After Angel and I were married, we moved to a town new to both of us: Phoenix. Thus began a several month journey of finding a church that would be repeated again in two and a half years when we moved to New Jersey. I have vivid memories of both church shopping experiences: of the sweet little Anglican church in Phoenix where we were the youngest in attendance by at least four decades and mobbed afterwards by kindly congregants who begged us to stay for coffee and cookies; of the 1,000 square foot church on the Jersey shore where we and our friends doubled the size of the congregation and the accompaniment was played by means of a 1980s style boom box which the pastor turned around to push the button at the beginning and end of every song.
It wasn’t long ago that the idea of having more than one church in your lifetime would have been completely foreign. Virtually the entire world died where they were born and rarely left their hometown.[i] In contrast, the average US citizen today is expected to move 11.4 times in his or her lifetime.[ii] Even if you never leave a church for another reason, you will most likely look for a church ten times in your life.
No one likes to church shop.[iii] I certainly hope you don’t enjoy church shopping. Church shopping is a dangerous activity. By its very nature, it places the shopper in the position of being an observer and a critic and not a participant and member. The faster you can shift from critic to member, the healthier it will be for you spiritually and the healthier it will be for the body of Christ.
Here are 4 questions to ask as you look for a church:
1) What do they believe?
Websites are a great blessing to the church shopper and the astute shopper can save him or herself a lot of wasted weeks by mining websites for their theology. Some websites (like ours) offer both the shallow end and the deep end of what they believe, and are a place where you can explore the church’s commitments, both in broad brush strokes and in detail. If a church is part of a denomination, even if a particular church doesn’t share their detailed commitments, their denominational website will (like the Southern Baptist Convention or the United Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church USA). Alternately, there are websites which allow you to search churches that are part of their network, such as The Gospel Coalition, or 9 Marks. If the church’s website doesn’t include information, you can always send an email. In that email, I encourage you to be direct about what theological issues you are most concerned about (I would encourage you to give special weight to a church’s doctrine of the Bible and a church’s explanation of the gospel). Most pastors would be happy to answer such an email.
2) Where are they going?
Any healthy church has a clear vision and commitment to make disciples and be agents of God’s transformation. What is the church’s vision? Does it reflect God’s heart? Can you commit to participating in this vision, as you are able?
3) Do you trust the leaders?
This question is more difficult to assess, but do you trust the leadership of the church? Does the pastor preach from the Bible? Does he explain the gospel clearly? As best as you are able to discern, do the leaders of the church have a godly reputation? Does the reputation of Jesus Christ seem to be more important to them than their own reputation?
4) What will you need to die to?
As many have said, there is no perfect church, and, if there was one, it wouldn’t be perfect once you joined. What are the areas of the church that are going to frustrate you (I promise you, there will be some)? Are those areas that involve the essentials (the gospel, the Bible)? Or are those areas of preference (music, programs)? Are you prepared to love your leadership well in submitting to them and not trying to “fix” the church by pressing for your preferences?
Recently I met a new couple at church. I welcomed them, introduced myself, and asked for their names. They gave their names and then, without any prompting, launched into a diatribe about the fact that they left their former church because the music was too loud, but they were so glad that our music was “perfect” (they had been twice before). Uncomfortable with this reason, I offered that there had been those who had left our church because they thought the music was too loud and that it made me sad that people would leave a church over the volume. They said, “Well, New Life does it perfectly. We’re glad to be here.” Several months later, after a series of complaints about volume, they left our church in a huff.
I’m not suggesting that we handled that situation perfectly. We have struggled with volume issues for some time and are constantly trying to improve. My point is that for this couple their primary requirement of a church were its volume levels in worship. Somewhere along the line that narrow preference became their entire rubric that they judged churches on. We all have our quirks in what we prefer in a church, but may the process of seeking out a church grow us in humility and sanctify us and not shape us as consumers of a product. The church is God’s blessing to us – for our soul and for our sanctification – we are not God’s blessing to the church. May we seek out a church with this humility.
Photo credit: Clark Young/Unsplash
[iii] I use the term “church shopper” in this article with more than a small amount of hesitation. The term itself makes my skin crawl as it implies a lack of commitment and participation in the body of Christ. I use it only because of its widespread usage and the clunky-ness of the alternatives.