Believers were not meant to exist in isolation. For that reason, God established His church, which all Christ-followers are meant to be a part of. While many believers grow up, live, and die in the same church, many others are often faced with the task of finding a church to belong to. Whether going away to college, moving to a new city, or simply finding a church for the first time as an adult, the process of listening to suggestions, looking at websites, visiting, and making a final decision can be intimidating. If you find yourself searching for a new church home, here are four things you should look for. We could, of course, discuss many more than four things, but these are some of the most important.
Four Things To Look For In A Church
- A commitment to biblical, expository preaching – Let’s take this in two parts. First, the preaching should be biblically sound. Does the church teach solid doctrine that aligns itself with what is found in Scripture? This seems like a no-brainer. Don’t all churches teach from the Bible? Unfortunately, many churches, even though they quote the Bible, don’t teach sound doctrine. For example, churches that teach the prosperity gospel or the Word of Faith movement use the same Bible that other churches use, but they misinterpret and distort its message until the congregation is left with faulty doctrine that isn’t actually found in Scripture. Second, is the preaching expository? Expository preaching is defined as “the process of laying open the biblical text in such a way that the Holy Spirit’s intended meaning and accompanying power are brought to bear on the lives of contemporary listeners” (Jerry Vines & Jim Shaddix). Does the pastor allow the text to speak and the Holy Spirit’s intended message to be heard, or does he quote a couple of verses and then preach his personal opinion for thirty minutes? Does the pastor allow hard truths to be spoken when the text demands it, or does he soften them into a more pleasing, but ultimately false, message? Again, both of these problems are unfortunately more common than many would expect in our churches and they stunt the spiritual growth of the congregation. Make sure that the preaching you hear allows the Scripture to speak for itself and is full of sound doctrine and theology.
- A commitment to discipleship – The local church is not meant to just be a gathering of people on Sunday morning. A key purpose of the church is discipleship, or spiritual growth together. The church should have a clear plan and method for discipling its members. As I tell my students often, spiritual growth doesn’t happen by accident. If a church has no plan for discipleship, growth of both new and veteran believers will stagnate. As you search for a church home, ask yourself: Does the church have a vision for discipleship? Do members help disciple one another through weekly small groups, Sunday morning Bible studies, and personal relationships? Are members expected to be committed to aiding the spiritual growth of others? Be sure that the church you are a part of will help you grow, and allow you to help others grow, through the process of discipleship.
- A commitment to community – The local church is a place of community. Not only should members help one another grow through discipleship, they should minister to one another in community. Community is more than just gathering together for one hour a week. Community is sharing meals, ministering in times of need, or just doing something fun together. Some community activities contribute directly to spiritual growth, like a small group gathering in a home and sharing a meal before studying the Bible together. Some community activities might not be as directly “spiritual,” but they are still important. Sure, you might not get a lot of spiritual benefit from seeing a movie or doing an ornament swap with church members, but when difficult circumstances arise, look for those same church members to minister to you and your family. When commitment to community is lacking in a church, the church begins to lose depth. Church staff begin to feel like business partners and church members begin to feel less like family and more like acquaintances. Look for a church that is not just committed to teaching its members, but also to loving and caring for its members.
- Commitment to missions – A church should be committed to both local and global missions. Does the church you are considering engage in community outreach?This doesn’t necessarily have to look like knocking on doors at dinner time. Things that reach into the community, invite the community in, or show the community that the church cares are all missional. Fall festivals and Vacation Bible Schools invite the community in. Volunteering at soup kitchens or picking up trash show the community that a church cares. And all of these things should be done with a view toward extending the gospel. Also, does your church engage in global missions? Maybe the church sends mission teams overseas, but even if it doesn’t, do members give to organizations that do? Do they pray for those serving overseas and provide a path for members who wish to do the same? Does the church use its time and money to demonstrate the importance of global missions. The mission of the church is to “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 everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Look for a church that embraces its local and global mission.
The Importance of Commitment
As a final note, I want to be clear on the importance of commitment to a local body of believers. If your church is lacking in one or more of the areas named above, don’t immediately take that as an opportunity to bad-mouth your church to others or, even worse, jump ship and abandon the whole thing. Certainly, there are times when it becomes necessary to leave a church. However, I would encourage you to spend much time in prayer and to recognize the importance of faithfulness before that time comes. A church is made up of its members. If you are committed to a local church and you see a problem or a deficit, don’t take your ball and go home or pack up for the church across town. Work to create the change you want to see. Ask your staff how you can help. Volunteer in an existing ministry or work alongside your staff to create a new one where you see a need. Not enough nursery workers? Volunteer. Don’t feel like you’re being discipled? Ask a staff member what you can do to help. Wish your church did more in the community? Lead the charge.
A church is not a business to be abandoned when a better one comes along. It is a family in which we encourage, support, challenge, confront, and love one another. Again, there are certainly times when a toxic culture or theological failure is so systemic that you might just have to leave. But if you do, do so only after much thought and prayer, do so in a gracious and Christ-honoring manner, and do so only as a last resort.
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