How to Choose a Church (1)

Wherever we find the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ; there, it is not to be doubted, is a Church of God: for his promise can never deceive: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

John Calvin[1]

There are times in our lives that we must make decisions as followers of Christ. They may include who to marry, where to work, or where to live. Among those more important decisions is one that we may have to make more than once, depending upon several variables such as changing our place of residence or our marital status. That is the decision of where we attend church.

The choosing of a local body of Christ in which we will emerge is one of the most important decisions we ever make. Yet, unfortunately, it is one of the most neglected. How much thought did you put into the person whom you would marry? How long did you consider your inclinations in college or where you might work? These are weighty decisions that each of us make that are pivotal decisions, determining the trajectory of the rest of our lives. Why is it that choosing a church would not be as much or even more important?

There are of course the obvious answers, pad answers that we hear in sermons, the same ones to which preachers seem to be so magnetized. Those answers preach to the carnality of modern Christianity and its adherents. To be honest, those excuses are pretty transcendent from generation to generation and linger in the minds of most pastors who only want to see a more engaging flock in the pews. I can’t blame them for that.

Unfortunately, there is a slumbering laity that may not know why choosing a church is such an important decision. Many Christians who have never given thought to their own theological position and have always assumed that their doctrine is pure, have never been forced out of their particular context so as to see each local church in its nakedness. By that I mean, when we stand on the outside of the local church and we step out of our tradition (we’ve always been or were raised or our parents were a Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.), we may suddenly begin to assess a local church not only for its ability to replace the stability of our personal ecclesiological history; but its theological fidelity, doctrinal exactness, and commitment to the gospel, we see the church for something other than validation of our heritage. We begin to see church for what it is rather than what we force upon it by demanding it replace what it has always been in our personal experience. Our demands move from a search for replacement to an exploration of orthodox ecclesiastical communion. In other words, we stop looking for Christian comfort and start looking for a church for the right reasons.

Obviously, you may have been able to figure out that, in my opinion, looking for a church has little to do with “how you’ve always done church”. In fact, if you’ve been placed in a position that forces you to look for a church, it would be good time to reevaluate your own theology, doctrine, and commitment to the gospel so that you may find a church that both mirrors your convictions and challenges your commitment to them.

All of that being said, what are the things a person should or ought to look for when looking for a church?

As you’ve already seen, I place considerable value in theology, doctrine, and the gospel. You’ve also read Calvin’s very broad definition of a church. I agree with Calvin and might even narrow his broad definition to include what he considers the word of God purely preached as sacramental in that unction and sanctification occur as sacrament. So broadly speaking, I might say that the right church is one that the Spirit of God communes with the people of God, but that would be too broad for the purposes I intend to communicate. I would like to narrow that definition. To do that, I’ll need to describe what that sacramental environment might look like to a person attempting discernment of it from the outside. I’ll answer the question, “How do I pick a church?”

Let me list a few things Christians are looking for, as I hear them describe their search while they actively choose which church they will attend.

  1. Good preaching
  2. Music is good
  3. Friendly people
  4. Too big/too small
  5. Good children’s/youth program

These may be virtuous qualities that we should look for in a church, but each of these are rightly formed by the three qualities I’ve already listed (theology, doctrine, and gospel). I think to understand those three basic qualities can help rightly discern those five reasons (and many others).

In my previous post, Why Do You Go to Church Where You Do, I asked you to consider that question. If you have thought about that, are these five reasons in line with your answers? How do you know if they’re good reasons or if you’re even able to discern “good” preaching, music, etc.?

In my next post, I’ll explore the three reasons I’ve listed here to help you make decisions like, what is good preaching or what is good worship music and maybe from that you can explain why you go to church where you do or answer the question, how to choose a church.

[1] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2012). 300 Quotations for Preachers. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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