How to Choose a Church
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We walked into the church carrying our colicky, crying three month old baby boy. We had decided that we would try twelve different churches over twelve weeks (not necessarily a recommended practice). As soon as we walked into this particular church we were warmly welcomed but we immediately realized that we had misread their website. This church was part of a tradition that we had already decided, God bless them, was definitely not going to become our church home. Since our baby was so hard to handle, we had to take turns carrying him, or strolling him, and only we knew how to comfort him. So as we walked around in the basement of the church, we decided to run for it. We saw an exit door near where we parked our car, and figured we could slip out without being noticed.
Unfortunately, that door led to the exact pathway that scores of people were taking to get into the church that morning. So we had a “walk of shame” as we went the wrong way through the crowds. Everyone looked puzzled and confused.
It ain’t easy finding a new church. Eventually, we and our wonderful, colicky baby found ourselves called to the new Anglican church plant. We knew were were home, and we knew never to try to sneak out right before worship starts, wait 15 minutes to sneak out.
I’m going to assume here that you are looking for a new church for good reason. You aren’t just displeased with some minor change at your current church, or unhappy that someone didn’t say hello one Sunday. You’ve had to move, or you’ve gone through a process of prayerful discernment and realized that you are called to find a new church home. Or maybe you are a Christian who has been away from church for a while, and feel the tug to reconnect. Unfortunately, there are some who are seeking a new church because they experienced abuse in a previous one.
And as difficult and awkward as the search may be (kind of like a dating relationship with 150 people as the suitors), its worth it. Christians are called to be visibly, publicly united in a communion of worship, care, and service. Jesus started this, not us. He didn’t start a mere movement, he founded the Church that has experienced many movements. Jesus knew this Church wouldn’t be perfect, but he knew that humans need community, and we need a community that is centered on the Gospel. As has been said, there are no “Lone Ranger” Christians.
And a Lone Ranger isn’t just missing out on something for himself. If you are Christian, and not part of a community, the community is missing out on your presence. You aren’t there to lend your voice to songs of praise, or to pray with the new young married couples, or cry with heartbroken mourners, or to laugh with the senior citizens at the luncheon. You aren’t there to volunteer at the shelter, or open up the church at midnight for the youth group lock-in, or to complain about how hot it is in here on Sundays. You are irreplaceable, and missed.
In any case, finding a new church home should start with a process of discernment. The goal of this process should be discovery of your calling, and the community to which you are called to join as a visible witness and presence. We all want to have some affinity with our church, but we also need to know we are called to be there, and are committed.
While our preferences, personality, and background are important parts of that process, they shouldn’t be the only aspects, or perhaps even the deciding ones.
Below is a healthy process, as I understand it. I’m sure things could be added or changed, but this can get you started at least:
First, pray about it. Ask for guidance and wisdom. As the Holy Spirit to guide you to a community to which you are called, where you can serve, and where you will grow. If you have a family, pray with and for the whole family to be called together.
Second, ask trusted friends. Ask if the church community they attend is safe, non-manipulative. Are there checks and balances? Is the church and its leaders independent of any outside accountability?
Third, keep an open mind. Visit churches for 3-4 weeks (try not to run away from any like we did!). Listen and just be present. Attend visitor’s classes. Schedule a meeting with a church leader. Write down questions, and don’t be afraid to ask them. I can tell you right now as a pastor, that there are literally no questions that are off the table for me. My biggest challenge has always been when people feel uncomfortable asking a question, not with any uncomfortable question they might ask.
Fourth, think about how you could serve in and through this church. Not just in ways that are fun (those too), but also in ways that might stretch you and your family.
Fifth, see if the worship of this church encompasses the whole person and various types of people. Is this church accessible to introverts and extraverts? Does it involve lots of people in worship, or is it for “professionals only”? Are various ministers and leaders involved, or just one or two “perfect awesome Christian people” who are up on a pedestal? (by the way, there aren’t any perfect awesome Christian people, there’s just regular people like you and me).
Sixth, as an Anglican pastor, I’m pretty biased toward churches that use a historic liturgy and practice, have regional associations and authority structures, global communion, and celebrate the sacraments that Jesus himself gave us (baptism and communion). But you don’t have to become Anglican to look for these things, and frankly Anglican churches don’t always recognize our own inheritance. Find a place with real reverence for holy things. Find a church that has real outside accountability and global fellowship (not just overseas missions, but actual church-to-church fellowship and communion). These kinds of churches exist in almost every tradition, including the non-denominational world.
In any case, find a place that has a sense of its own tradition and doesn’t try to pretend it away. Every church has a liturgy and a history. Its just that some embrace it and some don’t. Hiding it ends up pushing things toward a small group of decision makers who get to decide everything for everyone else while pretending everything is spontaneous. Find a church that owns being Baptist, or Presbyterian, or being part of a non-denominational association of churches. Stay away from churches that brag about being fully independent, totally spontaneous, and utterly new. Trust me, it doesn’t end well.
And last, but definitely not least, make sure it is a faithful, orthodox church. The Apostle’s and Nicene creeds are the place to start here. We don’t have to agree on every point of doctrine, but the creed should be our center point. Churches that have abandoned the creedal faith, or who speak them as a ritual without actually confessing them, have lost the Gospel. They might be friendly, they might be helpful, and they might be socially satisfying, but they have lost their spiritual soul. A church without the Gospel is like a choir without music. You might enjoy the beautiful robes, the shiny instruments, and the nice fellowship, but you miss out on the main point and lose the heart and purpose of the gathering.
So if you are trying to figure out where to land, I hope this helps.
Photo by By Ardfern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
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