The ‘Marks’ of Churches: Keeping from Mission Drift

What are the things that undergird the church itself?

The idea of being a part of a ‘driven church’ is something we hear about a lot right now. It seems like there should be a certain purpose or set of purposes that should be motivating churches in the work that they’re doing.

Many may hear the words ‘purpose’ and ‘church’ and immediately think about Pastor Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church. In the book, Rick gives five purposes for the church (worship, mission, fellowship, discipleship, ministry). In addition, he lists some of the characteristics of a purpose-driven church—in total, there are 12 characteristics that he argues all purpose-driven churches should share.

Some of these characteristics include:

  • Having a Purpose Statement to describe the church’s promise to build the church in accordance with five New Testament purposes: worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, and ministry.
  • Programming by purpose—again, to reflect the five New Testament purposes.
  • Preaching by purpose to reflect the church’s commitment to each area of purpose.
  • Budgeting by purpose, categorizing expenditures based on the purposes they’re serving.
  • Form small groups on purpose, ensuring that each small group helps participants fulfill each of the five purposes in their daily lives.

I think you get the idea—such characteristics should flow into everything from what a church does, preaches, spends money on, etc. It’s a helpful way to talk about how purposes are lived out.

But today I think we need to ask ourselves: What are the things that undergird the church itself?

In other words, what is one level below the purposes? What are the marks?

The marks of the church

If you were to go into a bookstore and buy a book on ecclesiology, you’d find that sometimes people refer to the purposes of the church as the ‘marks’ of the church. (There is even a ministry called 9 Marks, named after the marks of the church.)

The challenge is that sometimes these marks are seen as a Reformed or Calvinistic idea, maybe in part because 9 Marks is just that.

However, if they are marks of the church, they should be in every church, everywhere. They’re things that a church should have in every culture, in every time, in every geographical place. It means that a biblically faithful church in Senegal would have these marks just as a biblically faithful church in Seattle would, whether that church is Reformed, Arminian, Charismatic, or whatever.

If that is to be the case, those marks also should be anchored in Scripture—this is what makes them timeless and applicable across cultural and geographical contexts.

In a previous article, I listed my own six marks of the church.

Churches should:

1 – Function under the authority of Scripture

2 – Have biblical leadership

3 – Exercise biblical preaching and teaching

4 – Partake in the ordinances/sacraments

5 – Be in covenant community

6 – Live/go on mission together

My list, driven from a missiological approach, focuses primarily on the fundamentals. Churches should have biblical preaching and teaching—I think everyone from a house church in China to a megachurch in Korea would agree with that.

Churches should also take the Lord’s Supper. After all, it was Jesus who, on the eve of his crucifixion, set the model: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19).

Baptism should also be valued—again, Jesus modeled this for his disciples through his own baptism by John in the Jordan river at the beginning of his ministry.

Why does it matter?

These six things are the marks of the church, but I think we can safely say that the five New Testament purposes from Warren’s book are good descriptions of what (using his term) drives churches with purpose in their various areas of ministry.

Marks matter and so do purposes, strategies, plans, and more.

Starting with the marks helps us missiologically. It considers the existential attributes that make a church a church. That’s essential.

However, you can have all the marks of a church and not be a particularly fruitful church. Phrased another way, you can be faithful to the marks and not fruitful in mission.

My hope is we can do both—think discerningly about marks, but also think strategically about purposes and more.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

This article was first published at The Exchange here.

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles & books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Executive Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than one million individuals each week. Stetzer is also Executive Editor of Facts & Trends Magazine, a Christian leadership magazine with a circulation of more than 70,000 readers. In 2015, he began serving as the co-host of the BreakPoint This Week radio program with John Stonestreet. He also serves as Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at many other colleges and seminaries.