August 1, 2021

What Should You Look for in a Local Church?

Written by
  • print

There are no two ways about it: Harvest USA is a unique place. The topics of discussion, the raw honesty of sharing, and the incredible sense of safety are not always what people experience walking into their local churches. Many ministry recipients who receive meaningful support here at Harvest USA find themselves questioning why they weren’t able to get this same kind of help in their home churches.

On one level, it is an indictment that so many men and women in our churches are struggling with sexual sin in darkness and isolation. But is the solution to simply abandon all decorum and propriety and become a community that “keeps it real” at all costs? Should the narthex or foyer after the service become a place of impromptu support groups and raw-honesty discipleship?

Of course not! First and foremost, the church exists for the worship of our triune God. God primarily calls us to gather every Sunday, not to overshare our sexual sin with one another but to worship Him in spirit and truth. While corporate confession of sin and assurance of pardon are wonderful aspects of a worship service, they should not include open-mic time so that each congregant can proclaim details of last week’s failures.

However, this does not mean that the church has zero responsibility for wisely discipling its members in such a crucial, spiritual battlefront as sexual purity. While the value of the ordinary means of grace that we experience each Sunday as we gather for corporate worship is incalculable, struggles, especially of a sexual nature, require churches to take a proactive, intentional, and personal approach with their congregations.

So, what should you look for in a local church when it comes to its approach on these matters? While many significant criteria can be applied to evaluate the health and faithfulness of a local church, I would like to submit that the manner in which church leadership addresses matters of sexual sin and redemption is in itself a litmus test for their commitment to making disciples, and not just converts, of all nations.

Failing to address sexual brokenness in the local church is akin to failing to floss for oral health. We might think that simply brushing your teeth is enough to remove all plaque and food particles, but, hidden between the crevices, bacteria still remain; when left to fester without flossing, we’re told that even one’s heart health can be jeopardized. The same can be said for discipleship in sexual integrity: failure to address sexual sin compromises every aspect of discipleship.

While the value of the ordinary means of grace that we experience each Sunday as we gather for corporate worship is incalculable, struggles, especially of a sexual nature, require the church to take a more proactive, intentional, and personal approach with its people.

Far too many Christians assume that sexual sin is something that can’t possibly pervade our churches’ sacred walls, but that is an assumption that the Bible, and particularly the Apostle Paul, rejects. If you read through Paul’s letters, you will find that it’s the exception for Paul not to address issues of sexual immorality. It seems to be his most commonly addressed pastoral issue, and that’s not because he just arbitrarily picked sexual sin out of a hat. He wrote about it so frequently because he faced it so often in his own pastoral ministry. Paul assumes that the church is the God-ordained context for our growth in sexual sanctification. So, if that’s true and you are looking to join a local church, you should be asking questions about their approach to sexual sin. To help you get started, here are five things to consider.

1. Does the preaching reflect Paul’s writing?

Does your pastor only talk about sexual sin if the Scripture passage he is preaching from directly addresses it? If so, then you could go months, perhaps years, in certain books of the Bible and never hear anything from the pulpit on sexual sin. This does not mean pastors should not preach expository sermons, but the application of general gospel principles should extend to the real issues facing the people in the pews, which are often sexual in nature. Silence on sexuality can lead many congregants who wrestle with shame and guilt to feel isolated and unseen. They may feel as though their pastor doesn’t recognize how broken and ensnared they are. Every single Sunday morning, a pastor should assume he has people in his congregation who sinned sexually the night before, as well as others wracked with guilt over sexual sins they committed decades ago.

Paul assumes that the church is the God-ordained context for our growth in sexual sanctification.

    Many of us have already known the supernatural experience of having our pastor speak directly to us, as if we are the only person in the room. That’s actually not your pastor; it’s the Holy Spirit. Pastors should assume that the Spirit will use our acknowledgement of these issues to regularly pierce hearts, bring conviction, and assure the despairing that there is still hope in our risen Savior. Paul spoke so frequently about sexual sin because he needed to, and that need is all the more apparent 2,000 years later.

    2. Is there a proactive ministry for repentance of sexual sin?

    If your pastor preaches about sexual sin frequently, my guess is that he has felt overwhelmed by the number of people coming to him for help. In our current milieu, it’s hard to imagine that a pastor has never discipled a young man enslaved by pornography. Most pastors can handle that, if it’s just one sexual struggler.

    But what if half the men in your church are struggling with pornography, and their wives are also suffering? Additionally, an unacknowledged but significant number of women are wrestling firsthand with sexual sin, and a growing population of parents have children who are taking on LGBTQ+ identities at unprecedented rates. Can one pastor be expected to disciple all of them individually?

    If your church leadership wants every member to be a sexually faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, they need help from others. Your church leadership should focus significant energy on raising up men and women who will take up this call to minister to the sexual strugglers in your midst. We have a truncated concept of the Great Commission if we have a dedicated outreach ministry to the lost, but nothing for sexual discipleship. Peter said very clearly that judgment “begins at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). This is why Harvest USA exists, to equip you as the church to do redemptive ministry in the areas of sexual sin. Let us help you do that!

    3. Is your church led by trustworthy elders?

    With deep sorrow, we hear stories of pastoral malpractice in the church. Sometimes, we feel trepidation at recommending that the men and women who come to Harvest USA reach out to their church leaders, because we have seen that even elders and pastors can respond in ways that are inconsistent with the gospel. Thankfully, I hear many more stories of faithful, loving, wise, and tender-hearted leaders in the church!

    So ask yourself if the shepherds of your local church are men of integrity. Do they hold up to the biblical standards set out for them in Titus and 1 Timothy? True, no elder is perfect, and sometimes a personality may rub you the wrong way, but, by God’s grace, can you say that your elders are seeking to be humble, compassionate, submissive to God’s Word, proactive, and truly desire good for those under their care?

    4. Are frequent invitations made to come into the light?

    You should look for a local church that assumes that people are struggling, and, as a result, the church is constantly inviting people to reach out for help. It should feel normal in your church to seek help for the ways you struggle. How does a church cultivate that kind of environment? It does this by frequently acknowledging every believer’s ongoing battle with sin and brokenness.

    From their pulpits, pastors need to invite all people to seek help with compassion and urgency, with love and sincerity. The invitations should come from many sources. You should find them on your church’s website, in the bulletin, during the announcements, and in personal conversations with others.

    A former colleague who is now a pastor invites men and women to get help for sexual struggles during their new members’ class. If every church did something as simple and proactive as that, how many more people would come out of the shadows and into the light?

    5. Ultimately, you are responsible for taking initiative!

    Finally, whether or not your church is taking all of these steps faithfully, the ultimate responsibility to fight against sin falls on you. Come Judgment Day, not one of us will be able to blame the church’s lack of engagement for his or her own sin. So, whether your church addresses this regularly or never, it is still your responsibility to get help. Especially if you are in a church that is largely silent on these issues, perhaps the Lord will be pleased to use your initiative as the catalyst for a new wave of discipleship, repentance, and redemption for many others in your midst.

    Perhaps the Lord will be pleased to use your initiative as the catalyst for a new wave of discipleship, repentance, and redemption for many.

    If your church has no desire to disciple its people in matters of sexuality, this should be a warning sign. By God’s grace, I believe that Jesus is growing his church in these areas more and more. No church is perfect, and you need to prayerfully and patiently wade through these matters to discern how Jesus is calling you to respond. My hope is that many of you will take up the challenge to lovingly encourage your leaders to courageously and faithfully disciple their people.

    More resources you might like:

    Mark Sanders


    Mark has been President of Harvest USA since October 2022. Mark holds an M.A. in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA, and a B.A. in Communications & Integrated Media from Geneva College,

    More from Mark Sanders