Recently, we explored the idea that Christianity is not an individualistic religion. Church community is vital to the Christian life. In parts of the world where Christians are persecuted or marginalized, they don’t always have the option of meeting together. We can trust that God meets them where they are. However, for those of us in the West, we are fortunate to have many options—sometimes it feels like too many options!
Given the vast array of churches—all with different worship styles, preaching methods, and levels of communal involvement—how does one choose a church? Well, that’s a loaded question and we don’t intend to give you a full-out description of exactly what your church should look like. However, there are a couple of things we can affirm when you’re choosing a church.
First, God meets people in many different ways, in a variety of contexts and denominations. Sometimes, churches boast about following the tradition of the book of Acts—doing church like the early church did. The historical reality, however, is that Christians were doing things in different ways from the very start. In fact, this is one of the amazing things about Christianity. The Christianity of an Anglican Rwandan can look very different from that of a Reformed New York Presbyterian, but they can be worshipping the same Christ and teaching the same Gospel. Christianity is not monolithic; there is diversity within unity.
Second, given the amount of options we have, it can be tempting to look for a church in the same way that we shop for macaroni at the supermarket. Some people never engage with a church because they can’t find one that fits their tastes perfectly—they don’t like the music, or they don’t like the pastor’s accent, or the cross is hung in the wrong place, or there are too many people, or too few people . . . you get the idea. If you don’t want to be part of a church, you can find pretty much any excuse. This is the wrong way of going about it.
The church does not exist to meet all of our expectations or desires. I’m not saying that you should lower your standards, but you might need to readjust your expectations and prepare not to have all of your desires met. When looking for a church, a good rule of thumb is, “Be choosy, but not too choosy.” In addition, the whole process of looking for a church should be soaked in prayer. With all that in mind, below are a few good questions to ask when you’re looking for a church.
How does the Church View Scripture?
Of course, most churches will have a doctrinal statement on their website that tells you what they think about Scripture, but the best way of discerning a church’s view of Scripture is to pay attention to how it is handled each week in the service. A good church will include regular readings of Scripture, either in addition to the sermon or as a central part of it. (If your church never opens the Bible or the majority of services feel more like TED Talks, you’re probably in the wrong place). You’ll also want to consider how the church applies Scripture. Are they applying it in context or is the Scripture being used to serve various political or theological agendas? This question requires that you regularly engage yourself in the reading and studying of Scripture. (See our article on reading Scripture for help with this).
What is the Church “On About”?
Every time you go to church you should be hearing the Gospel. By the Gospel, I don’t mean how to get saved and go to heaven when you die; rather, I mean the good news that Jesus is Lord, that your sins are forgiven, and that you have been given new life in Christ that begins here and now. Your church should be on about the Gospel since it touches all areas of life. However, emphasizing the social implications of the Gospel at the expense of forgiveness of sins (and vice versa) is to truncate the good news.
You should also pay attention to how your church talks about believers in other denominations. If your pastor is constantly on about what is wrong with every other denomination and why he is right, you might want to go elsewhere. Denominational differences are important, but so is unity. This doesn’t mean that every church can (or should) flatten out the differences they have with everyone else. However, churches that can’t stop talking about why everyone else is wrong unintentionally limit your personal growth because the emphasis is on conformity rather than the Gospel.
Does the Church Regularly Practice Baptism and Communion?
Baptism and communion are the two sacraments (or ordinances) that the church is commanded to practice (Matthew 28:16-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). A sacrament is usually described as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Many debates have been waged over what exactly is happening in these two sacraments and how precisely they should be practiced. These are important conversations, but it’s also important to acknowledge that there is a certain level of mystery in the sacraments. This is not the place to spell out exactly what is going on, there are, however, a few things we can say.
In baptism, we are visibly initiated into the Christian community. Harking back to the Israelites’ crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River, baptism reenacts how God saves his people out of distress and sin, bringing them up into a new life. In communion, we remember the great sacrifice of Jesus as he gave his body and blood so that we might have life. We come to the table to receive anew God’s life and love through bread and wine. As such, communion should be a time of solemn remembrance coupled with joyous celebration. Every church should be baptizing and receiving communion on a regular basis.
Scripture, Gospel, Sacrament—these are three key elements to look for in a church. What about service, worship, and community? These are also important issues, which we will address in our next post!