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How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering?, Part 3: Our Design Workflow

How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering?, Part 3: Our Design Workflow

This is the third in a three-part series, How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering? Read, “Part 1: A Theological Framework,” and, “Part 2: Our Liturgical Form.”

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We’ve moved in this series from the fixed and permanent things to the more flexible things. Every church should sing and preach the Word. But churches can go about that differently. I’ve known of churches where the congregation requests songs on the spot. That’s not what we do but that’s one way to do it. In this post I’ll outline how we design our worship services. There are five sections of material here working chronologically as they typically happen. But these aspects of service design often blend in together. We have a formula to help us work well together, but don’t mean to be formulaic.

Focusing the Service

The most consequential and non-negotiable part of our service is the preached Word. Preaching is the main way Christ by his Spirit saves and sustains the church. Preaching defines the gospel and, therefore, the church. For these reasons, preaching is the structural climax and thematic center for our service. Everything else leads to and flows from this.

Keying off the preached Word, each Sunday gathering has two themes: a theme of revelation and a theme of response. The first theme focuses our attention on a facet of God’s glory and grace. The second theme focuses our response in a way appropriate to what God has revealed.

Here are some questions we ask to bring focus to a service:

  • Is there a doctrinal theme in this week’s text, last week’s text, or in the series that would be especially useful for this Sunday’s gathering, keeping the overall diet in mind?
  • Is there a natural biblical response offered in the book or preaching text that we can draw from for this service?
  • How do these themes of revelation and response relate to the thematic emphasis of the sermon? (reinforcement, complement, contrast, etc.)

Gathering the Texts

Several tools help us gather our songs and readings. The first is a song catalogue, curated with about 160 songs that we sing as a church. These are songs whose texts are, in our judgment, especially good and whose tunes are especially singable. They are also songs that we can lead musically with excellence while still stretching us. We have songs that help us learn and sing just about every truth we believe. We have songs written for calling us into God’s praise, for leading us in confession, and for praying for the Word. We tag each song in the catalog to help us find the best songs for each Sunday. The second tool we use is a liturgy notebook filled with Scriptures and readings. Some of these are home cooked but many are curated from various other resources.

In gathering our material, we want to avoid two ditches. We want to avoid the ditch of incoherence, where there is no thematic relationship between the songs. On the other hand, it’s our approach to avoid a service that is too matchy-matchy. Someone should not end the service and think, “wow, we just sang a bunch of songs about how Christ is a ‘rock.'” Rather, as a result of the cumulative effect of the design, we want to say together, “wow, Jesus Christ is our rock!”

Here are some questions we ask ourselves once our themes are chosen:

  • What songs, readings, or prayers immediately come to mind? How might these serve the following elements?: call, praise, confession, assurance, illumination, and response. With more research, what other songs, readings, or prayers might serve these elements?
  • Is there an opportunity this week to use a song that we haven’t sung in over six months? Is this a good week to introduce a new song we have waiting for the right Sunday to introduce? Are there any newer songs we should repeat? Any regulars we should avoid repeating?
  • What additional themes have emerged so far in this preaching series—and especially last week—that we can at least subtly echo in this service?

Organizing the Material

There are three basic patterns we can follow in designing a service. First, the historic gospel pattern in which we move from a call/praise > confession > assurance > a prayer/song of illumination > preaching > response/ordinances > benediction. We may put a profession of faith in there, but that’s the general flow. This is our most typical pattern and these elements will emerge in the other approaches as well, but for some elements less prominently. Second, there’s the gospel narrative pattern, where we move through an event in Scripture, whether it be the Bible’s whole story from creation > fall > redemption > new creation, or an event like the Exodus. The third approach is the gospel passage pattern. This is where we take a passage of Scripture—a Psalm or a paragraph in a letter, for example—and we work through that passage in the course of the service.

Here are a few questions we ask in this phase:

  • What pattern of service design seems best suited to the theme and texts we’ve gathered?
  • How can we bring a sense of proportion to this week’s service with songs old and new, songs to God and to one another about God, traditional and modern musical settings?
  • How do each of these songs/readings/prayers uniquely relate to the service theme and how should they be ordered?

Ironing Out the Details

This step involves writing out the Call to Worship, modifying any readings to better advance our themes, and crafting song transitions. To return to our metaphor of a building, transitional comments are like signs that move through the gathering. They aren’t destinations but directions to help us get where we’re going. These are typically short—one or two sentences—just like signs should be. They should be meaningful, minimal, and memorable so that they can be delivered comfortably and with connection.

To write these, we identify where we are in the service and then meditate on the beginnings and end of songs to form a simple verbal conceptual link between them. These brief comments do more than explain, moving us from one element to another. They invite and exhort us, moving our spirits and moving us toward one another and to the Lord.

Here are some questions we ask in this phase:

  • Where is the movement plain enough between elements that we can forego a transition at least once or twice during this service? Where is the movement between elements unclear enough such that a transition of some kind is needed?
  • Where needed, how can we craft one or a few lines to help us move simply, briefly, poetically, and (for the leader’s sake) memorably from one element to another?
  • How can we adapt the readings to more carefully unify the service and advance its themes?

Preparing the People

We want our gatherings to adorn the Word of God with undistracting excellence. We want to raise our affections with the Word. We want to involve the whole congregation without smothering their voice with our artistry. All of this involves a certain combination of musical and technical skill, spiritual maturity, nurtured relationships, and things like emails, software, and rehearsals. What does this mean for us week-to-week? It means involving the right people in the right ways and with the right preparation.

At Heritage, we are blessed immensely with skilled musicians who love our Lord and love his church. We have people skilled at playing instruments, arranging songs, leading rehearsals, mixing sound for the room, and organizing these parts to put our attention where it belongs. We have godly elders and deacons who prepare and lead us in prayers that are scriptural, understandable, and sincere. Deanna Moore skillfully prepares our music and our musicians. From the back of the room, Brian Burch leads our tech and mixing teams, so you don’t even notice them. A post could easily be devoted to the work involved in the teams they lead. Lisa Hansen supports us all with with heart and administrative skill. Abe Stratton leads us pastorally and vocally most Sundays without missing a note. There are countless others.

Focusing now just on music and musicians, here are some questions we ask:

  • What kind of ensemble and instruments are best suited for this week’s songs? Is there a song we’re singing that requires a special musical touch by a particular musician? Importantly, who is available?
  • What musical settings and transitions will best serve this week’s service themes and design? What can we do musically with undistracting excellence? How might we hold out the truth of a song with our artistry?
  • Are there any opportunities this week for us to grow musically and technically? Are there any singing difficulties with one of these songs that requires special attention?

As you see and know those who lead us in more and less public ways on Sunday, give thanks to God for them, and then give praise to God with them. That’s why they’re there.

In addition to preparing those who will lead us on Sundays we also prepare you. We prepare you with details about the sermon text and theme, with playlists of songs we plan to sing, and with prayer before the service taking place in a number of venues. Watch Friday’s email, The Weekly, for those sermon and song details.

What Makes for Acceptable Worship?

Acceptable to whom? This is a good place to end this series of posts. Our concern in gathered worship is how we may offer worship acceptable to God. Our forms and expressions should be sensible for us as a unique local church. But our first interest is in worship that pleases the Lord.

What makes for acceptable worship to the Lord? Simply this: the blood and righteousness of Christ. There are many matters of prudence when it comes to the songs we sing and how to order our gathering. We should come on the Lord’s Day with hearts devoted to him, no matter what happened that week or what we did the day before. But none of these things earns us a standing with God. None of these things makes us acceptable to God. That’s because none of these things can make a worshiper of God. Christ and Christ alone makes us acceptable to God and Christ alone makes sinners into worshipers.

Before we come together we must come to him. And having come together, we come through him! Loved ones, remember, “as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pe. 2:9, 10).

How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering?, Part 3: Our Design Workflow

How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering?, Part 2: Our Liturgical Form

This is the second in a three-part series, How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering? Read, “Part 1: A Theological Framework,” and, “Part 3: Our Design Workflow.”

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We’re using the metaphor of church architecture as a way of thinking about the design of our Lord’s Day services. We rightly put care into how we design a church facility. In fact, at Heritage we’re entering a master planning process for our own building. We’re talking about the parts and the flow of our building. We’re talking about the shape of the auditorium for sight lines, for singing, and interaction. Plenty of care will go into all of this. But that’s for another post on another day.

More important than the design of our meeting space is the design of our meeting. A master planning process gives us a drawing with the shape of our building and where things go. But what’s the shape of our meeting? What are the parts and how do they flow from one to another? That’s the question we will consider in this post.

Another way to put this is to ask, what is our liturgy? Liturgy is a Latin word that means work on behalf of the people. We typically call it our “order of worship” or “service design,” but you’ll hear the language of liturgy from time to time as well. Your pastors care deeply about this because we care deeply about about you. As with every routine in our lives, the pattern of our weekly meeting shapes us as a people.

The Pattern of Our Gathering

Remember, we want our gathering to be formed and filled by the Word of God. This post is about the “formed” part of that commitment. As we’ve said, Word-formed worship trusts God’s means for God’s work as we give ourselves to the ordinary elements of praying, singing, reading, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the Word preached.

But there’s more. As our elders put it:

We also weave these things together to tell the story of the gospel. We typically do this with a progression, however subtle, from a call to worship and joyful praise, to confession and assurance, to prayer for the Word, preaching, and conclude with thankful response and a benediction. While the story of the world pulls us away from God and his grace, we want the story of our meetings to unfold and enfold us in God’s gospel and grace.

Let’s expand on this.

There are levels of detail in drawings for a building. Same here. For our purposes we’ll keep it to five movements: a movement together in the gospel with our welcome and our call to worship; a movement through the gospel with readings, prayers, and song; a movement under the Word as the gospel is proclaimed; a movement around the table where the gospel is pictured in the ordinances; and a movement out with the gospel.

Welcome and Call to Worship

This is our first movement, a movement together. In our opening comments we take our cue from how the Apostles greeted the churches. We greet you on Sunday with a reminder of our fellowship in the glorious saving work of our Triune Lord. At their best, a few brief “announcements” remind us that we are not here as individuals but as family.

What churches have long called a “Call to Worship” marks the more formal start to our service. Who initiated this meeting? Who are these people we’re in the room with? What are we doing here exactly? What do we expect to happen? The Call to Worship answers these questions from God’s Word. It reminds us that our gathering is a response to his greatness and grace. He called us into salvation and he calls this meeting. By the Word God speaks to us—even as we speak the Word to one another—with declarations, exhortations, invitations, and reasons to worship him.

For a short example, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 145:3). Here we have an exhortation from the Lord and a reason for it. Or, from the lips of Jesus, an invitation with a promise, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Or, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pet. 2:9). These are the kinds of things we need to hear before we do anything else. He speaks and we respond.

At a practical level, the call to worship gathers our attention from whatever just happened in the car now to a set of themes for the service—one focused on what God has revealedabout himself and one focusing our response. Wrapped in a few choice comments, this encounter with Scripture constitutes the opening of our service.

Gospel Rehearsal

The body of our service leading up to the preaching follows a general pattern that moves us through the truth of the gospel: God, sin, Christ, response. Put differently with an emphasis on the form of our meeting, we follow a pattern of praise, confession, assurance, and thanksgiving.

This flow reflects the pattern of Scripture. The Bible’s larger story begins with God, proceedes to our failure in the garden, advances to a story of God’s gracious salvation, and on the basis of that work the Bible calls us to repent and believe. When the Apostles penned their letters to churches they likewise worked from God and his glorious grace (Eph. 1–3) to our humble human response (Eph. 4–6).

We move through this gospel story with songs, prayers, Scripture readings, and more historic readings. There are smaller cycles through this gospel story within the larger movement of our services. Many songs cover the gamut of Christ’s work. So, transitional comments help to move our attention to a particular emphasis in a given song.

Prayer for Illumination and Preaching

How the Apostle Paul spoke to Timothy and his church about preaching tells us something: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2Tim. 4:1, 2). In preaching we come under the Word together; that is, under its authority and rule and blessing. The preaching of the Word of God is the centerpiece of our gathering.

Speaking and hearing the Word is a spiritual act. For that reason, we pray. Before the Word is preached, we ask God for help to illuminate the Word to us, to open the eyes of our hearts to see and receive God’s Word as true (Eph. 1:15–23). Typically, this prayer takes the form of a song with comments from our service leader to highlight this transition in the service. Minimally, it involves the preacher’s own prayer before he opens the Word.

Our service themes key off of the sermon, with everything else flowing to and from the preached Word. We work through books of the Bible with sermons whose shape and aim are the shape and aim of the text and whose divisions follow the natural divisions of a book. All of this ensures that the arguments, exhortations, comforts, and emphases of the Word shape our church more than any one preacher’s interests or strengths.

Baptism and the Lord’s Table

The covenant signs of baptism and the Lord’s Table are symbolic in that they visually represent invisible spiritual realities. That’s one reason the ordinances follow the preaching of the Word. Apart from the Word preached these little pictures are unintelligible. Yet combined with the proclamation of the Word, these symbols nurture our faith.

These are individual acts but also corporate acts done together as a congregation. They are also deeply personal: by the first sign we enter and welcome others into the family; by the second sign we come together around the table in order to feast with our Lord.

Response and Benediction

For this concluding moment together, we search for just the right song to carry the most fitting response to the sermon we just heard. This may involve one or a combination of thanksgiving, consecration, commission, or praise.

After that, we go out with a benediction. Strung through our Bibles are a number of beautiful benedictions, blessings on God’s people. These are a natural way to part for us as well. For this parting and sending moment, we draw from several kinds of passages in the Bible: benedictions, of course, but hen several other types of texts: doxologies, charges, and other passages that fit the occasion.

We do other things too, though not weekly, including professions of faith, prayers of intercession for our church and for the nations, testimonies of God’s Word at work, and that awkward-for-some time when we invite you to greet your neighbor.

The Setting and The Diamond

By now you’ve probably picked up on a few features of our liturgy at Heritage. I’ll make a few things explicit here at the end.

First, we mean for our services to be predictable week to week. It’s the nature of a liturgy that we are able to settle into a rhythm, a spiritual habit as a church. Predictability doesn’t have to mean monotony. Nearly every sitcom writer, podcaster, or YouTuber uses a template. For decades now late shows have begun with a monologue and ended with a band. What changes is the content you fill it with.

Second, we do want to be flexible. The Welcome will always come at the front, but we might move some of the other parts around here and there. We might begin a service with a confession and a time of silence and then move to praise. We will confess our sins, but we may do that in any number of ways and with variation in emphasis or form. Sometimes a pastor may lead in an element and sometimes a muscian. In all of this, what is crucial is that we put off presumption and cry out to God, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” and then sing with full heart of his lovely face, his sovereign grace, and the blood-washed robes that enable us see and sing at all.

Finally, it’s our approach to be liturgically subtle. Churches do this differently. For our part, we have a definite structure to our services, but we don’t generally let the bones of either our themes or elements show too much. We call this an under-exposed liturgy. We won’t typically say, “this is our time of confession,” but we do speak and even print some of these sign posts in our Order of Worship.

A taco needs a shell, a building needs a set of plans, and a diamond needs a setting. That’s how a liturgy works to give shape to our Sunday gatherings. It’s a real good holder. It’s a form for filling appropriate to the contents we’re dealing with here: the Word of the gospel. It is profoundly important. But now that you know it’s there, thank God for it and then don’t think about it a whole lot. The danger in a post like this is that we become a church that nerds out on its particular way of doing a service. We don’t want to be liturgical elitists, unable to rejoice in the gospel at a church whose liturgy goes something like “fast songs, slow song, preaching, last song.” Those songs and that preaching are probably about the same saving grace of God we’re all about here. And plenty of churches have lost the saving gospel while carrying on with an elegant liturgy.

So, let’s honor the liturgy by talking about the diamond. That’s where we’re going in our third and final post.

Grace and peace be with you.

How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering?, Part 3: Our Design Workflow

How Does the Gospel Shape Our Gathering?, Part 1: A Theological Framework

This is the first in a three-part series, How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering? Read, “Part 2: Our Liturgical Form,” and, “Part 3: Our Design Workflow.”

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You might have seen a church whose architecture was the shape of a cross. It’s called cruciform architecture. The first church buildings were modeled after the Roman basilica, a long rectangular structure. In time, two wings were added to make the shape of a cross. I recall my first impression after touring one of these historic structures. I was impressed with the care and the planning that went into these spaces.

This is the first in a series of three posts outlining how the gospel shapes our gathering at Heritage. Not in terms of our building architecture, but rather the architecture of our meeting itself. That is, what we do when we come together on the Lord’s Day. These three posts will move from the more fixed and foundational things to the more practical and flexible—from theological foundations (Part 1), to our liturgical rhythms (Part 2), to the design and preparation of a specific Sunday gathering (Part 3).

On the one hand, this little series is not necessary. You don’t need to apprehend the physics involved in the structure behind the wall to take shelter in your home. You don’t even need to think about the structure for it to do its work. Or, to shift metaphors for a moment, you don’t need think about the kitchen when you’re out for a nice dinner. The food is the nourishment. So it is with the gospel and our gatherings.

But there’s something to say for knowing what goes on behind the walls or in the kitchen. Consider this: for all the weekly, monthly, and annual patterns prescribed under the old covenant, the Lord’s Day gathering is our one new covenant family routine. Our church will be better for a little work on this topic over the next few weeks. Allow me to give you the tour.

Our Cornerstone

Where do we begin? Three words: he is risen! We begin with the new beginning that God has brought through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Since the early days of the church, local churches have gathered on a specific day, “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7). That’s the day Jesus rose from the dead (Lk. 24:1). The Apostle John called it, “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). Here’s what this means: the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus is not just the reason we come together, but the very occasion on which we gather. Jesus ascended to heaven then to assemble a people. The church is this people, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:20, 21). Everything flows from the central fact of Jesus’ resurrection, from the ordinances to what we say and sing and hear when we meet.

Having established the reason we meet on the Lord’s Day, what else can we say from the Bible about our purposes for coming together? Our elders put some work into that question about a year ago and we’re eager to bring you in on it.

Our Biblical and Theological Purposes

If you’ve ever helped design a home or been a part of a building project, you’ll know that there are many factors that go into the shape and flow of a building. What is it for? Who will be in it? What resource do we have to work with?

These reflections on the resurrection above are where our elders began in shaping a document of theological foundations for our corporate gatherings. Before we shaped a job description for a Director of Worship we wanted to do our best as elders to articulate what it is we believe we’re after when we meet on Sundays. That process, which concluded in 2020, led to a nine-page theological framework we’ve titled, “How the Gospel Shapes Our Gatherings: Twelve Aims.” Here they are with abbreviated explanations:

1. We want our Lord’s Day gathering to fulfill God’s vertical and horizontal purposes for bringing us together.

God’s highest purpose is to magnify his own glory—that is, that he may be worshiped, valued, and treasured above all things (Ps. 34:3). Yet, God’s glory is manifest among us when we gather to serve one another with our gifts, to instruct one another with the Word, to stir one another up to love and good works, and to encourage one another until Christ comes (Col. 3:16; 1Cor. 12:4–6; 14:26; Heb. 10:24–25).

2. We want our gatherings to be formed and filled by the Word of God.

Word-formed worship trusts God’s means for God’s work. We trust God’s Word by devoting ourselves to the ordinary elements of praying, singing, reading, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the Word preached (1Tim. 2:1, 8; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; 1Tim. 4:13; 1Cor. 11:23–26; 2Tim. 4:2). Word-filled worship means we fill our service with a certain content—the Scriptures, and the Word of the gospel in particular.

3. We want our gatherings to unfold with movements of revelation and response.

In the Scriptures, God reveals himself in all of his Triune and transcendent glory (2Cor. 13:14; Isa. 6:1–3; Rev. 4:8). When God speaks, his people respond to him—when we’re at our best—in a way that reflects back to him his own greatness: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 48:1).

4. We want our gatherings to be individually meaningful and intentionally congregational.

Jesus had each of us on his mind as he suffered so that each of us can say, he died for me (1Tim. 1:14, 15). But it is also true that Jesus purchased for himself a people, his one bride (Tit. 2:14; Rev. 2:9). For that reason, we want our gatherings to be meaningful for every individual, and for every individual to find their meaning within the context of the family of God. This is why every element of our gathering is planned with the congregation’s participation in view.

5. We want our gatherings to renew our minds and raise our affections.

Our gatherings do not aim for only intellectual understanding or for emotional experience. We intend to engage our heads and our hearts. We value light and heat, head and heart. In fact, we want to raise our affections for Jesus as high as they can be raised, given that they are being stirred up with the truth and person of Jesus.

6. We want our gatherings to be pastorally planned and spiritually free.

Our gatherings require a certain kind of planning. Our meeting is a ministry of the Word, its design a theological task, and the church’s essential diet of truth. For this reason, our approach to the design and leadership of our services is not personality or production or performance, but pastoring. Pastorally laid plans serve the Spirit’s free work. For a larger church like ours, this also means encouraging and fostering all kinds of meaningful Spirit-filled interactions leading to and flowing from the gathering itself.

7. We want our gatherings to foster a community that is historically rooted and hungry for God’s ongoing work.

Our services should feel both old and new, rooted and relevant. Our services are historic in that they are built with and around the ancient Scriptures, but also in our periodic use of creeds and confessions. But our God is not done working in the world, and so we gather to pursue and celebrate the work of God that continues today. We want this to be apparent in our preaching, in the prayers we pray, and in our songs. Our old songs remind us that God worked in the generations before us, and our new songs remind us that he’s at work today among us (Ps. 40:3).

8. We want our gatherings to adorn the Word of God with undistracting excellence.

We believe that music is God’s gift. By highlighting truth, music impresses that truth on our hearts (Col 3:16). By it we also express that truth, making melody in our hearts to God (Eph. 5:19). Adorning the Word requires excellence that avoids distraction. We will avoid shoddy or showy leadership. Wisdom is needed to know how this looks, but we know what it sounds like: our people talking not so much about our great skill (or our great blunders!), but about God’s great grace.

9. We want our gatherings to be culturally anchored and expansive.

Around Jesus’ throne will be men and women from every tribe and language and nation, and their cultures will color our heavenly experience (Rev. 5:9–14; 21:24–26). Our meetings are centered on a Person whose redeeming love is expansive and far reaching. His love defines us, not our style of music or dress, or the like. For this reason, while we are happy for our gatherings to be culturally anchored, to be familiar, to feel like us and our home—we want that for foreign peoples too—we also want our gatherings to stretch us.

10. We want our gatherings to draw outsiders to Christ and our attention to the outermost parts of the earth.

Our gatherings involve the worship of God; they also advance it. We are a city on a hill, with our gatherings the hot spot of Jesus’ light and life in us (Matt. 5:16). From the website to parking, from signage to seating, from how we talk about Christ to how we talk about our church—in all this we want to be accessible, inviting, and clarifying in all the appropriate ways. God’s worship is advanced in yet another way: through our ever-expanding global vision of God’s work for his name.

11. We want our gatherings to embolden us and humble us.

How can believers live without fear of God’s judgment, of death, and the Devil’s tyranny? How can believers live without fear of the world’s condemnation, even threats to our very lives? The answer is one: by gathering each Lord’s Day. We are bold in God’s presence, knowing he welcomes us. We are also bold in an often-unwelcoming world. We are bold, but no less humble. We draw near “with confidence” to God because we know that he gives what we desperately need: “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

12. We want our gatherings to stir us to rest in Christ and not rest until he returns.

Sometimes Sunday is called the Sabbath, or a day of rest. That is not quite right. The Lord’s Day is when we celebrate the arrival of Sabbath rest for all who trust in Jesus (Matt. 11:28). Rest has already come, but we know that Jesus’ work is not yet complete. We feel this already/not yet tension in our bodies, in our troubles, and on Sundays when our heart isn’t in it. We have found rest in Christ, yes, but we gather to say to one another over and again, “strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:11).

The twelve points would be too much to expand on here, but you should read the whole document. However, one point is especially pertinent to the shape and substance of our meeting.

Our Main Design Principle

Let’s ruminate a bit more on that second aim, “we want our gatherings to be formed and filled by the Word of God.” When you construct a building you are constrained by the laws of physics. Those constraints are not ultimately limiting but freeing. With careful attention to this authority, buildings shoot into the sky to carry all kinds of life and activity. What is the authoritative guide for the architecture of our gatherings at Heritage?

We speak at Heritage about our commitment to Sola Scriptura—a Latin phrase which means “Scripture Alone.” We believe that salvation is revealed in Scripture alone and apart from the Word of God we cannot know how we may be saved, neither is anything necessary in addition to Scripture for salvation. This principle applies not only to salvation but to the Christian life and to the church’s worship. We say at times that the Scripture regulates the church’s worship.

A commitment to the authority of Scripture doesn’t yield one rigid form of corporate worship across time and culture. But it does regulate the things we do and to a good extent how we go about them.

In the next post we’ll get into the various elements of our gathering and how they fit together. In doing so our intent is to trust God’s means for his own worship, doing what he has prescribed and in a way that fits his nature and the nature of the church.

Look out for Part 2 in the next week or so.

You Can’t Join Us On Livestream. Say What?

You Can’t Join Us On Livestream. Say What?

Settle in and allow me to explain. 

Greg Gilbert wrote a helpful piece for pastors a little over a year ago. Some of his concluding words have stuck with me:

This is a hard year to be a pastor. There’s the pandemic. There’s the frustration, for many of us, of not being able to gather with the church as normal. There’s the vaguely ridiculous prospect of preaching to a congregation whose faces you can’t see because they’re all wearing masks. There’s the livestream you launched literally two weeks after you publicly called down God’s own curses on yourself if you ever consented to a “video venue.”

That last line made me laugh.

Pastors are principled people, and we should be. Do we have two services, each with different kinds of music, or not? Do we structure our church’s social and adult interactions along age lines or not? Do we turn the lights down in the auditorium and highlight the platform when the music starts or not? Do we even talk much about music, or do we highlight the congregation’s singing? Here’s another one: do we offer an option to “join us on our livestream”? Is that even possible? I suppose it depends on what we mean by that. Do we mean watching others go to church? Or do we mean join with the church online? Some hairs are worth splitting.

For some churches, starting a livestream was something akin to paving the parking lot. Sure, gravel works, but c’mon! Beyond the original COVID considerations, the livestream seems to do so much for us. It offers members some relief when they’re in a pinch: to watch if they’re home sick with kids, if they’re on the road with work, or if they’re homebound for an indefinite period of time. It also offers members flexibility: perhaps some to do church with the family at home here and there, or to spend a few more weekends at the lake house. Still for others it acquaints them with our church in a unique way who may be moving to town. For others still, it’s an evangelistic tool as they share the link with dear friends and family who might not know Christ, or at least yet. We care about all of these souls.

But something precious is getting lost in this, and lost for their sake.

Candidly, for our church a livestream presented a practice in conflict with our understanding of what it means to “come together as the church,” the greatest blessing Christ gives us next to himself (1Cor. 11:18). Livestream is less like paving the parking lot—an obvious use of technology to help people join us—and more like offering a parking lot venue for church on Sunday morning. Or, even more precisely, an option to go to church from the couch with your car in the driveway. We have to ask ourselves, is that even a thing?

This post is preemptive and instructive. We will discontinue the livestream in the near future, but we want to take some time to more personally shepherd some of you through the process and we’ll take a number of weeks to do that. We’ll send an email to the group that has received the weekly link when that time comes.

For now, I want to answer the question for all of us: why discontinue the livestream?

A Few Considerations

Jump to the next section for the heart of the matter. If you’re willing to hang with me, here are a few considerations that go into a decision like this.

First, every form of technology does something for us and to us. Our smartphones have done a lot for us and they have done a lot to us—to our posture and to our attention spans. Same with the wheel, nukes, silicon, and the internet. Do you have a TV in your family room? How about each of the kids’ bedrooms? There are benefits and unintended consequeces with every form and application of technology. A lot is left to wisdom as we lead our families. We love the church by thinking carefully about how technology will strengthen or weaken our life together.

Second, there is a difference between extraordinary and ordinary circumstances. We adopted the livestream in the crisis moment of the COVID shutdown as an emergency measure. The predictions were so dire we stopped gathering on Sundays for about two months. As we returned to meeting, we approached that season with several principles: first, we were minimally intrusive (we didn’t require masks or police conversations but we did separate pews); second, we didn’t require anything the government didn’t require (which was not a commitment to do everything the government might); third, we embraced a bias to stability (we didn’t shift plans that we’d have to shift back weeks later); fourth, we prioritized personal responsibility (asking you to stay home if you were vulnerable or sick); and fifth, we fostered an atmosphere of freedom (so we offered a video venue, livestream, invited masking but avoided other language that might imply a moral judgment on the matter, and we instructed you to resist making assumptions as a baseline for our interactions). The livestream helped make all of this work. It helped us negotiate the diverse circumstances and perspectives of our people. We were glad to serve our broader congregation in this way for a time. But crisis decisions do not drive our ministry philosophy. Neither are they a commitment to return to the same practices if there’s another go around.

Third, we are a church built on the Word not on “whatever works.” We are not a pragmatically driven church. We believe in being practical, but we are not driven by what seems to work, comparing ourselves to other churches. We say that God’s Word both fills and forms our church’s worship and life together. Sometimes this means we’re doing something lots of churches are doing. Sometimes this means we’re an outlier in town if we believe we can be more faithful with a different course. We don’t worry too much about it. We’re not competing with the factory across town. We’re working our part of the garden of the gospel’s growth in Greenville. May the Lord bless all of it.

Now to our reasons for discontinuing the livestream.

Gathering Means Gathering

We’ve been clear from the start that the livestream is not a gathering of the church and that it is a temporary measure. As we shared at November’s Elders Q&A, this is because God’s truth about the church and her gathering is precious to us.

Here are three of those precious truths.

First, the church gathering is covenantal, not individual.

There are all kinds of covenantal things going on when we meet on Sundays. In Acts 2:42–47 we find the first description of the church’s life together. There’s eating together, fellowship, helping one another, and hearing the Word together. The church is called to rejoice with one another, weep with one another, sing together, pray together, and be together. How kind is the Lord!

Flashing pixels can do a lot for us, but they can’t do most of this. A football fan can enjoy the game by TV from home, but a player has to be there to play. It did not escape many of us that over the last year our muscles for keeping track of one another were weakened. Haven’t seen someone for five weeks or five months? You could well assume they were on the livestream. A couple that goes to the lake house a few weeks in the summer now disappears for five or six weeks at a time. The new mom who stays home with her infant for several weeks on good advice instead stays home for several months. Then there’s the family that decides to do home-church once a month as a family. Or the worker who gets in late from travel on Saturdays and watches from home.

This may not be you, but in a church of our size all of this can go on. In short, the livestream is a technology that undermines the covenantal shape of our church. Singing together takes being together. So does everything else we’re called to do. Coming to church means more than hearing the Word, but speaking and singing the Word to one another, and manifesting the love of God by looking in one another’s eyes.

Second, the church gathering is public, not private.

I saw an advertisement recently outside a church that said, “Watch us online!” I don’t think they intended to express their theology of church in that sentence. But they did express ours! Let me explain.

I was speaking with a friend in the community recently about the Lord and about church. He had a fairly typical perspective: “To me, my relationship with God is between me and him. I don’t see the need for church.” We’ll have more conversations, I pray. But this sentiment of a privatized religion is pervasive in our day. It is true that faith and repentance is something for us to do individually. No one else can have a relationship with God for us and that’s the beauty of what Jesus accomplished as our high priest. Yet Jesus died to gather a people, not just individual people. Families are meant to be together and to eat together, and so it is with the church. Togetherness is essential to the blessing of both. How else will we find the kind of stirring encouragement for the hard days we’re in? “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24, 25). Jesus’ coming will be a public and encouraging event, just like the weekly gatherings of his people until that day.

“Watching online” is a subtle way of undermining the true public nature of the church gathering. We gather on the Lord’s Day and we eat and drink at the Lord’s table in the Lord’s name—in view of each other. The church is not something we see and hear, but a place and a people among whom we are publicly seen and heard.

Third, the church gathering is physical, not virtual.

Praise God, the church is “in human,” as one of my kids put it. Sometimes it is said that the church is not a building but a people. That’s definitely correct. Sometimes it is said that the church is not a meeting but a people. That is not quite correct. The church is by definition a people, yes, but a people that comes together. When Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” he was referring to the defined local church meeting in a literal place where he intends to show up (Matt. 18:20; cf. 16:18, 19; 18:17–19). As we know, the word for church literally means, assembly. In other words, the assembling of believers in covenant community on the Lord’s Day is the time and place where heaven is manifest in visible form on earth. Jesus really is with us in a special way when and where we gather in his name.

To put this in simple terms, a people that does not meet is not a church because it does not assemble as a church. To put this personally for each of us, it is impossible to “go to church” virtually, hence the cheeky title for this post. We don’t glorify God with many voices on Sunday, rather as we gather our voices something profound happens: “with one voice” we glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ro. 15:6). And that is the sound of the risen Lord touching down on earth.

There is a final legal consideration worth highlighting. When many churches during the pandemic, “did church online,” it should be no wonder that our governing authorities grew comfortable in some states restricting “in-person” gathered worship for many months on end. Churches were calling their people to “gather online.” This was well meaning, no doubt. But if Christians can fulfill their conscience-bound religious obligation to God and one another “virtually” by “meeting online,” then the state can’t be said to restrict their free exercise of religion at least on this point. In a D.C. lawsuit settled in favor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the judge agreed with their contention: “It is for the Church, not the District or this Court, to define for itself the meaning of ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.’”

Put together, we can say this: the livestream is not in direct contradiction with Scripture as a practice. It is not sinful for another church to offer it. It would not be sinful for us to offer it if for the right reasons. However, its inherent nature as a digital and decentralized experience teaches and thereby nurtures a contradiction with the Scripture. That’s what it does to us. And that kind of cloudy or even wrong thinking weakens us in the long-term as a covenantal, public, and embodied community.

When You Have to Miss

It would not be right for us to say a livestream does nothing for us. Surely it does much for us. It’s just that it doesn’t do anything critical that can’t be done adequately enough or better in some ways without the live part. It is of immense importance for us to hear the Word of God preached. And we can thank God for the various digital ways in which we can get the Word out.

So, while we will avoid a functional replacement for our gathering, by all means we intend to resource you from the overflow of our gathering.

What can you do when you can’t be with us? Here are some ideas:

  • First, listen to our Sunday at Heritage Spotify song playlist. Every week by Tuesday we load up the five or so songs we intend to sing and then add in about ten more Heritage songs to round out the playlist. Maybe there’s a song you need for the moment, in which case the Heritage Song Collection may help.
  • Second, listen to the sermon when the audio posts by early afternoon either to the church Sermons page or to the Sermon Audio page.
  • Third, and coming soon, watch the sermon video. We’re not far from posting a video of each sermon by mid-week to the web. “Stay tuned” for more details.

Will the feed still exist for archival purposes? As the saying goes, I could tell you, but I would have to kill you. Could there be dire circumstances in which we, on an invite-only basis, serve a saint? Hopefully you won’t have to find that out any time soon! What about sickness and travel? These have been a thing for 2,000 years. We’ll keep doing what the church has always done when for providential reasons we can’t gather with the saints. And when we’re away, we’ll feel it and we’ll long to be together again.

Finally, we want to recognize that some of you have built your life around this livestream option. We’d like to know your story and situation. Please reach out to me and let me know so we can help. I’ll work with your elder to come up with a plan for helping you transition. We mean to be patient and gentle in this process even as we are making this decided change.

Hope to see you soon!

The Miracle of Giving and Why We Stopped Passing the Plate

The Miracle of Giving and Why We Stopped Passing the Plate

We haven’t passed the plate in over a year, yet our lights are on, our pastors are paid, and giving has increased. Let’s talk about that.

COVID gave our elders an opportunity to test-drive something we had been pondering informally for some time: giving without plates. Measured in terms of the church’s generosity, it’s gone great.

The purpose of this post is to walk you through some of the Bible’s teaching on giving and some of our thinking in moving away from giving as part of our Lord’s Day worship service, in that order. This is a good opportunity to practice reasoning from the biblical data to a faithful practice. It’s also an opportunity to see how a local church’s giving is a miracle of God.

Isn’t Giving a Part of Corporate Worship?

Must giving happen in the context of the gathered church on the Lord’s Day? Put another way, is giving a biblically prescribed element of public corporate worship? Before we answer this question, let’s summarize the kinds of giving we find in the New Testament.

  • First, we have relief giving, for those both inside and outside the church. The case of Paul’s Jerusalem collection for the relief of saints during a famine is one example: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come … Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2Cor. 16:2, 7). What we often call benevolence characterized the church’s care for its own people from the earliest days: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44, 45).  While benevolence may or may not be structured, the care widows seems to have involved the church’s resources in a way that involved oversight of an enrollment (1Tim. 5:9).
  • The second kind of giving is missions giving, the kind about which Paul spoke to the Philippians: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:4, 5).
  • Finally, there is the support of those who labor in the Word. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages'” (1Tim. 5:17, 18; cf. Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1Cor. 9:9).

So, there are all sorts of giving going on. When you affirm our elders’ direction for our annual budget and when you give to the general fund at Heritage, you partner with your brothers and sisters in all of these ways.

When should this giving happen? We can look in two places for clues.

First, when we consider the passages that speak about giving, the only indication we have as to the context of giving comes to us in Paul’s instruction concerning the relief giving he mentioned in 2 Corinthians: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come” (16:9, emphasis added). Certainly, it makes sense to give when we come together, since giving is an expression of our partnership in the gospel. Yet the accent seems to be on the practicality of giving every week “so that there will be no collecting when I come” (16:9).

Second, when we look at the places that speak to the substance and shape of our Lord’s Day gatherings, we don’t find giving on the list. For example, Paul’s writes to Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1Tim. 4:13). To this list we might add singing to one another (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). But a collection doesn’t make these sorts of lists. 

There are certainly some good reasons to give on Sunday, even in our public gathering. If I had to reason for this practice, I would say that it helps teach us that our money is an important part of our discipleship. It’s an act of individual worship and an essential part of our partnership together in the gospel as a church. Placing it in our worship service also helps us teach our children.

But it goes too far to say that it must to be a planned element of our worship service. We might even argue that it can encourage the wrong kind of giving—from coercion or for show—about which the New Testament warns (2Cor. 9:7; Matt. 6:2, 3).

Our conclusion, then, is that passing the plate is one of many faithful ways to obey Christ in this area of giving, a method which comes with its pros and cons, and a matter of prudence. In fact, as with everything, we have to be careful not to make too much of our little human tradition.

Change in The Plate

Why did we stop passing the plate? When it comes to change in the church, if it’s not a matter of clear obedience to Scripture, we should have a compelling reason for the disruption. Not every human tradition is a problem. It’s worth mentioning that our chance to boxes is actually a change back to boxes. Heritage didn’t pass the plate at its founding but only when we moved to our current facility. But that was in 1987 and the practice is fairly well established at this point. So why change?

There are two reasons we stopped passing the plate. First, discontinuing this practice gives us more freedom in how we use our limited time together in our Sunday gathering. How about a metaphor. If you were a chef preparing a meal for your family every week, you would be limited by the requirement that potatoes go in every meal, mashed, and in the same spot on the plate. On Sundays we reserve twenty-five minutes for singing, reading, and praying outside of the announcements and the sermon. The offering is an element that involves ushers moving around the room for the distribution and collection of plates. This means a few things: we must be seated rather than stand, we should avoid things that the plate would distract from such as reading Scripture or a creed or a confession together. That means, if we just sang a song of confession, we can’t then pray a prayer of assurance, as one example. If we just prayed a prayer of assurance, we can’t then stand to sing a song of thanksgiving. There are a dozen or so of these combinations that aren’t available to us. Since we discontinued this practice, our services have enjoyed a more coherent and seamless flow. Second, though less importantly, moving away from passing the plate encourages giving in some other ways that are more regular and even across the year.

Those are some advantages. One disadvantage is that we lose a weekly reminder of the importance of giving for our life as a church. Yet as elders we believe we have relied on the plate as a kind of stand-in for what should be more creative reminders and overt teaching on this subject. In this spirit, we intend to make giving more accessible. We’ve added a permanent “Give” button in The Weekly, our recently refreshed weekly email to the church, and plan to increase the visibility of our offering boxes in the lobbies. We will also instruct more regularly on the why and how of giving through announcements, slides, classes, and at our Family Meeting. Just drips mostly, but enough to make giving even more of a priority for our already generous church.

Working the Miracle, How to Give and How Much

Years ago I enjoyed fellowship at a church where the offering was part of the worship service and where we then stood to sing the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” That practice gave testimony to the miracle of that church’s giving.

But so do boxes and online giving. The work of this church is sustained without any coercion or even eyes watching. Restaurants and retail establishments can’t do that. But we can. That is proof of the Spirit’s miraculous work among us. It is God’s doing.

There are several ways you can give, summarized on our Giving page.

  • First, give online. Set up a recurring payment or give one-time gifts through our church’s secure online giving platform. You do not have to be a registered member to give online.
  • Second, give in person. Give on Sunday with an offering envelope through our offering boxes staged in the lobby outside the Worship Center.
  • Third, give by mail. Make your check payable to “Heritage Bible Church” and mail it to: Heritage Bible Church, 2005 Old Spartanburg Road, Greer, SC, 29650.

That’s how to give. But how much should you give?

There’s a reason we call it “giving” at Heritage, rather than “tithes and offerings.” That language of tithes and offerings draws on Old Testament teaching for Israel under the old covenant which required 10% as a matter of both religious and civil responsibility. In fact there were multiple tithes required of Israelites, including the Jubilee tithe, so that it likely involved giving as much as 20% of ones income in a given year. Israel was, after all, a nation. We simply have no prescription like that in the New Testament for the church.

However, when we consider the scope of the church’s financial partnership outlined above, 10% is a reasonable target for some and a place to start for others. It’s also a reasonable point of reference considering our propensity to hoarding and greed as well as the new covenant’s inward requirement on our giving, that it be generous and cheerful (1Tim. 6:17–19; 2 Cor. 8–9).

Keep working the miracle, Heritage. Give like the gospel is true. Give cheerfully, sacrificially, and regularly as proof that Christ’s kingdom is real and his rule is righteous.

Looking for Shepherds: Biblical Qualifications for Eldership

Looking for Shepherds: Biblical Qualifications for Eldership

One way to know how much God treasures his people is to listen to what he says to our leaders. Here’s Paul’s words to the elders at Ephesus:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. —Acts 20:28–30

The church is God’s flock, precious and purchased. Shepherds are part of how he guides and guards his flock. Shepherding is a noble task, but but shepherding is not for everyone. 

It’s this kind of lofty command that led our elders several years back to examine the Bible’s teaching on eldership more closely—what an elder is, what elders do, and who should be an elder. We were convinced that more unity and depth on these questions would make for a happier and healthier church and, as a result, a more vital witness to Christ in our community. That study led to a retooled process for identifying and appointing elders which we summarized in a previous article, “How We Appoint Elders Together.” The purpose of this post is to drill down more specifically on the matter of qualifications for eldership. This will help all of us identify and pray for our elders here at Heritage. 

We’ve taught on these qualifications for eldership before on a Sunday morning in a sermon, titled, “Profile for a Church Elder,” from 1 Timothy 3:1–7. This article won’t cover any new ground in the Bible, but it should help us take new ground in our gospel mission. Joyful and unified elder appointments are no small part of that.

Who We Need Our Elders to Be

If I was writing the New Testament letters I would have included some detail in the process of appointing elders. But the Holy Spirit knew better. The balance of our material on this topic focuses not on how we appoint elders but on who we appoint to the office. This makes good sense given the job of shepherding. Elders are examples to the flock, they lead, they feed, and they guard the flock. They do all of this with their teaching and with their lives. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1Tim. 4:16).

Two New Testament passages outline the qualifications for an elder. This is a good place for us to begin.

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” —1 Timothy 3:1–7

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” —Titus 1:5–9

Four initial observations orient us to the rest of the list.

First, it’s not only okay for men to desire this office, it is good for them to do so. It is a “noble task” and men who aspire to this task desire a good thing (1Tim. 3:1). Following Paul’s example, we do well to stir men up to serve in this office and affirm the desire when it emerges. There will always be mixed motives and even evil motives. Yet at a basic level we are not reflexively suspicious of a man’s desire to serve in this office.

The second observation is related to the first by way of complement: aspiration is good but it is not enough. Because of the nature of shepherding the flock of God, the man must also meet certain qualifications before he may be considered for this role. These are a protection to himself and to the flock. The congregation, led by their elders, should heed Paul’s words to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1Tim. 5:22).

A third observation brings focus to the entire list to follow. Paul begins with a summary qualification to interpret the whole: “an overseer must be above reproach” (1Tim. 3:2). This is not about perfection but about public reproach. It is interesting that two lists are mostly the kinds of things that should characterize all Christians. These are virtue lists not unlike others we find in the letters written to churches in general. For example, Galatians 5:22–23, Philippians 4:8, and 2 Peter 1:5–7 cover similar ground. An elder is simply a mature Christian and an example to the flock.

A fourth observation is that these qualifications assume that the office of elder is a role held by men. This is not arbitrary or a dig on the ladies. Women are indispensable to the ministry and mission of the church, sisters by adoption, co-heirs in Christ, members of the body, and gifted by the Spirit. Nevertheless, eldership is an office with a unique place in God’s plan for his new creation people, an expression of authority and Word leadership rooted in Adam’s unique role from creation (1Tim. 2:12–14). For more on this topic specifically, listen to our sermon, “Women of the Word,” from our series through 1 Timothy.

The qualifications for elder are mostly straightforward. But there are several points that need some explanation and agreement for the sake of our unity as a church. What follows here is a simple exposition of the qualifications anchored in 1 Timothy 3 as we understand them here at Heritage: things to look for, things to look out for, and things to look into.

Things to Look For

The first qualification to look for is sexual and marital devotion. He must be “the husband of one wife” (3:2). Literally translated, he is to be a one-woman man. The placement of this command near the head of this list is instructive. The elder must not be given to pornography. He must not be a flirt. He should have eyes for his wife alone if he is married. This expression does not mean that a widower or a divorcee is disqualified from the office, granted that a divorce is not a cause for reproach. “One-woman man” would be an unnatural and an unclear way for Paul to speak if he intended to exclude divorced men. With a divorcee, his situation is a matter of credibility and a variety of factors will come to bear on that: the circumstances of the divorce, how public was it, how long ago it was, how it is understood in the community, etc. As with the rest of the qualifications, we are not given a litmus test but a judgment call. What about men who have never been married? While marriage is normative, neither does this exclude single men, Paul himself being single.

Second, we must look for self-mastery, expressed in three additional qualifications. The “sober-minded man” is stable, attentive, and alert. The “self-controlled” man is disciplined, not driven by fleshly desires but able to control himself by the Spirit. The “respectable” man has mastery over his mind and life, accruing respect from those who watch him.

Finally, we must look to the man’s ministry. The “hospitable” man is a welcoming presence, using his time and his home as a means of ministry. He must also be “able to teach,” the chief qualification that distinguishes an elder from a deacon or any other mature Christian man or woman. If you prick him, does he bleed the Bible? This man should be competent in handling the Word, making the Scriptures clearer for hearers and not confusing. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit.1:9). Can he do both of those things with studied clarity and settled confidence? This does not mean he must be able to preach for forty-five minutes on a Sunday or even excel in public classroom teaching settings specifically. Nevertheless, Bible-handling is basic to the role because the Bible is how a shepherd guides and guards the flock.

Things to Look Out For

While there are plenty of good things to look for in a potential elder, there are also things to look out for. First, we must consider if he is “a drunkard.” This question does not concern whether he drinks alcohol, but whether he drinks too much alcohol. He must control and not be controlled by his appetites.

Second, this man must not be combative, “not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome.” Consider the force of his words, the volume of his words, the tone of his words, and the consistency of his words. Is the kind of person that starts fights? Not unrelated, he is actually a physical brawler?

Finally, he must not be greedy or “a lover of money.” This does not mean that he cannot be wealthy. Rather he must not love money to the extent that he gives all of his time and attention to getting money. He must not gain his money through shady or underhanded dealings. This man must love God rather than money.

Things to Look Into

Due diligence requires that we look into several things when considering a man for eldership. The first is his home. The church is like a family whose leadership involves nurture, order, and care. If a man can’t take care of his home, then we should not expect he can faithfully care for the church. For a point of evidence, does he “manage his own household well”? If he has children, are his children submissive? This does not mean that his children are perfect or necessarily converted, but that the man fosters a godly atmosphere of parental discipline. On that point about the conversion of his children, Paul did write to Titus, “his children are believers” (1:6). However, this can just as well be translated, “his children are faithful,” and so this is just another way of saying what Paul writes to Timothy concerning submissive children. Could a child’s behavior disqualify an elder? Yes, and that would depend on the age, the story surrounding a child’s disobedience, and whether this man’s management of his home is a reproach.

A second thing to look into is his experience. Simply, is he an experienced Christian? He must not be a new Christian. New believers do not mature evenly. They may excel in sexual purity but not in humility, or in humility but not in sexual purity. This is something Satan will exploit in someone who is made an elder too quickly.

A third and final thing to look into is his reputation. An elder with a problematic reputation with outsiders will fall into disgrace. Having his name smeared, he will fall into the Devil’s trap and harden his heart.

Pray, Watch, Wait

The process of raising up, identifying, and appointing elders is an ongoing process. Use this post to help you pray for our leaders and to watch out for who the Holy Spirit might appoint an elder among us. Why not pray this way for your sons? Why not pray this way for your husband? 

Given the importance of qualified leadership to the church’s health, why not meditate some more on this topic with the help of a good book? Here are some books we’ve worked through as elders and/or deacons in recent years. For a slower journey through these qualifications, pick up a copy of Thabiti Anyabwile’s Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. For a basic introduction to biblical eldership read Jeramie Rinne’s, Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus. For a detailed analysis of every relevant text concerning eldership, read Alexander Strauch’s, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership.