OK, so I realize that this is a bit of a targeted issue, but it is widely applicable. The core of the issue is simply,
How should we choose a church?
First of all, let me point out the glorious and remarkable reality that we, in the west, live in a unique time historically and even in the world today in that we have an overwhelming abundance of churches from which to choose. Small town USA has a church on every corner – sometimes more – and even big city USA, even though some would have us believe are abandoning the faith, are also marked by churches every few blocks. I live in Denver Colorado, a notoriously “unchurched” city, and a Google search alone returns pages upon pages of churches that are big enough to have websites. In my four mile commute to work every day, I pass six churches.
But that is another topic for another day.
So, when you live in a city that has thousands of churches, when there are many in your neighborhood community, and when there are niche churches of all types that cater to age, demographic, race, interests, secondary and tertiary doctrines, the task of finding a church can be overwhelming. And quite frankly, we as believers have terrible decision-making skills on the topic. So how should we choose a church?
Step #1: Pray. Pray, pray, pray. Scripture teaches us to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5.17). When you are looking for a community amongst whom you will worship God, with whom you desire to serve God, and from whom you want to learn and grow in your relationship with God, should it not be common sense that we begin the search by asking God for His direction and will? God’s will is our sanctification:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification…”
– 1 Thess 4.3
It will often be that we grow, that we become more holy, that we are sanctified when we are outside of our comfort zones and when we walk in faith and not by sight. If we go out looking for a church that is comfortable and that makes us happy, we might be limiting God in the things that He has for us to do and the things which He wants to teach us. Ask God where He wants you to go to church. And follow Him. He might open unfathomable doors.
Step #2: Get a doctrinal statement. Most churches are denominationally affiliated and will be able to give you a comprehensive outline of what they believe, point by point. If the church is not affiliated, and even some who are affiliated, more often than not the elders will have drafted a statement of belief. This is extremely important, and should be your first consideration after prayer. If the church cannot verbalize to you, both in writing and in conversation, what they believe – then you are placing yourself in an extremely dangerous situation. If there is no defined doctrine, then there is no accountability for any teacher, for any Sunday School worker instructing your children, for missionaries on the field, or even for the pastoral staff. This is how churches are led astray, form rifts, split, and abandon the faith. If half of the church believes that you have to be baptized to be saved, and the other half believes that baptism is just a symbol, what do you tell the person who just came to faith last week? If half of your church believes that God is sovereign over evil and the other half believes that God is only reactionary and “fixes” bad things to make good come out of them, how will you walk through a crisis together? If some believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation and others believe that there could be many roads to salvation, how can you reach out to your community?
You must agree on the foundational doctrines of the faith. If you do not yet know what you believe, then get a handful of doctrinal statements and read the Scriptures that they quote, line them up against other churches, pray, seek counsel, get some books, invest some time and grow!
When you get a doctrinal statement, examine it and determine if this is a statement to which you can submit. Chances are high that there might be a secondary or tertiary doctrines over which you might disagree, but one that is not worth causing a fuss over. For instance, Southern Baptists are notoriously divided over the topic of the rapture: Will it happen before the tribulation or after? This is not a primary doctrine because it does not have any bearing on salvation or how the church functions, and while it can be fun to discuss and consider, it does not impact how we minister to the lost or how we function as a body. I believe that the rapture will come after the tribulation, but I have joyfully set under pastors who believe the opposite.
We are commanded to submit to our leaders in the Church, and they are given authority over us and will give an account to God for our souls, our obedience, and our maturity. We get to choose them, but they do have a profound Spiritual authority over us once we join the church.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
– Heb 13.17
Step 3: Examine the fruit of the Church. God has given us one primary command: to make disciples of all the nations (Matt 28.28-10). Is this church making disciples? Are they reaching out? Are people coming to faith? (You can observe this by noting if there are any baptisms happening.) Are people learning the Scriptures? How to pray? Growing closer to God? Learning to obey and holding one another accountable? Is the Sunday service intentionally praising and honoring God?
Step 4: Ask God if this is where He wants you. And now we start getting into the nitty gritty. Let me tell you a brief overview of my story. I started playing the piano and singing in choirs when I was little tiny. I put in the hours, I loved it. When I was in the eight grade my church formed a youth band and I was the pianist/keyboardist. I had to learn to play by ear and by chord charts. The band played weekly for the youth and quickly began playing for “big church” as well. In college I studied performance piano, played the piano and sang for the weekly Campus Crusade meetings and also for my church. Then I moved to Louisville, KY to go to seminary. There are two realities that became abundantly clear when I began looking for a church in this new city: 1) pianists are a dime a dozen, and 2) there are a lot of good churches out there. I was tempted to look for a church that needed a pianist, because I play the piano. That’s what I do. I also had taught small groups, children’s Sunday School, helped with youth, led mission trips, and all that jazz, but I play the piano. That was my primary identifier.
Here’s the deal. God has given us all gifts and unique abilities to serve Him. Some people play instruments, some people cook food, some people teach, and some people run Vacation Bible School. The avenues for ministry and serving God are countless. But when you take your “Spiritual gift test” and put yourself in a silo with the attitude, “This is what I do”, then you limit yourself, you quench the Holy Spirit, you get in a rut and have an inward focus that will not (and can not) grow. God might want to use you to play the piano, but He might also want to use you to greet and welcome new comers. He might want to push you and have you teach. He might want to get you way out of your comfort zone and send you as a missionary! Many missionaries do not get to go to church. And when they plant a healthy church, nationals are preaching and playing the piano, not the missionary!
So when you are considering a church, do not say to yourself, “This is what I do, and if I cannot do it here, then I’m out”.
Consider this, also, that with any leadership position, a healthy and wise church will take the time to vet would-be leaders to make sure that they are people who should be in a position of authority and leadership. I knew a church that would pay non-believers to play on the music team. This is a travesty and should not be. Sunday music is first and only about worshiping God. We should bring our absolute best to lay on the altar of worship, which means we should practice and come with skilled musicianship. But we do not sacrifice the heart for quality of sound. People who are on the stage are positioned there to lead the congregation in musical praise to God. If those people are not praising God, then they most likely will not lead others to praise God. And if those people do not even know God, then they cannot lead others to praise God. If a musician is playing for his own glory, we – as a Church – should never allow them on stage.
And the music leader at a church, along with the senior pastor and elders, will need time to get to know you and examine your heart in your desire to play an instrument (or teach a Sunday School, or go on a mission trip, or whatever). There is a mutual onus here: You must test the church and its leadership to examine their heart and commitment to God, to worship, to making disciples, and they must test yours.
Step 5: Die to yourself. While there are many amazing benefits that we will reap in joining and becoming active in a Church, it is not ultimately about me or you. It is about glorifying God and making disciples. Part of discipleship (well, most of discipleship) is training people up. If you play the piano (or teach Sunday School, or lead the prayer committee), you do best to train up others to take your place. A disciple-maker works himself out of a job. He trains people who will go out and train others (2 Tim 2.2). Now, this is not as easily applied to musicians as to most other places of service within the church, but the heart is one of humility. Is there someone else who would like to play the piano? Then let them. Take turns. Whatever. If you have to play the piano (or whatever your niche is), then you are not worshiping God. You are worshiping yourself.
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
– Phil 2.3-4
Step 6: Commit. Once you are confident that the Lord has led you to a church, then commit. Give it your all. There will be difficult seasons, times of Spiritual drought, and times of discouragement. And this is where we, as Americans, crash and fail. The minute someone hurts our feelings or we do not like something the preacher said, then we go out to find ourselves a new church. If we do not submit ourselves to leadership, then we will not grow. Perseverance through the difficult times is what proves us as believers! Press in, and “be the change that you want to see”.