On Unity in the Community of Faith

Gregg Allison commenting on the Spirit as creator and sustainer of unity in the community of faith:

“Churches do not have to attempt to create unity among their members; the Spirit provides that for them (Eph. 4:3). What must instead happen is that churches are to work hard to maintain that unity, which seems to be fragile and undergo breakdowns because of the sinfulness of church members (Eph 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).

Mindful that they are natural enemies who have been brought together not naturally but by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, church members rely on the Holy Spirit to be able to express genuine love toward one another (Rom. 15:30; Col. 1:8) in an atmosphere of righteousness, peace, and joy fostered by the Spirit (Rom. 14:17).”

-from Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (118-119)

Book Review: The Life of God in the Soul of the Church

By Way of Introduction

There seems to be more than a little confusion in our day over the role of the church in the life of the Christian, and possibly even more confusion over the role of the Christian in the life of the church. What are we called to as Christians? Are we to simply show up as Hebrews 10:24-25 exhorts us?  Surely this is part of our responsibility as members of a congregation, “not neglecting to meet with one another;” though, of course, it can’t be reduced to this in light of many other New Testament passages. In fact, it can’t be reduced to any list. The commonly used, contemporary phrase, “doing life together” gets at the point a little better, and it certainly seems to imply more than attending the gatherings of the church–however important that may be. So, what more we are to do? If you have asked these questions and you, like our culture, are becoming more confused about the corresponding roles between the individual (the Christian) and the corporate body (the church) Thabiti Anyabwile’s newest book will be a wonderful guide for you to pick up.

The Life of God in the Soul of the Church: The Root and Fruit of Spiritual Fellowship

It should come as no surprise that this book bears the 9Marks imprint. It is a book written by a pastor for the church out of a concern for healthy churches. Though, it is also more than that. I learned just how much more from the introduction.

This book is a follow–up, a companion of sorts, to Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man which was originally written in 1868. This present volume takes up Scougal’s premise and applies it to the soul of the church. A worthy, but no small task.

Format 

It began as series of sermons Anyabwile preached to his congregation at First Baptist Grand Cayman in 2008. The impact of the sermons had a life of their own and positive response from them was such that Anyabwile was eventually encouraged to send them to print in the hopes the church would be edified through its content.

This format follows a long history of books that began as sermons (e.g. Calvin’s Ten Commandments, Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression and Ryle’s Holiness) for which I am grateful remain in print. Anyabwile continues this tradition in the most fitting way. Throughout the book he stays very close to his original sermon manuscripts. Reading the chapters (sermons) consecutively could possibly become repetitive as the same basic elements emerge from his sermons. However, on the contrary, I found this to be quite refreshing. For example, it’s not often you find a book that deliberately and lucidly explains the gospel in every chapter. This is but one aspect of Anaybwile’s preaching that is a real service the church as a reproducible model.

Generally each chapter begins with a passage of Scripture, followed by the exposition of that passage, and concludes with applications for the life of the church. It’s a wonderfully pastoral model that is very edifying, and is one that helps the reader connect the point of the passage to their modern day context. Anyabwile introduces many current events, illustrations, and metaphors along the way to further aid the reader in understanding how the foundations of spiritual fellowship are expressed in the life of the church.

Content

Here is how the book is organized:

Part I: Foundations: Union With Christ

Anyabwile’s opening chapter focuses on 1 John and concludes from this passage that true spiritual fellowship “is the life of God in the soul of man experienced personally by believing the truth and shared relationally in the church” (18).  He then proceeds to expound the Scripture passage to show how it speaks to our joy and holiness, and how each has a corporate aspect and responsibility.

In the second chapter Anyabwile continues laying the foundation with the corporate theme from 1 Corinthians 12 and really emphasizes the centrality of the church in God’s plans as the body of Christ.

Part II: Expressions: Applying Our Union

Part II of the book is the outworking of the life of God in the soul of the church. It’s the application of our union with Christ. Real life happens in the expressions of our fellowship with other believers. These are the real relationships in the church, and how they play out.

From this point on Anyabwile takes us on a systematic study of spiritual fellowship. He covers the following topics in chapters 3-12:

  • Love One Another
  • Fellowship and Spiritual Gifts
  • Partnership in the Gospel
  • Restoration and Encouragement
  • Suffering and Comfort
  • Forgive One Another
  • Sing to One Another
  • Fellowship of Giving
  • Accept One another
  • Again … Love One Another

This is one of the most Scripture driven books I’ve read in a while. It will be difficult to disagree with his conclusions to the passages he uses to define the different aspects of life in the community.

Conclusion

As mentioned earlier, this book is a wonderful example of how pastoral a book can be.  Anyabwile guides his flock with wisdom in the richness of the Word and simply allows Scripture to speak. I’m thankful for pastors like Thabiti Anyabwile who are careful thinkers about the life of the church, and who take serious their call to shepherd. This is a good example of what the Lord can do when Scripture is faithfully exposited.

Pastors, pick up this book to learn and to be driven to Scripture, and to see from his example how application is driven by the Scriptures.

This is also a must read for church members.  It will challenge them to evaluate their own soul within the church. It will enrich their understanding of the church, what their role is within the church, and just how they are called to live in relationship with other members.

Henry Scougal would be pleased and honored for this book to accompany and be a companion to his The Life of God in the Soul of Man.

 

Pick up your copy here:

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*This book was provided as a review copy by Christian Focus Publications. Find them on Twitter @Christian_Focus*

 

 

The Elusiveness of Community

The Assumption

In this post I’m working off the assumption that unless we have biblical examples held out before us as “good,” we will not innately know this is the way things should be. This is true in all walks of life. Children, marred by the fall, grow up under the influence of sin, and if the parents do not teach them the “right” way they will not know. Adults are not exempt. We too are sinful and are taught many things by the culture around us. Cultural influence isn’t neutral. And it is by our culture that we are shaped. We become what we worship. So, if we are not explicitly taught how the gospel of Jesus Christ impacts our lives, then we will not know. And if we are not shown how this gospel is applied to our lives, and thus how it should transform our congregations, then we will simply live as Christians in the culture, not distinct from it.

The Facts

That said, what does community look like lived out within the local church? The pervasive anonymity that occurs within our congregations is not a reflection of the biblical transparency that’s given to us as an example in the New Testament. How then are we to live in light of this example as a congregation? How does this play out in the life of the church? Application is one of the hardest things to really teach. It’s often hard for laypeople to make the jump, or bridge the gap, from Scriptural principles to application. This is of course one of the main callings of a pastor, that of leading his people to what the text of Scripture is telling us today.

I recently came across two examples of life in community that I thought were appropriate because they are ways that we should be lead as a congregation to live with one another, by upholding gospel principles and examples from the NT, yet they are examples that are–for the most part–entirely absent from most churches. They are specific examples of applying the gospel to the life of the congregation.

This video contained the first example. It’s a video made by The Crowded House, a network of gospel communities.

While presenting their vision for the network, they talk about one aspect of these communities that is central to their mission: the importance of discussing large decisions with one another. Decisions like what jobs to take, where to live, and how to spend their money. These aren’t light decisions we make in the course of a life. And so, because of the weight of these decisions and the way our culture has influenced us in this sphere of life, these are decisions that we primarily make individually. Often, the church has no real impact when making personal decisions. Is this how it is supposed to be? We tend to see our personal lives and our family lives as private, even when we claim to be members of a church, part of the same body as the other members.

I think it’s obvious that the example given to us by the early church in Acts 2:42-47 would tend to contradict our modern idea of family and community. Especially the gospel community of the church.

I came across the second example in a book I just recently finished reading, Father Hunger by Douglas Wilson. In one of the later chapters Wilson discusses that parents should seek accountability when raising children. His reasoning is that often others can see things in our lives that we tend to overlook.

Here again is another area of our lives that we are very private about. But shouldn’t the church who is a family have an important role in the upbringing of the children that are a part of the community? In this instance it is often pride that keeps us from seeking accountability for help with parenting from the community. We are fearful that others may discover we don’t have it figured out. We want everyone to think that we have it all together, this again contradicts the example of living transparently within the local congregation. And besides, nobody else has it figured out either, who are we kidding? We should be striving side-by-side to learn with one another how to figure it out.

Many people would probably be shocked, and we would probably receive quite a bit of push back if we tried to institute these examples at our church. This, though, is only further evidence that we are living like the culture instead of like the church that Christ called us to be.

There aren’t many who “hold up” examples of life application like these to be followed. Even much of the preaching in our day has aped the culture, meaning it is very individualistic (e.g. this is how you can improve), but if our leaders aren’t making these claims and pointing us to examples like this then how are we to know this is the way we are supposed to be living with one another? We won’t. And we will miss out on a beautiful picture of what the gospel is and how we are to be living in light of it, so that the world may see it and praise our Father in heaven.

The Solution?

It’s a bit more tricky. It seems obvious once you’re privy to the information, but the solution isn’t as simple as telling people they need to live this way. This is the hard part. People have to realize this for themselves. We have to humble ourselves before the cross and let go of our pride in order to live this type of transparent community. How does it begin then? It begins with what I mentioned earlier, teaching. The shepherd of the flock must lead us to these waters of application. Only there will we find the refreshing drink that opens our eyes to the inner thirst we have developed while living in isolation from our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Corporate Body

corporate.jpg

I came across this quote in Mark Dever’s The Church:

“Christianity is a corporate matter, and the Christian life can be fully realized only in relationship to others.” -Erickson

I’ve begun to realize this more and more lately. Especially today while reading through 2 Corinthians 8. Paul is addressing the Corinthian congregation, evidently addressing specific sins, as we looked at yesterday. Yet he does not focus on the person doing the sinning, or those sinned against. He writes to the congregation corporately.

Isnt’ it interesting how we often feel that sin is a private issue? This is definitely a lie from Satan to keep us in the dark, as he pours on the guilt and shamefulness of our actions. However, if we are in Christ we have freedom from sin, it is no longer master over us.

Here again in today’s passage we see this same phenomenon. There is an unmistakable individuality to the body (e.g. it is made up of many parts, according to what a person has…) but Paul only writes about this individuality as it relates to the whole.

In this instance, he’s encouraging the individuals in the congregation to give, not out of what they don’t have, as others may have it, but out of what they do have, only that which they have been given. He quotes Exodus 16:18 here as an example,

“Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”

Everything that happens in the body is, as Dever says, “toward one another.” So, only when we carry out this way of life, the Christian life, will our congregations begin to reflect these realities. There is much heart work to be done in this area. I know this is true in my life.

Book Review: Reverberation

The title of Jonathan Leeman’s new book, Reverberation, makes use of a vivid word-picture to aid the reader in conceptualizing the path of God’s Word in our world. The centrality of the Word of God in our churches is, “the one necessary thing.” It’s his hope that “Christians and church leaders from every polity will be strengthened in faith in the sufficiency of God’s Word.” Let’s follow this path of the reverberation of God’s word with Leeman as our guide.

Jonathan Leeman. Reverberation. (Moody Books, 2011), 197 pages.

The book is organized into three parts: 1. the word, 2. the sermon, and 3. the reverberation.

Leeman uses the first few chapters to show us the role of the Word in the world, that is, how it functions in the life of believers and unbelievers. Leeman pleads with us that words, though they are often abused and overused and distrusted in our society, still matter. Ultimately, God’s Word, because His Word is truth. And these are the only words that can give life. But how? I’ll let the author speak.

“Trusting God’s Word to build our churches is an act of faith. Faith in God. Faith in His Word. And such faith is not natural, even for the Christian. It’s supernatural. God must give it.”

Amazing. And this high view of Scripture is the foundation that Leeman builds on for the remainder of the book.

Next, we’re taken to where the Word is preached and the importance of the sermon. I thought it was interesting that the second part of the book is dedicated completely to the sermon, but it’s really a great section. Leeman emphasizes expository preaching all because of the central role of the Word of God.

Don’t be mistaken that this chapter is written specifically for pastors. It is that, pleading with them to lift up the Scriptures, but it’s also to the church as an example of how we can hold our pastors accountable. It’s to help us realize and understand what we should be hearing as a Christian, and that this is important stuff! Wake up!

Finally, Leeman traces the path of the Word in the congregation after it has been preached. It reverberates through singing, praying and discipleship, all things that occur within the church. Though, this reverberation is much more than what occur within the church. Leeman emphasizes that it’s a message that reverberates outward, beyond the walls of the church, to the world.

The last chapter is a picture of God’s ultimate plan and how the church exists in this world to fulfill it. We gather as his people, but we have to go out, “God’s word must reverberate out the church building door and into the world” to spread the good news of Christ and then return and join together once again, bringing those who heard and accepted the word.

And finally, a great line that speaks much truth, “serve your church and go read your Bible.”

Conclusion

Leeman shares a glimpse of many of his personal experiences in the church in this book, and he writes openly and transparently. I am grateful for his honestly. I pray it will encourage us to be bold and assume the roles that God has given us in the church. It will be a great help for pastors and church members.

I would commend this book to the church that we may once again reclaim a vision for God’s Word and the path that it should travel and reverberate through the life of the church. Let us return God’s Word to center of all we do as God’s people.

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*This book was provided by Moody Publishers as a free review copy. I am under no obligation to write a favorable review.*

A Cooling of Multisite

Here is some wise reflection from Kevin DeYoung on the question of using video for multisite purposes. I am more and more confident to turn to DeYoung as he is showing over and over his careful and wisdom filled reflections on the church. He seems to speak and write from a very mature and gracious perspective. I appreciate that.

Here is the end of his article:

So upon further reflection, I just can’t see myself sacrificing the dynamic Holy Spirit give-and-take of the preaching event unless it seemed like every other option had been exhausted. I want to see the people I’m preaching to, even if there are lots of them to see. I want to be at the back of the sanctuary to shake hands, even if I can’t shake every hand and may forget too many names. Most of all, I want to know when I’m connecting and when I’m not, when I said something funny or something dumb, when they are crying or when they are sleeping, when I sense God at work and when I feel that God has done something wonderful in our midst as we worshiped together. I want that rapport, that connection, that freedom, that interplay which cannot come by video.

My heart is not hard to multisite, much less is it hard to those who use it. There may be situations or seasons where multisite is the best of several less than perfect options. But for the privilege of live preaching to live people in the same living space in the shared presence of our living God, I have cooled on the idea.

Read the rest here: Why I Have Cooled on Multisite

6 Trends of the American Church

I’m not a big George Barna fan, but I think that there is some validity to this study. Here are six “megatrends” of the American church, according to the study:

1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.

Read the rest here with a few more observations from the study.

*Note: Be careful not to take these conclusions as “carved in stone” data, there is much debate on the research done that leads to these conclusions, however there seems to be some validity in these trends.

(via Gairney Bridge)

Is What We Sing Really Important?

I’ve been tracking this discussion for sometime now. It’s been almost a year since that one Sunday where the weight of the power of music came crashing down on me. Ever since that time, I’ve seen a steady flow of articles, blogs, and even a few books devoted to this topic.

I want to be specific about what I am referring to because there are broader views that we could take. We could look at worship as a whole, an all-encompassing definition. Such as the whole of the Christian life should be worship, which is true. We could get a little more specific and look at only what a church does as it gathers for worship on the Lord’s Day. Specifically the “worship time”. I want to go even more specific than that. I want to look at what a church sings. I want to look at what songs churches employ during these worship times, and what implications these decisions have for the congregation.

The origin of this discovery for me goes back almost two years, and when I was first introduced to this aspect of worship I wasn’t really paying much attention. Although, as this discussion has progressed, I find I was listening more than I thought I was. “Listening to what?”, you may ask. Well, Bob Kauflin was the primary voice.

It was during the 2008 Desiring God Conference where he gave the message, Words of Wonder: What happens when we sing?

A question that has remained with me from that message is, “If the teaching of our church was limited to the songs we sing, what would our people know?”

I’ll try to write a few of my thoughts on this first and then give you more resources than you probably want at the end. But, if you just want a few resources on the topic, skip to the bottom. I won’t hold it against you.

So, “Is what we sing really that important?” I’m sure many of us have never even entertained this question, which then begs me to ask, “Why haven’t we?” Shouldn’t we be asking these kinds of questions?

To find the answer, you have to go no further than looking around at what our modern/contemporary worship has become, little more than praise-chorus-producing, radio imbibed pop-culture. What ever happened to the importance of words? What ever happened to the meat that used to make our hymns tough for us to chew on?

Especially the songs we used to sing that would sting and pierce our hearts because they were filled with the convicting nature of the Word of God. Not the happy, upbeat, feel-good choruses that permeate so many of our churches, but yet so poorly represent what the true Christian life is really all about.

Yes, friends, the songs we sing really are that important.

“Put your ear to a church’s mouth — not your nose in her books — and there she will tell you what she truly believes, not just what she claims to believe. It is no coincidence, therefore, that virtually all communions within Christendom have their own distinctive hymnody. This mirror their theology. Nearly every schism within the church catholic has translated its falsehoods into rhythm and meter. Heresy cannot live long without hymnody.”

from Perspectives on Christian Worship: 5 views, edited by J. Matthew Pinson (actual quote from Chad L. Bird) via Ad Fontes

We are so susceptible to being led astray doctrinally through the songs we sing. Now, you may respond, “our songs aren’t filled with heresy!” That’s fair, that may be true. Maybe they aren’t, but are you growing in your Christian life by their content? Are they making you think about and reflect on the deep truths of the faith?

What is the point of gathering on Sunday morning? When do most Christians receive instruction about how to live the Christian life? Exactly. So, why do we waste so much of that time singing meaningless songs that do nothing more than produce a false emotional high, and that give us a “feeling” that we’ve communed with God?

We would do well to serve our churches by tapping into many of the available resources that are available to us today. I feel we have to be more discerning in our generation, though, because there is almost too much available to us. We’ve lost what is truly good. Here are a few resources from those who have studied this much more in depth than I have, and who have much more wisdom than I.

LITERARY RESOURCES:
Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin
Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin’s blog
Biblical Worship, Resources on Worship and Music Ministry
Stuart Townend on Worship
Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, T. David Gordon.

MUSICAL RESOURCES:
Indelible Grace
RUF Hymnbook
Sovereign Grace Music
High Street Hymns

I’m sure I will think of more after I post this, so check back.

The Church!

How can we accurately emphasize and do justice to the significance of that word?

Church.

It’s a complex, multi-faceted word. Its definition seems to be clear; of course, that is entirely dependent within the context in which you find it. Even within those contexts, there is great debate on what is actually being conveyed, and what is not. So, it’s really not all that clear.

Does its usage encourage certain actions and forbid others? Are there prescriptions for what exactly it should be? How do we interpret and make decisions for the future of it? What liberty are we given to even do this?
Even though we have an idea of what we think it is, make no mistake: There is much to be debated about the church.

And these debates have massive implications. For they impact the course of Christianity in history.

One thing is clear, though, Christ thought very highly of it. And he spoke often to it. He left instructions for it to follow. He continues to sustain it, and always will. He died for it. It is His bride.

His inspired Scriptures speak to all areas of life, implicitly and explicitly. I don’t want to focus here, so I will refer you to a recent topical sermon by Mark Dever, The Sufficiency of the Bible for the Church.

———–

The church has surfaced indirectly in much of my reading lately. I was reading a book on evangelism and one of the best chapters was on the significance of the church. In a different book on Christianity and culture, the church took yet another prominent role.

Thinking about it now, it’s sad to me that I was surprised to discover such an emphasis on the church. This seems to be a commentary on today’s culture/society. My generation in particular.

I grew up in an age of individualistic Christianity. There was so much focus on the individual, and lack of teaching about the church, that we lost a vision for the church. We’ve broken down the Christian life so much that we have lost the context of it within the greater whole, the church.

Can the Christian life even function outside of the context of the church? It is even safe to look at different aspects of the Christian life outside the context of the church? I think we have focused too much on the individual at the expense of the unity of the church.

And oh how Satan has taken advantage of this. How prideful our hearts.

It still seems, though (within a few evangelical circles anyway), that we are slowly returning to an emphasis on the local body of believers, the church. I hope we are, at least, signifying an end to the individualistic Christianity that has plagued our churches, and has left us with a warped perspective on the truths of Scripture. The perspectives that are driving the machine of consumerism within Christianity that has blinded our churches. Mainly the idea that we are the ones to be served by the church, not vice versa. Giving allowance to the practice that we can hop around from church to church, never actually committing to any one community. What a great deal it is, though. We never actually have to become vulnerable. We never really have to open our lives to those other Christians around us. We never have to heed any of the actual teachings of the New Testament on unity and loving your brother and sisters in Christ.

We never have to experience trial in this area, which never allows us to grow as Christians.

Read that last statement again. This is not a good thing.

Let us grow! But this can only happen within the church. Thankfully this isn’t something you have to go looking for. This growth (in holiness) is something that can (and will) happen within the church you are currently a part of. God lead you to that place, to those people, for a reason.

Now instead of using the church to satisfy what you believe to be your longings of what the church has to offer, read the New Testament.

Open yourself to the perspective that you are a part of that church because God wants you to grow as a Christian, in the specific areas that make you want to flee to another church, as a follower and disciple of Christ.

Now don’t make the mistake of thinking this will be easy. Don’t think that everything will need to change except you. It is going to be a refining process, one that involves truly loving people, forgiving them when they wrong you, admitting when you are wrong, and the list goes on and on. But it is a beautiful process. It is one in which God receives glory every step of the way. It is a process that is only possible through the blood of Christ, in which we live.

It is the ultimate goal of our existence, of our life on this earth…

God preparing a bride for his Son.

Church Covenants

Does your church have a covenant? If you’re not sure, or you don’t really know what a church covenant is, I hope to answer those questions (and raise a few more) for you in this article.

Church covenants mainly have to do with Church Membership. So, this may be more of a discussion on the importance of church membership. And while church membership isn’t directly addressed in the New Testament we believe the early church had some way of keeping up with who was part of the church and who wasn’t. We see this in some of the practices of the early church, as in 1 Tim. 5. So, let’s presuppose you believe strongly in healthy church membership.

The church covenant is the the covenant that you would acknowledge and submit to when you join a local congregation. It’s a document, usually composed of points, written by the leadership of the church. It’s content informs the prospective member what they are entering into in terms of accountability with the congregation they would like to become a part of.

Not only has our culture gotten away from the importance of church membership (the broader issue) but many churches do not even have covenants anymore. Churches that do uphold a model of healthy church membership typically have covenants. I believe covenants can be a sign of a church who takes membership seriously.

This raises a few more questions for churches. Do you welcome just anyone into the congregation that wishes to join? What do you base their acceptance on? Is it even wise to allow people to join when they haven’t submitted to a church covenant?

If these questions are ignored, I would suggest that this could endanger the purity of the congregation. People need to know just exactly what they want to become a part of. And they also have to know that if, and once they do, become a member certain things are expected of them as members of the congregation.

We have grown far too passive in today’s church culture. You may have heard it said that we’ve become ‘consumers’ of church. No one (very few) approaches church today as “what can I give?” or “how could I serve this church?”. No, today our mindset is more along the lines of “what can this church do for me?” or “I just want a church that fits my lifestyle.”

Of course these problems are rooted in individualism, egocentrism. We’ve got to reclaim what it means to functions as a church body. We’ve got to learn once again what it means to be unified as a church. Ultimately because of the words that Jesus spoke,

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, italics mine).

We must love one another so the world will know, as Mark Dever says, what the “gospel made visible” looks like.

I believe establishing a church covenant is one way to begin the reclamation process.

Begin asking other members how they feel about this issue and what you think you could do to encourage this growth in your church.

—-

I discovered another article this evening written by Matt Schmucker of 9Marks. It’s a comprehensive look at church covenants: Membership Matters – What is Our Church Covenant?

These are some of the best resources I know regarding church membership:
The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love
What Is a Healthy Church Member?
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church