FINDING THE RIGHT CHURCH
A Guide for Those Searching for a Church Home
“One of the most difficult challenges in our day is to find a solid church—where the gospel is powerfully and clearly proclaimed every week,where the worship is reverent and substantive, and where the people have a genuine love for each other”
So says Dr. Michael Horton, co-host of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, author of Putting Amazing Back Into Grace).
Are you facing this challenge right now? What should you do?
Determine to find it
First of all, keep in mind that the Lord does intend for you to be actively involved in a local church. Really, this is not an option for Christians. On the one hand, you need the church and the “means of grace” that God has entrusted to her in order to convey the Lord Jesus Christ and his saving blessings to you. On the other hand, the church needs you and the “gifts of grace” that God has entrusted to you in order to serve and bless the brothers and sisters whom Jesus has loved and for whom he has shed his own precious blood. (For more on this, see Why Join A Church?). Bible studies and other informal affairs are very valuable, but they can never substitute for the church with its corporate worship, ministry of the Word and sacraments, and shepherding care. Moreover, the church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the place where he manifests his saving rule (Mt 16:9; 18:18), outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Determine to find a local church home.
If the Lord has guided you to live in a certain place, then you can expect that he has a church that is right for you in that area. It may not be all that you’d wish for in a church. It may not be exactly like the churches you have enjoyed in the past. But it will be the right one for you at this time. It may even be that one reason the Lord has put you where you are is to strengthen a church where it is weak.
[Indeed, believers do well to make finding a church home an important consideration before they determine to move to a particular location.]
Focus your search
Determine to go with the right motives. If your primary concern is to find a church where you can sit back and have your needs met, then you will inevitably be disappointed. But if you go to the church in order to give to the Lord your grateful worship and to share his love with the people there, then you’re on the right track.
Identify the most likely congregations. These may come from websites, personal recommendations, newspaper ads, or the yellow pages. Contact churches and talk to someone (e.g. the pastor) who has a good feel for the church and its ministries, and ask direct questions about the issues that are of concern to you—view of Scripture, view of worship, commitment to evangelism and missions, opportunities for children, etc.
Once you identify the most likely candidates, visit them. Don’t make snap judgments. Keep in mind that one visit is hardly sufficient to gain a fair impression of a church. At least three or four times will be necessary in most cases.
Approach each congregation with a spirit of open expectation. Don’t be a “nitpicker.” Try to look at each church’s particular strengths. Seek to identify with that congregation’s style of responding to God. As a World War II era song puts it, “Accentuate the positive.”
Look for marks of a healthy church
Look for “marks” or indicators of a healthy church, such as:
Is it Christ-centred? Does it focus on Jesus as God incarnate, who became flesh, lived a perfect life on our behalf, died in our place and rose again, victorious over sin and death? Does it exalt him as Saviour and Lord, the only Mediator between God and man? Does it pursue him—not only ideas about him, but him personally—as the centre of everything—our hope, our help, and our comfort? Does it do so in the context of a balanced emphasis on the Triune God—God the Father working by God the Son through God the Holy Spirit?
Is it devoted to God’s Word? Is there faithful teaching and preaching of the Word of God? Does that teaching and preaching explain and apply what the Bible itself actually says? Is there a commitment by individuals and the congregation as a whole not only to learning the Bible, but also to living it, obediently submitting to its authority?
Do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper play prominent roles in the life of the church? Are both regarded as tools that God graciously uses to bear witness to and help his people rather than as tools that we use to bear witness to our own faith and to stir ourselves up to greater faith and obedience? Are both regarded as signs that are personal but not private; signs that involve not only the individual but also the church?
Does it give priority to God-centred worship? Be wary of churches that seek to entertain. Look for a balanced exercise of the biblical elements of worship and an atmosphere of both reverence and rejoicing. Is the worship service just an empty form? Or is the “liturgy” an instrument for the active working of Jesus Christ by his Holy Spirit through his Word? Is it a genuine meeting and engaging of the Triune God with his people?
Is it nurturing? Devotion to God produces a loving, caring fellowship where people support, encourage, and edify one another through personal relationships and educational ministries.
Does it show commitment to evangelism and missions? The proclamation of the gospel message in the world is a major interest of a healthy church. It is not chiefly concerned with its own maintenance and survival.
Major in the majors
Remember that no church will perfectly exhibit all of these characteristics. Each and every congregation is at best a “jar of clay” made up of sinful human beings (see 2 Corinthians 4:7). Don’t flatter yourself by thinking that a church with shortcomings is beneath you. In God’s sight, perhaps your shortcomings are worse than theirs.
Beware of churches whose primary commitment to Christ is overshadowed by disproportionate stress on a secondary identity such as Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Bible-believing, or orthodox, or evangelistic, or charismatic, or liturgical, or whatever. These distinctives are often important, but they are not all-important. (See When Preference Becomes Precept )
Seek to differentiate between the “marks” of a true church and your own personal tastes and preferences. Such matters as style of worship, leadership personalities, organizational procedures, outreach programs, methods of nurture, types of music, and emphasis on certain doctrines—although they are important considerations—are not as important as the matters mentioned above. Remember what Alistair Begg says, “The main things are the plain things; and the plain things are the main things.” Don’t be guilty of a common mistake—“majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors”—insisting most upon what’s less important and insisting least upon what’s most important.
Remember that your choice of a church will always involve trade-offs. You will choose to tolerate certain undesirable features in order to be a part of what seems more crucial. It’s completely unrealistic to expect to find a church where you agree with everything.
I once heard Dr. Billy Graham give this wise counsel,
“If you ever find a perfect church, by all means join it.
Just remember that the moment you do, it will cease to be perfect.”
When you do find a church to join, commit yourself wholeheartedly. Don’t be tentative, thinking that if things don’t turn out according to your expectations then you will leave. Church membership is a bit like marriage—disagreements and disappointments are normal and are to be worked through in the context of the Lord’s love.
Seek to build strong relationships with the people in general and the church leadership in particular. Don’t be passive. Take the initiative if necessary. Don’t be impatient. This takes time.
Give honest encouragement to church leaders whenever you can. Pray regularly for them and let them know you’re doing so. When you observe something that needs improving, offer your help to those responsible for that area of church life.