We begin by having a relationship with God. Those that are born into the family of God will know the church. Jesus said, "My sheep know my voice."
In addition, to be able to recognize the church in the locality in which we live, we need some knowledge of what the church is and how it functions. We must go to the scriptures and see what God tells us. We must have eyes to see and ears to hear. We may see a church in its very beginning form, a very small group of people. It doesn't have to be a large group. I would say that most often it is a small group of believers, gathering together, seeking the Lord.
The first thing we need to recognize is whether those gathering together are meeting with the Lord. Perhaps they are only meeting with each other. Do they have a "meeting mentality," or are they gathering together in life--that is, in the presence of the Lord? Jesus said He would come, and that He and the Father would abide with us. The scripture tells us that He "walks in the midst of the candlesticks" (Rev. 1,2). Jesus will be in the midst of His church. We gather together in the Lord, in union with Him, and He is there to manifest Himself, to speak to our hearts, and to guide us into fullness. So this point is very important. Are we meeting with Christ?
We ourselves must be able to recognize Christ's presence. When we come together with others in the church, we cannot be too busy in our own selves to be still and know that He is God. We must be able to recognize His presence working in the midst.
Then we must know the outworking of the authority of Christ, just as the centurion in the 8th chapter of Matthew. When the centurion came to Jesus, asking that his servant be healed, he recognized the authority of God. Thus he received what he asked for. Recognizing Christ's authority goes with the outworking of faith. If God is in our midst, there is spiritual authority flowing through the ones that are ministering and through individual members, because this is the way the church is ordered--underneath the headship of Christ.
Wherever we see spiritual authority, we will also see love. Authority without love is not spiritual authority. What we are talking about in the church is spiritual authority. God does have His order; He has given us the pattern for the church; and He has given government for the church, such as elders and overseers. God has given elders and overseers the grace to watch out over us as we partake of His word and function together as the church.
Most people today who come out of the organized church are looking for "freedom." But when we go back to God to see what He is doing, we find that it includes His order in His church. That can be difficult, because many times, both in religion and in the house church, man wants to set order aside to have "freedom." Freedom as the natural mind defines it is not God's purpose, and never will be.
God's order is entirely distinct from the natural "order" or hierarchy we see in manmade organizations. In the church we are ordered underneath the authority of God because we recognize that authority, because His presence is in our midst, and because we see what His order is and how and why it is given. God does not change His order. It's very clear today that men are trying make man and woman equal in their function. But as we look at the scriptures, we see that God never has. From the very beginning he made man and woman distinct. The woman is entirely different from the man, and He tells us through the apostle Paul that in the church the woman is to be silent. She is not to usurp authority over the man (I Tim. 2:12).
Paul also lays out the order for the functioning of gifts and ministries (I Cor. 14). So, God does have an order, and we must be able to recognize that order in some degree, to recognize the church and find it in the locality in which we live.
One of the most important things we need to look for is God's love. It needs to be seen and experienced in our own lives. When God comes into the lives of believers, they are known because "they love the brethren" (I John 3:14). There is a love that brings them together, and that love is the divine nature of the Lord, given to us by the Spirit when He comes to abide within us. Jesus paid the price at Calvary, so that the Holy Spirit could come and indwell every believer. Paul tells us in Ephesians that the Spirit which was given is also building us together a habitation for God. We must see this as a reality. Even though we may experience it in varying degrees, we must recognize that this is what God is doing: building us together, making us one, so that we can apprehend that which we have been apprehended for (Phil. 3:12).
We must realize that we need to be fed. That is the purpose of the ministry God has placed in the midst. If we do not have it, we need to pray to the Lord to give us ministry. God will give us those who truly have a revelation of the Lord and what He is doing, so that we may be built together, and grow and mature to the full stature of Christ.