In God’s kindness, I grew up in a Christian home and was always in a healthy church as a kid. Of course, until I was an adult, I was in churches that my parents chose for me. Though my parents invited my input and feedback with regard to the churches we joined, I don’t think I ever had much “say so” as to where we would go to church. I was the kid, they were the parents, they made the decision for the family, and that’s how it went.
As an adult, there have been two times when I’ve had to make an independent decision about what church I would join. Thankfully I have no regrets about the churches I chose. However, having gone through the experience, I appreciate just how significant the decision of choosing a church can be. There are so many factors to consider. You want to make sure God is honored by your decision of where to join. You want to make sure your needs are met at the church. If you have family, you want to make sure your family’s needs are met. You want to be sure you’ll be able to serve and participate in church life. You want the church environment to be welcoming so that you can invite friends. You want to be able to plug in and utilize your gifts within the context of the church’s ministries. These are all legitimate concerns and factors to weigh when choosing a church.
Today I want to suggest six things to look for when seeking to find a church to join. My intention is not to list all of the factors that could legitimately be taken into account when choosing a church. I simply want to hit on what I think are six big ones. These six factors were in my mind in the past when I’ve had to consider the churches I would join and I often encourage friends to consider these factors as well when choosing a church. I list these points in no particular order. I hope you find them helpful!
1. Solid Preaching
I grew up in a context in which preaching was considered primary. I still believe it’s right to think of preaching in this way. The preaching of God’s word by called men of God is utterly vital to the health, growth, and preservation of God’s people. We need the Word of God. We need to have it taught to us consistently and faithfully by qualified preachers. A solid preaching ministry in a church is simply irreplaceable.
When I was looking for a church, I was aware that I needed to be regularly fed from God’s Word. I have always believed that when a man of God stands up to preach the Bible and does so faithfully, it is as though God himself were speaking his Word. If this is true, why would any Christian ever want to go without this?
I have often found myself encouraging friends that no matter how good the music is at the church, no matter how welcoming the people are, no matter how great the kids’ ministry is, if the Bible is not faithfully preached you need to find another church. I have a background in finance and economics. I’ve studied classic “trickle-down economics” pretty carefully, and though I’m presently not 100% sure, I think it probably works. Though my faith in “trickle-down economics” is a little shaky, my faith in what I call “trickle-down preaching” is not. I firmly believe that if God’s Word is faithfully preached, applied, and appropriated, it will usually trickle down and impact every aspect of the church’s life.
2. Biblical Community
The church has the exclusive claim to being THE Christian community. I’m convinced that all long-term attempts at seeking to find one’s primary Christian community outside of the church will ultimately fail. The Bible points believers to the church for the full experience of true and lasting Christian community.
Healthy, biblical community ought to be a major factor in the minds of Christians looking for a church to join. When evaluating a church, one should ask, do these people love God and one another? Do they seek to build one another up in love and good works? Are they striving toward unity and accountability with one another? Do they work to see their lives and the lives of others shaped by the gospel? If I join this church, will I be helped and encouraged in my walk with Christ by this community of Christians? These are legitimate questions to ask when looking for a church to join.
3. God-Honoring Worship
Worship (and I’m thinking primarily of music and singing here) can very quickly become a difficult issue when choosing a church. This is sad because it really doesn’t have to be so difficult. When you choose a church, you’re not choosing a Pandora station or your favorite Spotify playlist. You don’t have to choose a church that perfectly lines up with your musical preferences. The question should not be, “Is this my favorite kind of music?” Rather, we should ask, “Is God honored by this worship?” Do you see the difference? The first question is selfish and man-centered. The second question is humble and God-centered. Which of the two ought to be the disposition of the professed worshipper of God?
I appreciate how John Piper conveys what churches ought to aspire to in their worship services. He encourages churches to aim for “gravity and gladness.” Gravity involves a sense of seriousness, weightiness, and transcendence. We ought to feel a sense of gravity when we come to worship God. Gladness captures something of the ethos of the worshipper’s experience of God in worship. Christians ought to be glad in God’s presence.
4. Faithful Leadership
Can I trust these leaders? Can I respect them and submit to their leadership? Are they faithful in their shepherding and oversight of the church? If I join this church am I willing to have these men shepherd my soul and those of my family? Do I trust that these men have the awareness that they will give an account to God for how they lead the church and shepherd the souls of God’s people?
I fear that sometimes this point is underrated. Make no mistake, when you choose a church you are voluntarily choosing to come under the leadership of that church’s pastors. Therefore, you should carefully evaluate and observe a church’s leadership. Experiencing faithful leadership in a church can be one of the greatest blessings and joys you will ever know. Conversely, experiencing poor leadership in a church can lead to some of the most difficult and heartbreaking experiences of your life.
5. An Environment for Christian Growth and Discipleship
The church ought to be the environment in which Christians can mature in their faith and grow as followers of Jesus Christ. It is legitimate to consider whether or not you can grow in a particular church. Any number of factors can influence whether or not you are growing as a Christian. The fact is, not every church is best suited to serve every type of person. I think it’s legitimate for people to take personal stock of their needs as disciples of Christ and to make decisions about where to attend church on the basis of personal needs.
Of course, we must be careful to keep our felt personal needs in check and never allow them to eclipse the objective needs we have for things like sound preaching, biblical community, etc. Also it should be said that Christian growth and maturity will usually lead to less focus on self and more focus on serving the needs of others. Often times what Christians need in order to grow is to have plenty of opportunities to give rather than just to receive.
Ultimately, Christians should pursue joining a church that will help rather than hinder their growth in the faith. Ask, can I a grow as a disciple of Christ in this church? Will I be encouraged in the spiritual disciplines here? Will I be shown how to follow Christ more faithfully?
6. The Biblical Context for Fulfilling the Great Commission
It is a personal mission of mine to help Christians appreciate that the Great Commission was given to the church as whole. It is not something we can each fulfill individually. It is a mission given to the church, and each member, by contributing to the life and health of the church, plays a role in contributing to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
So we should ask, is this church actively seeking to play a role in fulfilling the Great Commission? Are the people here burdened for evangelism? Do they pray for and work toward the salvation of the lost? Are they seeking to promote the spread of the gospel throughout the world so that men and women from every tribe, tongue, people and nation will come to know Jesus Christ and glorify him as Lord?
In conclusion, I should mention that I recognize this post is perhaps suited primarily to an American context, where, by God’s grace, we often have a number of options for churches we might join. Many brothers and sisters around the world don’t have the luxury of choosing between a number of good church options. Some Christians are in places in the world where there are few, if any, healthy churches to be found. This awareness should cause us to pray for God to help our fellow Christians in these places. Also, for those of us in the west, this awareness should make us thankful that God, in his providence, has placed many of his people in places where there are many good churches to be found even within a short driving distance from where we live.
We want Emmanuel Church of Winston-Salem, by God’s help, to be marked by these six characteristics. Should God be pleased to plant us, we will endeavor to be this sort of church. We do so not out of an effort to establish our own brand or to compete against other churches, but because we want to be and do as a local church everything that we believe the Scriptures call local churches to be and do. May God help us!