I live in a revolving-door town and so interact regularly with people who are church shopping. It can be a difficult decision because of things like the commitment needed, the change involved, and preferences we have. Add to that, the various church options in some locations, and it can get trickier. But, are all the options, options? And, are we approaching the search with the right criteria?
God’s word is clear that to not plug in is not an option. So, what are some things to keep in mind as we make the very important decision of choosing a local church?
First, a few preliminary marks.
- The church is a gift from God to his people. Plugging into God’s kind of church is a privilege and joy for believers. Keeping this in mind will help us maintain a necessary humility as we search.
- A little more, than less, time spent in a church can facilitate a good decision. It’s usually beneficial to attend a few corporate gatherings, home groups, and some kind of individual setting with a long-time member of the church.
- Like many big decisions in life, choosing a church is something that should be done with the help of mature believers and/or church leadership.
- Finally, God has not left essential church matters up to us. Choosing a church, then, is not an arbitrary process. The God of the church has laid out in the manual of the church (the Bible) the essential ingredients which need to be present in a church.
Using biblical criteria over personal preference is needed for the decision. For example, style of music, fancy-ness of the kid’s ministry, and average age of the congregation should not be the deciding factors since they are not God’s essentials for the local church.
With that in mind, here are some things we ought to look for as we choose a church:
1. A church that embraces the sufficiency of Scripture.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
This is where we ought to start in choosing a church. Local churches need to affirm the Bible for what it is; 66 God-breathed, and therefore, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative books of the Old and New Testaments. This is God’s great gift to us, which is sufficient for all things needed for life and godliness, not the least of which are essentials in God’s kind of a church.
The sufficiency of Scripture should not be a statement hidden in a dusty, no-longer-used doctrinal statement. Rather, it’s highly visible in the life of the church. For example, the Bible will be unpacked, explained, and applied from its context in an unrushed and reverent way from the pulpit during the corporate gatherings. In God’s kind of churches, biblical preaching will be more like the main-course of a meal, and less like the parsley garnish. And in preaching, and other teaching ministries, the focus will not be on the teacher, his opinions, and his epic style, but God’s word. The preachers and teachers, from the pulpit to nursery, will demonstrate a getting-out-of-the-way in order for God’s word to take center stage, so as to feed and love you.
Furthermore, this kind of a church will justify things like its leadership structure, philosophy of ministry and practice, budget, worship, youth ministry, discipleship, and other events with Scripture, since Scripture alone is our God-given, sufficient authority for church life.
When our churches start here, in word and deed, then many other necessary things will fall into place.
2. A church that holds high the glory of God.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
God desires that our churches be God’s-glory-centered. The preaching of the word, teaching in smaller groups/classes, and the culture of the congregation should demonstrate something of real desire for God to be honored. There ought to be a sense that the church’s life is about pleasing God. And if you’ve been like me at times, this might feel a tad uncomfortable. But the discomfort is good: the church seeks to applaud God, not man, in all it does.
This is a church who strives to preach and practice the greatness of God, the glory of God, the love of God, the grace of God, the holiness of God, and the sovereignty of God. And at the same time, that will mean that this kind of a church will emphasize the sinfulness of man, the inability of man, the depravity of man, and the undeservedness of man, in relation to God. Even more, it’s a church that avoids spotlighting how “they do things” and how many people attended/made decisions/came forward. Church is about God’s honor, which means our choice needs to follow suit.
3. A church which majors on the biblical gospel.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Next, the church ought to emphasize the loving, finished work of Christ for sinners. We’ll want to hear much about Christ’s substitutionary atoning death on the cross for us, not due to our merit, but his grace. We ought to hear words like redemption, propitiation, atonement, substitution, and justification, explained and applied.
Furthermore, since the gospel includes the call to put faith in Christ (Acts 17:30), we’ll want to hear a measure of pleading and calling the unregenerate to turn to Christ, whether the church is gathered or scattered.
In things like evangelism and outreach, the focus should be on the message of Christ-crucified to save, not the church’s clever methods. In church life, we ought to be reminded often of the only way in which a human being can be acceptable and right with God: faith in the Person and finished work of Christ. We ought to see and hear the message of the cross just about everywhere we turn in church.
4. A church which emphasizes biblically-based doctrine.
“…the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Tim. 4:3).
“But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
When looking for a church, one of the first things we’ll want to do is look at their doctrinal statement. And it’s a bad sign if such a thing is hard to locate, reluctant to be handed out, or shorter than an In-N-Out menu.
We ought to be wary of the church which indicates, “Well, we are not about doctrine.” A church who is not about doctrine can be no more, therefore, about God, than a restaurant who says, “We are not about food,” can be about serving dinner.
Additionally, the doctrinal stance of the church should not be something they boast in, but a humble privilege of stewardship they see themselves as having. It should be traction for worship. They’re not looking for a doctrinal fight (2 Tim. 2:24-26), but if it comes down to the faithfulness of defending the faith, they will not back down.
And in healthy churches there’s a humble eagerness for newer and mis-shepherded believers to embrace sound doctrine in the same way that in healthy hospitals there’s an eagerness for the young to feast on a healthy diet.
5. A church which stresses Christ-like love.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
This will not be hard to discern in the kind of church you should choose. You will want to see an intentionality of care for one another.
And biblical love does not necessarily look only like getting a huge visitor packet in a vellum bag with the colorful church logo on it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but biblical love is more about a sincere warmth from the people as you interact; a humility demonstrated in a genuine interest in you and bringing you into the life of the church.
But we ought to avoid discerning biblical love based solely on how we’re treated, but ask ourselves a few questions. Is there a desire for the regulars to know, serve, and care for one another? Is there an unforced doing-of-life together among the members? Are individuals consistently and candidly sharing their lives together? Again, for this reason, it’s a good idea to attend things in addition to the Sunday gathering.
6. A church where sin is shepherded biblically.
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt. 18:15).
A church simply cannot be faithful if it is not going to deal biblically with sin. Ask yourself, “Will this church confront my sin? Shepherd me in my sin? And even discipline me out of the church if necessary?” (Matt. 18:15-17). We should avoid a church who will not do those things for the same reason we should avoid an oncologist who will not deal with our tumors. And we should not plug into a church where it’s easy to nurture our sin any more than we should go to a dentist where it’s easy to nurture our cavities.
There should be something of the Holy Spirit’s work evident in the life of the church as it relates to progressively putting off sin. Whether his work through biblical preaching, teaching, or faithful members of the church, this should be a place where Christians are lovingly being encouraged to walk by the Spirit so as to put their own sin to death. The church is a place fundamentally where the Spirit is at work to expose and eradicate our sin (Matt. 5:3-4, 6; Rom. 8:13-14, Matt. 18:15-17, Gal. 5:16, 6:1-3).
7. A church which majors on biblically-qualified leadership.
“…appoint elders…namely, if any man is above reproach…” (Titus 1:5-6).
As you visit churches, ask about their process of recognizing qualified leadership. In a good church, it should be difficult, not easy, to become an elder or pastor, for the same reason it should be difficult to become a heart surgeon. And it should not be difficult because it’s a good-ole-boys club, but simply because they follow God’s commands for doing so (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Pet. 5:2-3).
Similarly, ask yourself questions like, “Where did they get their training?” “By whom were they ordained for leadership?” “Are these leaders men whom I could follow?” “Would I want my daughters marrying men like that?” “In what way are they training up additional leaders?”
8. A church where the members are encouraged to serve and use their spiritual gifts.
“As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).
God’s church is not called the “leg of Christ,” but the “body of Christ.” That should be visible in an all-hands-on-deck approach being encouraged by the leadership. Ask the church leadership how they help shepherd people into the privilege of serving in the various ministries and needs of the church.
9. A church which emphasizes sanctification.
“..work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
God does not give the spiritual new birth to his children so that they remain children. Like biological parents of a newborn, his concern is that we grow. And the local church is to serve as his greenhouse; facilitating an atmosphere conducive to the sanctification of the Christians.
This should be visible in an emphasis on the discipleship and shepherding of believers in all stages of their sanctification (2 Tim. 2:2, Titus 2:3-5). When considering a new church, we do well to ask what means they provide to encourage the sanctification of members.
10. A church which stresses evangelism.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Ideally, when the previous essentials of church life are emphasized, active evangelism will result. In either case, as we look for a church, we’ll want to ask things like, “Is the gospel being proclaimed from the pulpit and are the lost urged to repent? What other ways does evangelism happen in the church? If I asked the members, are they, too, speaking the gospel to others?”
And let’s be careful of asking about evangelism programs. The best evangelism program, which we ought to be looking for in a church, is the one where all the members are equipped to live godly lives as salt and light and encouraged to speak Christ crucified for sinners.
More could be said about what to look for in a church. Considering the importance of immersing ourselves in a New Testament church, this is a brief treatment of the subject. But if we consider these criteria as we look for a church, chances are we will be plugging into God’s kind of a church.