Summary: Over the years I've had people ask me, "Can you recommend a good church near me?" Or "...in [their city]?" I don't always have a specific answer, but there are biblical principles to help them find a great local church. Then suppose someone asks you, "Do you know any good churches in my area?" Whether or not you have first-hand knowledge, you can share the factors (below in red) that were in the church that our Savior Jesus Himself established in the first century.
There are “successful” churches as man estimates these things — large numbers, healthy finances, beautiful buildings, status in the community, etc. And then there are churches built after the biblical pattern, which may or may not have some of the above, but will most certainly please Jesus, the Lord of the Church. Let’s look at 13 factors that Jesus established in the Church that He founded on earth.
Matthew 16:18 …I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Colossians 1:18, KJV And he [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
• The Christian Church as a whole and all its local churches belong to Jesus Christ. It is Jesus' church. He is its head, and in “all things he [is to have] the preeminence.”
• A healthy church will keep Jesus Christ prominently before the congregation — glorifying Him as Savior, Lord, Healer, Deliverer, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and more.
• The early church “ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ” (Acts 5:42, KJV). So should we 2,000 years later. Some churches are built around earthly things: a man, even a good man; social action and causes; a strong emphasis on heavy fellowship; pride in their church’s history, and the like. There may be value in some of these things, but the central focus of any church must always be Christ-centered, not man-centered.
2. Be a word-based church.
Acts 20:32 Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
• The apostle Paul encouraged the elders of the Ephesian church (vs. 17) to be devoted to the word of God, which would build them up.
• The apostle exhorted Pastor Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). I thank God that I grew up in the faith in Alaska under the word-centered ministry of Pastor Dick Benjamin. He always used plenty of Scripture in his biblically-based sermons.
• Sadly, and by contrast, I knew of a pastor in the eastern USA who used to read portions of the New York Times from the pulpit! Other prominent speakers exalt human experience or their own “anointed” ministries.
• We are in a lifelong battle against the enemy, Satan, for the souls of men and women. It is the word of God that enables us to win that battle. In His three wilderness temptations, each time Jesus triumphed over Satan by quoting God’s word — “It is written!” (Matthew 4:1-10).
1 Corinthians 2:4-5 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
• The original church that Jesus established on earth was filled with the Spirit, ministered in God’s power, and saw numerous manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit. That power and those spiritual gifts are still for today and are a vitally important part of the meetings of the local churches. The gifts of the Holy Spirit and the baptism with the Spirit are biblically proper emphases of churches that often identify themselves as "Pentecostal churches," "charismatic churches," or "full gospel churches."
• Jesus had no intention of His church gradually drifting into a weak, powerless assembly of people who expected nothing supernatural to occur. Sadly, that occurred early in church history. But thankfully, since the early part of the 20th century, Pentecostal renewal came back into the church of Jesus Christ and is sweeping across the world in our 21st century. A church that preaches and worships but omits the manifestation of the spiritual gifts is not a church after the New Testament pattern (1 Corinthians 14:26). Physical healings, prophecies, words of knowledge, tongues and interpretation — these and more are experienced by the biblically sound local church.
4. Be a holy church.
Hebrews 12:10, 14 …God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness…  Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
• Sometimes people will say, “Are you a ‘holiness’ church?” Well, we’d better be! The Scripture says that “without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
• Some people mock and say, “You people are ‘holier than thou’!” That’s hopefully true. Not in a prideful sense, but simply reflecting a holy life before the Lord. If someone tries to put you on the defensive with that type of comment, I recommend this reply: “What’s wrong with holiness?”
• Don’t take holiness lightly. How holy does God desire us to be? Read His answer in Scripture: “…put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
5. Be a prayerful church.
Acts 12:5, 12 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him…  When [his liberation from prison by an angel] had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
• Imagine trying to have a good marriage without communication. Similarly, to maintain a close relationship with the Lord, we need prayerful communication with Him. God wants to hear from us and talk to us.
• A biblical church will encourage both individual and group prayer. I’m thankful that every church I’ve been part of for any length of time over the past 43 years has had a preservice prayer time.
• Remember that the angel freed Peter from prison while the church was praying for him.
6. Be a worshipping church.
Acts 13:1-2 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
• "While they were worshiping," the Holy Spirit spoke and called Barnabas and Saul (Paul) to be apostles (Acts 14:14).
• Tongues and prophecy will one day cease, when we see the Lord “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:8, 12). There will be no need for preaching in heaven. But the scenes in The Revelation show the redeemed worshiping the Father and the Son on into eternity.
• In Israel’s Tabernacle, the final article of furniture in the Holy Place was the golden incense altar, which spoke of prayer, praise, and worship. Just beyond it, in the Holy of Holies, was the ark of God’s presence.
• The words to Handel’s magnificent “Hallelujah Chorus” (Revelation 19:6) came right after the command from God’s throne (vs. 5) to “praise our God, all you his servants.”
7. Be a witnessing church.
Luke 16:22-28 “The time came when the beggar [Lazarus] died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side…  “I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
• If we could hear them, hell’s occupants (like this rich man in Hades) would be crying out to us, “I beg you, go to my family, to my friends, and tell them what they need to know to avoid this place of torment.”
• Ask God for a personal burden for lost souls and for a willingness to act upon it.
• The church of Jesus Christ in the world grows, not by transfers, but by the addition of people getting saved. Recall Acts 2:47, KJV — “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved [KJV] … [NIV] those who were being saved.”
• You are saved today because somebody, directly or indirectly, witnessed to you.
8. Be a relational church.
Ephesians 4:16 From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
• Churches are intended to be relational, not isolationist. The members are to “joined … held together … supporting [one another] … in love.”
• A wise visiting minister once exhorted our church to be “relational more than organizational.” While on earth, Jesus established a great church with no articles of incorporation, no bylaws, no elected boards, and the like. Granted, in our 21st century we do have various state and federal laws with which to comply that the church in Christ’s time did not face. However, my point is that the early church had only basic organization, but they had strong relationships with one another and did a great work for the Lord Jesus Christ.
• So determine to be a connecting ligament in your church, not a compound fracture!
9. Be a church that is loyal to its leaders.
1 Chronicles 12:18, 22, 33 Then the Spirit came on Amasai, chief of the Thirty, and he said: “We are yours, David! We are with you, son of Jesse! Success, success to you, and success to those who help you, for your God will help you.” So David received them and made them leaders of his raiding bands…  Day after day men came to help David, until he had a great army, like the army of God…  from Zebulun, experienced soldiers prepared for battle with every type of weapon, to help David with undivided loyalty — 50,000.
• What kind of men joined King David in his stronghold in the wilderness? Loyal men. Men who said, “We are yours, David! … Success to you.” Men who came “to help David with undivided loyalty.”
• In my 22 years pastoring churches in New York and Oregon, I was very thankful for men and woman who were loyal to me and to the church’s elders. It is to such people that the Lord can then begin to give increasingly responsible assignments of their own, as Jesus said in Luke 16:12, KJV — If ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?”
10. Be a church that lives in unity.
1 Corinthians 1:10, KJV Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
• What a church that would be! Speaking the same thing, no divisions, perfectly joined together, the same mind, the same judgment. It’s a worthy goal to aim for.
• God hates discord and those who bring it (Proverbs 6:16-19).
• Unified homes are a joy; divided, discordant ones are a grief. It’s the same with the church. In your church, work at being a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9). Choose to believe, hope, and endure all things (1 Cor. 13:7, KJV).
• Strive for unity. Forgive offenses readily. Build relationships, don’t tear them down. Develop and help to build a unified, corporate vision for your church.
11. Be a church of love in action.
1 John 3:16-18 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
• It’s easy to talk about love, it’s easy to say we love.
• But true Christian love does things for people, as Jesus did for us. It sacrifices for others, it is full of good deeds. Real love can be measured by actions rather than by words.
• Mockers sometimes call Christians a “bunch of do-gooders.” To which I say: What’s wrong with that! It’s far better than being “do-badders”. The Scriptures are filled with positive references to doing good for others.
12. Be a giving church.
Matthew 6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
• My heart is in the kingdom of God and in the church that Jesus died for — “Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25, KJV) — so I make sure that my treasure is there, too.
• A church after the biblical pattern is full of believers faithful in their tithes and offerings and in their generosity towards others. Giving people and giving churches will prosper — “A generous person will prosper … The generous will themselves be blessed” (Proverbs 11:25; 22:9).
13. Be a church that is pressing on, maturing, not satisfied with the status quo.
Philippians 3:12, 14-15a Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things.
• Mature Christians understand that there is never a time when we can say, “That’s good enough. I don’t need to go forward anymore in my faith.” The great apostle Paul said [KJV] that he was “not … already perfect … [but would continue to] press toward the mark.”
• When individual believers stop growing in their faith, churches will begin to stagnate along with them. The Laodicean church (Revelation 3:14-22) had become complacent, lukewarm, self-satisfied, and for that reason received a rebuke from Jesus (vs. 19).
• I will soon reach my 71st birthday. Yet I don’t think of myself as sufficiently mature in the Lord that I can begin to “cruise”. My wife and I read the Bible through together at least once a year, with a view to continuing to grow in our faith.
SUMMARY of 13 things that make a successful church: