September 16, 2015

Considerations for Choosing a Church

by Eric Davis
my-churches-5

markdroberts.com

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.

solaScriptura

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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).

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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).

what we need

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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.

seed

face2face.org.za

“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.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
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  • Michael

    Hear, hear. And, as I’ve experienced recently, if you attend a New Members class, you know you are in a good biblical church if the series of classes could be called “The Biblical Christian’s Life as Lived Out in the Local Church”. What I’m getting at is, the classes would lay out the biblical teaching on the life of a disciple of Christ. Important topic for every Christian, even after years and years of “membership”.

  • Starrocks923

    I know I’m in good hands with the church I attend. Our church strives to teach the all-sufficiency of Christ and that he was the sole propitiation for our sins. The Bible is taught at every age (I heard a hymn playing in the Nursery once about Noah’s Ark-talk about great theology for babies!) using expository preaching.

    I go to the Young Adult/College service as well as the High School service at my church(Being 18 while still in High School is a unique experience…), as well as the morning and evening services. Occasionally some of the sermons overlap in what Scripture passage is studied, but I usually get four different sermons every Sunday. I really enjoy hearing God’s Word being preached from older men who have gone through many of the trials I’ve been through in my life.

    I’m getting ready to go to the youth group Bible Study at my church tonight as I type this. The youth group at my church has a wonderful Wednesday night Bible Study program for Jr./Sr. High School students where we worship, play games and break off into small groups. Small Groups are divided by what school students go to, or what school they live nearby. We pray together and discuss the Bible passages we’re learning. The Student Ministry’s stated goals are to “Love Christ, Love the Church and Make Disciples”, and it’s always amazing to see God working in the lives of fellow believers.

    Besides, we have free coffee every week. If that’s not a blessing from God, what is?

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  • tovlogos

    Eric — that’s the church Jesus had in mind. They don’t grow on trees, but God will reap exactly
    whom He expects.

  • Austin Fleming

    **Disclaimer: I’ve written this comment for the intellectual stimulation. No part of what follows is intended to be caustic, personal, or antagonistic, or to deviate from the instructions relayed in 1 Peter 5:5 and James 3:13, 17 – 18. My writing style is direct, however, so I thought it appropriate to give this caveat on the front end lest my tone be misunderstood.**

    The author’s intentions are laudable. His reasoning, however, is infirm. This post indirectly–but nevertheless inexorably–undermines (what appears to me to be) his fundamental point.

    I gather that the author essentially argues that a local “church” fellowship whose members/leaders do not carefully examine and consider the instructions given to believers by the Bible–and abide by them–should warrant skepticism from a believer evaluating whether or not to join its ranks. I can fairly grant the point. After all, one can indeed “know a tree by its fruit.” See Matt. 7:16 (although whether this passage applies to a fellowship as opposed to an individual is perhaps open to debate). Also cf. Rev 2:20.

    The rub is that the author himself has not rigorously examined or demonstrated a particular logical connection between the verses he cites and a (for lack of a better phrase) “doctrine of church selection.” By my count (and I only counted the ones quoted in the article, FYI, so if there were unquoted verses I didn’t look them up), only 1 Timothy 3:5 contains the word “church,” and the only other verse that even arguably presupposes a “church” is Titus 1:5-6 regarding elders–an office which I am not entirely convinced was restricted to a local fellowship, as opposed to a city, a territory, or a region visited during Paul’s various missionary journeys.

    The point here is, the Author takes the Bible seriously. (Good.) But not so seriously that he: i) compiles all the passages that either directly or indirectly speak to the SPECIFIC topic of church selection, ii) PREFACES his “points” with an analysis of those purportedly applicable verses, or iii) works to demonstrate the logical connection–if indeed there be any–between the verses he does cite and the conclusions he draws. (Not good.) Implicitly, this non-rigorous analysis undermines the Author’s insistence that a careful examination of the scriptures should be a feature of a healthy church, since he himself has not undertaken to do so with respect to this topic.

    Moreover, the Author has not defined what he means by “church.” Does he mean the whole body of Christ? Or does he mean some localized aggregation of individuals within a building on a weekly basis? If the former, It will not avail much to measure the health of a particular fellowship by verses universally applicable to all believers. That is no more help crafting selection criteria than saying “find the churches with the real believers in them.” While that doesn’t make the point any less true, it does render it significantly less useful. If the latter, I would submit that the contemporary American expression of “church” has so little in common with The Church as it was instituted, that the two barely warrant mention in the same sentence anymore. I might also add that a strong argument can be made that so long as any fellowship between as few as two believers occurs that encourages both to hold fast to their confession of faith, it satisfies a Christian’s duty not to abandon fellowship. See Hebrews 10:23-25.

    Of course, the Author could consult the book of acts for verses specifically describing how the apostolic church functioned, verses in Revelation dealing with healthy and unhealthy churches, or he could be prepared to meaningfully explain how he extrapolated useful guidance specifically pertaining to church selection from more general principles stated in the verses he has cited. As yet, however, the reasoning demonstrated in this article fails to supply a genuine, robust biblical foundation for the Author’s conclusions. To wit, to proceed to application before analysis is to put the cart before the horse.

    • Michael

      Hello Austin-
      I believe that what you wrote was, unintentionally, knocking down a straw man. I don’t think Eric was using the scripture citations to support the claim one must choose a church or “here are biblical reasons for being in a local church”. He was showing the reader scripture that commands the sorts of doctrine that a local church ought to be teaching. Therefore, the verses wouldn’t necessarily be about the local congregation or have the word translated “church” in them. This post was a brief but on-point guide to finding a church that teaches biblical Christianity. And, frankly, even if one believes the Bible doesn’t command being in a local church, he’d have to agree if you are going to attend one, it ought to be teaching truth, no?

      • Austin Fleming

        I don’t think Eric was arguing “why we should choose a church” or giving “biblical reasons for being in a church,” either. As I said, his point appears to be: here is how to select a church to attend. If that is his point, and if it is also his point that “a church where the word is not carefully examined” should be avoided, then it is well to ask: has the Author been careful to examine biblical teaching on this subject before speaking about it?

        The point doesn’t change if I adopt your suggested formulation. Suppose his thesis is “the church should teach good doctrine, and one that doesn’t should be avoided.” All of the foregoing criticisms apply with equal force to that statement. It simply isn’t useful–except perhaps to someone who is already fairly well-versed in the scriptures to begin with and who, therefore, probably didn’t need telling in the first place. What’s that old saying about preaching and choirs?

        But, MY point is not to attack the virtues or vices of the criteria that the Author has suggested per se. I’m not interested in debating his conclusions–conclusions which may indeed be sound. No, my argument is with his REASONING. It is to point out that he has NOT started at the beginning. Where are the verses that talk about what the Church is? Where are the verses that talk about what the Church should be? Are there any? If the Author hasn’t started there, then there’s no biblical foundation for anything he has to say that can safely be deemed non-speculation or something other than “happy fun-time Christian thoughts!”

        In other words, to use careLESS biblical analysis in service of the point that “good churches careFULLy follow the Bible” is to create an implicit absurdity. As direct biblical support (or an explanation of indirect support, for
        that matter) for his main thesis appears tellingly scant, as noted
        previously, the only straw man to knock down here is the one the Author
        has himself constructed.

        • Michael

          Thanks for the clarification. I think you are, in the name of intellectual stimulation, really speaking about a book not a blog post. Assuming that the readers know it’s about the local church and not The Church and that they know what a church even is is not irresponsible. And if someone happening by here doesn’t know what a church is, well, this post could be the very thing God uses to stoke the readers curiosity to find out!

    • Jason

      It may seem like a nit-pick to most, but if your point is that there is no concept of a believer “choosing a church” in the Bible I agree. In fact, the only one who chooses a church is God, and He did that once before creation.

      In the book of Acts, we see the members of the church scattered by persecution and growing out wherever they end up. When they went to a new town they didn’t look for “a church” they looked for *the* church locally for their fellowship (depending on the area, probably largely those who still needed to hear the gospel for the first time).

      However, the article can still be beneficial if people apply the concepts to discovering healthy fellowship when they find themselves in a new location. The bullets listed in the article are a good way to find the best environments within a community to grow spiritually because they are a list of things that the body ought to be doing.

      Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call it “Considerations when trying to find fellowship in a world with many counterfeits”.

  • Jeff Schlottmann

    Thanks Eric. I’m curious, would how a church handles communion play any sort of factor? My brother is struggling with things at his church. Basically what they do is give some time for everyone to go get their elements. After this they are told to partake however they feel appropriate. There is no explaining or anything. Everyone is on their own.

    I don’t want to sound legalistic, but being such a high act for the church to do, it seems to me that communion should be more important and done corporately.

    Anyways, I wasn’t completely sure how to answer him. I hope this isn’t off topic.

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  • Travis West

    Mr. Davis,

    In regards to a Gospel-centered church, what if the practice of intinction is present? I didn’t feel comfortable taking the Supper that way.

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