Making The Big Decision - Finding A Church
Every good article begins with a hook. You want it to be something that grabs the reader’s attention and perks their interest. This can be an entertaining story, an illustration, or an opening statement that is challenging, shocking, offensive, or even intentionally ambiguous. Full disclosure, I’ve gone with offensive and shocking. Ready? Here it is: choosing a local church is one of the most important decisions you will ever make in your life. Go ahead and let that breathe for a minute – take your time. I know that’s probably not what your High School guidance counselor told you, but I assure you it’s true. Now, I can already hear the objections: “That’s ridiculous! There are so many more important decisions: who you choose to marry, where to go to college, what to choose for a career, public vs. private school, or where to buy a home”. I hear you, but think of it like this, because those decisions are so important, don’t you think the place where they will be grown, nurtured, and cared for through guidance, encouragement, correction, and accountability is just as important – if not more?
There are many important decisions you are going to make in life. Some will be made wisely, and others will fail miserably – that’s just how it goes. But even the best decisions can turn sour when we are left to care for them on our own, or worse yet with the help of the world. Enter the church. Friends, God has called us to experience this life within the expression of a local church not only for His glory but also for our good. The body of Christ does many things, one of which is coming alongside us to help navigate the big decisions in our lives and our lives as a whole. When we see it that way, it makes sense why the author of Hebrews writes: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
I think of the young college student who finds the local church to be their tether to God’s Word in a tremulous season of life. I think of the newly married couple that finds the local church to be the accountability they need to help keep their marriage healthy in a world filled with temptation and bad advice. I think of the hurting family who finds the local church to be a sweet comfort as it rallies around them in a time of crisis. I think of the weary widow or widower who finds the local church to be the encouragement he or she needs as they walk down unknown roads. I think of the rebellious teen, or the wayward spouse who finds the local church to be a source of loving correction in times of weakness. I think of homes, dorms and apartments that find the local church to be the spiritually edifying community that fill their gathering places throughout the week. Friends, I could go on and on, but I have a word count. The bottom line is this: Without a healthy church our marriages, our careers, our families, and our lives will find themselves at a disadvantage at best or at worst, in shambles. We need the local church.
Now, if what I am saying is true and I believe it is, then it seems the question we should be asking isn’t “How do I find a church?” rather it should be “What should I look for in a church?”. However, these are two very different questions. When we ask, “How do I find a church?” what we are really asking is: “What steps can you give me that will help me find a local church?”. Now, these steps are simple, they involve things like asking locals or friends where they attend, or Googling the word church plus the city you live in. Or if you’re looking to get specific, you might add an adjective like Baptist/Lutheran or even hip/popular before the word church in your Googling (the latter is not advised, although I can’t say I never did it). And while this will provide you with a local church, it leads to finding one based on very superficial standards, that may or may not get you into a healthy local church - and a healthy one is what we're most concerned with given the impact it will have on you and your family’s life. So, we, as savvy shoppers, must focus on the question: “What must I look for in a healthy/biblical local church?”
The last question seems like a better question, but the problem is that my eyes tend to look for and fixate on the shiniest thing in the room. Often times my eyes get distracted by exciting things that are big and new, and while that may be Adams’ fault, I do believe the world has exacerbated the problem. See, the world has conditioned us to believe bigger is better, popular is credible, more money means more impact, entertainment is essential, and our wants and desires should drive our decisions. Unfortunately, many in the church have leaned into these ideas and in turn have built churches that focus on creating Sunday morning “experiences" that woo people with entertainment, big productions, and shiny new programs built to meet all your wants and desires. Maybe you’ve been wooed by these things, maybe you’ve found yourself in an unhealthy church because they had worldly based things that appealed to your flesh as opposed to Word based things that appealed to your spirit. If you have, please know you’re not alone, many of us have made that same mistake. It is important to know there are healthy churches out there that love the Bible, love Jesus, love people and love ecclesiology. With that hope in mind I want share with you the top five things you should look for when seeking out a healthy/biblical local church. Because most of us research a church online before we show up, I have laid out this list using the typical headings you would find on most churches website.
STATEMENT OF FAITH: Read it. All of it. If the church’s statement of faith doesn’t make any absolute truth statements backed up with Scripture and instead says a lot of ambiguous stuff about love and belonging that tug at heartstrings, run. Healthy churches love Biblical doctrine and Biblical theology and are not ashamed of it even when it means being rejected by the culture. If you can’t find a statement of faith on the website (many of us are sound in theology but shaky in technology), I would encourage you to ask the pastor for a copy – this might actually make his day (we tend to get excited when guests care about the important stuff!).
SERMON SERIES: When you look at the sermons or the series do you find that the majority are based on books of the Bible or are they based on topics? While there is nothing wrong with a message or series that focuses on a topic from time to time, healthy churches preach expositional. That means they open the Bible, preach from books of the Bible, and ensure that the main point of the text is the main point of the sermon. But don’t be quick to dismiss a church for having topical series mixed in with their book series, a healthy church will still be expositional even when they're topical, but ask yourself, does it seem this church truly believes the words of 2 Timothy 3:16 that affirm all Scripture is useful for teaching and preaching?
STAFF PAGE: Who makes up the leadership of the church? Is the church pastor-centric with all the power consolidated around one man? Is it run by dozens of committees, chair-people or councils? Or is the burden of leadership shared by a plurality of pastors/elders? A healthy church models the early church and will see multiple elders serving the congregation through Biblical polity just like we see in Titus 1:5 or Acts 14:23. In fairness, not every church has this tab (again tech is not a spiritual gift we all have) and some who do will only list their paid staff, omitting the elders. So, again, this may be a in person question. (Also don’t be surprised if the pastor wants to hug you or buy you lunch after you follow up the statement of faith question with this one.)
MEMBERSHIP: Does the church have meaningful membership? Is being a member of the church more like having a gym membership or is it more like being a member of a family (1 Cor 1:10)? Do they practice church discipline (Matthew 18)? Do they practice member care (1 Peter 5:2-3)? Are their membership classes focused on explaining the expectations of membership and the importance of it, or is it more like a glorified tour of the building and an overview of the programs? Healthy churches have healthy memberships because they understand the church isn’t the building, it’s the redeemed people of God. Now, this one may be difficult to discern without visiting or speaking with someone so put it in your back pocket along with the other two to pull out after service or a visit if you can’t find it on their site.
PROGRAMS: No, I’m not referring to ‘Moms Meet-up’ ‘College Game Night’ or ‘Homeschool Jean Jumper Sewing Group’, I’m referring to programs that facilitate discipleship. Healthy churches care more about discipleship than entertainment, so when they gather throughout the week, they gather around the Word to be trained up in the Word so that they may become people of the Word that are equipped to proclaim the Word.
Now let’s say you looked into each of these, websites were searched, conversations were had and you were encouraged. You got up Sunday morning, drove to a new place and took the terrifying leap of stepping into a new building with new people (Lord willing you didn’t have to stand and identify yourself as a first time visitor). And now you’re heading home reflecting on the experience and trying not to be discouraged Chick-fil-A is closed. In this moment it’s easy to ask yourself or your family “Did I have a good time” or “Kids did you have fun?” but the problem is those aren’t the right questions. Yet that’s typically the first thing we ask ourselves or others, I know from personal experience. See, one year into planting our church I was convicted, I had once again said to another visitor on their way out “Well I hope you enjoyed yourself!” to which they smiled and said they had a great time. Wonderful right? Successful transaction! Except that’s not the goal of Sunday service for either party. Sunday morning is not meant to be a ‘good time’ (though it can be) its not meant to ‘be fun’ (again it very well may be), rather the goal of corporate worship to usher people into the presence of the Living God through the faithful preaching, teaching, reading and singing of His Word. Very different than helping you enjoy yourself or have a good time.
So, the better questions I want to encourage you to ask are:
“Was I edified?”
“Was Christ magnified?”
"Was I brought into the presence of God?”
“Was I encouraged, convicted, taught and pointed to Christ?”
Or did I simply enjoy a nice show with some nice people? Friends, church shopping is hard, but it’s a serious matter we must not take lightly. These five things will not guarantee that a church is healthy, but it will provide you the best opportunity to find a healthy, faithful, Biblical local church.
Once you have found a church, the next question you might have is: Where Should I Serve in the Church? To find out the answer to that question check out this article.
Kevin Niebuhr serves as the pastor of The Forge Church in Jefferson, Wisconsin. He also owns/operates Metroflex Gym Wisco, a parachurch ministry that exists to engage the bodybuilding and fitness community with the hope of Christ.
He is married to Samantha, and has 5 children: Marijane, Kayli, Bella, Ezekiel and Ezra.
- Decision Making, The Church