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What are the essential attributes of a church, according to the Bible as interpreted by Protestant evangelical traditions? I've started a list but feel that it is incomplete:

  1. Ministries
  2. Missions
  3. Leadership
  4. Fellowship/Bible study Groups
  5. Prayer Meeting
  6. Holy Communion
  7. Worship
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As far as what the Bible requires it only requires two things Christ and people. The key word being 'require'. –  Bye May 4 at 12:12
    
Hmm. Your edit seems to have invalidated my answer. Oh well... –  Andrew Leach May 4 at 12:39
    
@AndrewLeach Reverted –  SEL May 4 at 13:06
    
This is potentially a very good question, but it needs to be tightened up a little bit because it is going to have a tendency to mushroom. Each different doctrinal tradition has different focuses and marks that they believe to be Biblical. You need to scope this to the general theological tradition you are interested in hearing from. –  Caleb May 5 at 8:33
    
@Caleb I edited my question to reflect your feedback. Thanks. –  SEL May 5 at 22:14

2 Answers 2

Robert Warren has written the Healthy Churches Handbook, which provides a checklist for identifying the health of a church. The Seven Marks of a Healthy Church are listed in Appendix 4 and have been summarised by the Diocese of London:

  1. Energized by faith

    rather than just keeping things going or trying to survive

    • worship and sacramental life: moves people to experience God’s love
    • motivation: energy comes from a desire to serve God and one another
    • engaging with Scripture: in creative ways connect with life
    • nurtures faith in Christ: helping people to grow in, and share their faith.

  2. Outward-looking focus

    with a 'whole life' rather than a 'church life' concern

    • deeply rooted in the local community, working in partnership with other denominations, faiths, secular groups and networks
    • passionate and prophetic about justice and peace, locally and globally
    • makes connections between faith and daily living
    • responds to human need by loving service

  3. Seeks to find out what God wants

    discerning the Spirit’s leaning rather than trying to please everyone

    • vocation: seeks to explore what God wants it to be and do
    • vision: develops and communicates a shared sense of where it is going
    • mission priorities: consciously sets both immediate and long-term goals
    • able to call for, and make, sacrifices, personal and corporate, in bringing about the above and living out the faith.

  4. Faces the cost of change and growth

    rather than resisting change and avoiding failure

    • while embracing the past, it dares to take on new ways of doing things
    • takes risks: and admits when things are not working, and learns from experience
    • crises: responds creatively to challenges that face the church and community
    • positive experiences of change: however small, are affirmed and built on.

  5. Operates as a community

    rather than functioning as a club or religious organisation

    • relationships: are nurtured, often in small groups, so people feel accepted and are helped to grow in faith and service
    • leadership: lay and ordained work as a team to develop locally appropriate expressions of all seven marks of a healthy church
    • lay ministry: the different gifts, experiences and faith journeys of all are valued and given expression in and beyond the life of the church.

  6. Makes room for all

    being inclusive rather than exclusive.

    • welcome: works to include newcomers into the life of the church
    • children and young people: are helped to belong, contribute and be nurtured in their faith
    • enquirers are encouraged to explore and experience faith in Christ
    • diversities: different social and ethnic backgrounds, mental and physical abilities, and ages, are seen as a strength.

  7. Does a few things and do them well

    focused rather than frenetic

    • does the basics well: especially public worship, pastoral care, stewardship and administration
    • occasional offices: make sense of life and communicate faith
    • being good news as a church in its attitudes and ways of working
    • enjoys what it does and is relaxed about what is not being done

There is almost certainly a significant overlap between these "marks" and the list you have formulated, but his number 4 and number 7 might be slightly surprising. Your list identifies some of some of Warren's bullet-point evidences of the major underlying characteristics.

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Superb list, thank you. –  SEL May 4 at 11:23
    
This answer makes me think of Mark Dever's Nine Marks of a Healthy Church! I don't think it would make a great answer however, as his nine marks are more of distinguishing features compared to unhealthy churches, rather than the essential components. –  curiousdannii May 7 at 5:10

Acts 2:42 gives us four components of the first local church in Jerusalem. In bullet-point format:

"[The Jerusalem saints] were continually devoting themselves to

  • the apostles' teaching . . .

  • fellowship . . .

  • breaking of bread . . .

  • prayer."

These four components are foundational in any local church.

The Apostles' Teaching

At first, the apostles' teaching was communicated orally by those who were with Jesus during his approximately three years of public ministry and up until His resurrection (see Acts 1:21,22). As the Christian faith spread throughout the world and with the apostles soon to be martyred for their faith, the church of Jesus Christ needed a written record of what Jesus both said and did.

Consequently, God entrusted the task of preserving His Word in written form to various apostles, especially the apostle Paul, who received a special revelation of Jesus Christ, which began on the Damascus Road and continued through the early part of his faith journey, during which he was discipled directly by his risen Lord, whom at one time he persecuted.

Even before there was a written record of the apostles' teaching, the normal biblical pattern for communicating the faith can be summarized in Paul's words to Timothy:

"And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2 KJV).

In other words, Paul

"received from the Lord that which [he] also delivered to [the Corinthians]" (1 Corinthians 11:23),

as well as to the other local churches he planted throughout the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. The same could be said of the other apostles. They, too, received their teaching from the Lord and delivered it to the people within their particular spheres of ministry and influence.

The focus of both teaching and preaching in the local church must be the word of God as it was delivered to the apostles through divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21) and then recorded and preserved by God down through the centuries.

To that end, balanced and Bible-based expository preaching and teaching must be made available to people of every age- and spiritual maturity level within the church, if the church is to thrive. Pop psychology, positive thinking, name it and claim it (or blab it and grab it) theology, and the warm and fuzzies are out of place in a God-glorifying church.

Nor can worldly wisdom ever replace the careful, reverent, systematic, and balanced exposition of God's word. Sermonettes, it has been suggested, produce Christianettes. Uncompromising preaching and teaching produce mature Christians who are capable of reproducing spiritually as they disciple believers who themselves disciple others according to the biblical pattern in 2 Timothy 2:2.

Fellowship

Any local church, large or small or medium size, is a community of faith which is composed of brothers and sisters in Christ. It is said that blood is thicker than water. Within the church of Jesus Christ, however, spirit is to be thicker than blood! As important and as strong as the bonds of blood are, the bonds of the spirit (or Spirit) are to be even stronger, according to our Lord (see, for example, Luke 14:26).

Only within the fellowship of the local church can believers exercise their spiritual gift mix, whatever it may comprise. The church is a living organism composed of many parts, much like our physical bodies. Christ, our risen and ascended Lord, is the Head of the body and we are members both of His body and of one another. As we function within our areas of giftedness (e.g., apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher), the local (and the universal) church is equipped for

"the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ. . . . [S]peaking the truth in love, we . . . grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:11-16, excerpts).

Think of a local church fellowship as a multi-function organism which at various times and in various ways is a

  • a combination maternity ward/nursery for spiritual babies in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:12)

  • a school for believers of all different maturity levels

  • a hospital for spiritually wounded people in need of healing and recovery

  • a staging area for commissioning workers for vocational ministry, whether locally, nationally, or even internationally in a cross-cultural context (missionaries, or modern-day apostles)

  • a relief agency, offering members and even non-members compassionate practical help, whether food, money, clothing, shelter, a listening ear, or even a cup of water in Jesus' name (Matthew 10:42; Mark 9:41).

  • a lighthouse from which the light of the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is continually shining, exposing the spiritual darkness all around but also offering an alternative to that darkness in the person of the One who said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 1:4; 8:12).

Breaking of Bread

Also known as the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20 ff.), this special gathering of the church, which took the form of what the early Christians called the agape, or love-feast, is where believers are reminded of what it cost our dear Savior and Lord to purchase our salvation by the sacrifice of Himself on the cross.

While the frequency and methods of re-enacting the Lord's Supper differ from denomination to denomination, the purpose is the same: to proclaim the Lord's death until He comes again (ibid., v.26).

The Lord's Supper is also to be a time for self-examination before the Lord, since to partake in "an unworthy manner" (ibid., v.27) is to eat and drink judgment to oneself, which can have very serious repercussions, as the Corinthians found out the hard way (ibid., vv.29-32).

One way in which we can partake unworthily is to do so with un-confessed and un-repented-of sin in our lives, which is to belie the meaning of the symbols Jesus gave us in the bread and wine: the bread being His body, broken for our sins, and the wine being the new covenant in His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Thinking the elements themselves confer forgiveness is to miss the point. They no more cleanse us of sins than does baptism. Partaking of the elements and participating in believer's baptism mark us as Christians; they do not make us Christians.

Prayer

A good acrostic which summarizes nicely the four primary purposes of prayer is the word acts:

  • A - Adoration

  • C - Confession

  • T - Thanksgiving

  • S - Supplication

As Jesus taught His disciples in His model prayer for them, prayer begins with an appropriate attitude toward God; namely, one of reverence, godly fear, and awe. Jesus said,

"'Pray . . . in this way: Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be your name'" (Matthew 6:9).

To hallow is to revere, fear, be in awe of, honor, and worship. Interestingly, of the ever-expanding church in Jerusalem, Luke tells us that

"Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles" (Acts 2:43).

Awe, I suggest, is the very foundation of God-honoring prayer. Too often today, we go directly to our requests of God, instead of beginning with godly fear, reverence, and heartfelt worship for God. To hallow God is not to thank Him, to supplicate Him, or to confess to Him. To hallow God is to praise, exalt, magnify, and adore Him for who He is. To hallow God is to ponder His attributes and to get lost, as it were, in the greatness of His being.

In the wake of the death of Ananias and Sapphira, whom God punished for lying to the Holy Spirit, we read that

"And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard these things. At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people . . ." (Acts 5:11-12).

Notice again the connection between awe and "signs and wonders." If you wonder at times why your prayers are ineffectual, perhaps the reason is that they are lacking in awe and godly fear.

Second is confession. To confess is simply to agree with God that we've messed up. To confess is to call our mess the very same thing God calls it: sin. The more specific we can be in identifying our sin, the better. Becoming familiar with the vocabulary of sin--what constitutes sin--is a good start. Galatians 5:19 ff., and Ephesians 5:3 ff. contain two fairly complete lists of sins we as children of light are to avoid.

Third is thanksgiving. A thankful spirit is filled with gratitude to God for all He has done for us, not because we deserve it, but because He is both merciful and gracious, withholding from us what we do deserve (viz., His condemnation), which is mercy, and freely bestowing on us what we do not deserve (viz., His lovingkindness), which is unadulterated grace.

"Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4:6).

We must not be like the nine lepers out of ten who failed to return to Jesus after their healing to say "Thank you, Lord." One can sense the poignancy and disappointment in our Lord's words to the one who returned to give thanks when Jesus asked him,

"'Were there not ten cleansed ? But the nine--where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this [Samaritan]?'" (Luke 17:17-18).

And finally, there is supplication. To supplicate is to ask God for ourselves and for others (i.e., intercession). As our heavenly Father, God delights in giving us good gifts. Furthermore, He knows what we truly need even before we ask, so we needn't plead with Him as with a person who considers our supplications unwarranted and unwelcome impositions and gives us what we ask for, albeit reluctantly (see Matthew 7:7-11). We do, however, need to demonstrate persistence (see Luke 18:1-7).

Fasting can often be an important accompaniment to prayer, as was demonstrated in the early church (see Acts 13:2-3; and 14:23).

CONCLUSION

There are many other components of a healthy and thriving local church. Such things as church discipline, sensitive and mature leadership, spirited and worshipful music, Bible reading, a well-informed membership, fiscal responsibility, a mixture of spontaneity and organization, community outreach, and perhaps a host of other things which have escaped my mind.

The four primary components in Acts 2:42, however, subsume most, if not all, of these additional elements, and they comprise a pattern to which all local churches should adhere and aspire.

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