and a temple (pp. 23-25).

Chapter three argues for the importance of being part of the local church. Harris, like Charles Spurgeon and Mark Dever, is not timid in asserting that failure to be an active participant in the local church is tantamount to disobedience and gives possible evidence that one has not truly been converted. Harris agrees with Dever that the “church is there to verify or falsify our claims to be Christians”(p. 45).  A “new life,” says Harris, leads inevitably to a “new society.” This new society provides uniquely what no other organization on earth can (para-church ministries notwithstanding), namely, the ordinances of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline (p. 39).

Chapter four addresses what it really means to be committed to the local church. Harris suggests the following seven indicators of commitment:
  1. You join.
  2. You make the local church a priority.
  3. You try to make your pastor’s job a joy.
  4. You find ways to serve.
  5. You give.
  6. You connect with people.
  7. You share your passion.

In chapter five, Harris provides ten “essential” things that one should consider when choosing a church. His “must-have” list is as follows:

  1. Is this a church where God’s Word is faithfully taught?
  2. Is this a church where sound doctrine matters?
  3. Is this a church in which the gospel is cherished and clearly proclaimed?
  4. Is this a church committed to reaching non-Christians with the gospel?
  5. Is this a church whose leaders are characterized by humility and integrity?
  6. Is this a church where people strive to live by God’s Word?
  7. Is this a church where I can find and cultivate godly relationships?
  8. Is this a church where members are challenged to serve?
  9. Is this a church that is willing to kick me out?
  10. Is this a church I’m willing to join “as is” with enthusiasm and faith in God?

In chapter six Harris suggests a number of ways one can get more mileage out of Sunday for our entire week.  While not a strict Sabbatarian, he suggests that we should un-clutter Sunday as “the Lords Day” (p. 93). We should prepare ahead of service by going to bed on time the night before and preparing our hearts for worship before the service (pp. 95-100). During the service, we should practice attentive listening to the sermon (pp. 100-103). After the service we should be looking at ways to apply the text all week long (pp. 103-106). 

In the final chapter, we our exhorted to be committed to the local church: “If you passionately love Jesus Christ but haven’t been committed to the church, I hope you’ve heard your Master come to you on the pages of this book” (p. 114).

This is one of those books that you can read in one sitting and absorb many great concepts and practical applications.

First, the book concisely sets forth a biblical theology of the church. That it is both universal and local, and that being a part of the former and not the latter is a massive inconsistency and a cause for spiritual concern. This is a helpful corrective to a dearth of teaching on the importance of the church as an institution of the highest spiritual significance.  Harris, vis-à-vis Mark Dever, strikes the right balance between stating the essential importance of local church participation for one’s spiritual life without teaching that the church is the font of salvation.

Second, the discussion on Christian unity was very helpful. Too often the fact of denominational differences is “Exhibit A” for disunity within the church. Harris rightly points out that denominationalism actually provides for people who disagree about secondary and tertiary issues to do church separately, while firmly upholding a common gospel and engaging in the mission of the church together. Groups like the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals are examples of organizations made up of people from a variety of Evangelical denominations, while all monolithic with respect to the Gospel. In my view this is a far superior way to show unity than to bring all Christians under one umbrella to be part of a single institution and feign agreement or battle over very controversial non-essentials.

Third, Harris helpfully points out the uniqueness of the local church. The church does what no secular or para-church organization can do. As someone once said, the church is an education with teeth. I have long thought of local church membership in terms of one formally associating with a local group of believers under a commitment to share in the benefits and responsibilities of community life and to submit to the leadership and authority of God’s appointed church leaders. Thinking of church membership this way shows why the concept of a “casual-dater” of the church is so at odds with a New Testament worldview. How does the casual-dater obey the New Testament command to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls?”

If you are a pastor or church leader, I would recommend buying this book in bulk and handing it out to visitors. This would also be a great book to have as a component to a membership class. 

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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