Not long ago Micah and I had a conversation with a young couple (about our age) who were having trouble deciding on a church to join. Their problems had to do partly with doctrine and partly with people, which is not uncommon. Since so many Christians find themselves in this situation, I'm offering some advice to anyone who may need help picking a church. I should preface this by saying that I think Christians should only change churches when they move to a new community, when their current church ceases to preach the gospel, or in a circumstance so extreme that they would not be ashamed to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and explain why they left. Having said that, here are ten things to consider when you must decide where to join:
1. Give up your dream of a perfect church with perfect people and decide that you will commit to a local church no matter what. Churches are made up of real people, and those people do not
usually end up being everything you want them to be. They get things wrong, they plan bad programs, they make hurtful comments, and they get on your nerves. It is God's desire that you look past these things, love the people as Christ loves them, and make a commitment for the long term. Church seekers who consider their options, throw their hands up in the air, and decide to "have church" at home with their families on Sundays are in blatant disobedience to Christ. He commanded us to love one another, and the local church is primary setting for that love. Moreover, 1 John 2:19 calls into question whether someone who abandons the church can be considered a Christian at all. Before you make up your mind on a particular church, you must make up your mind that you will make a long-term commitment to a church with flaws.
2. Find a church that preaches the true gospel. This is not only important but is the difference between joining a true church or a false church. Paul alerted the churches of Galatia in the first century that false gospels had begun to spread, and today there are more than ever before. The true gospel, he said, is the message that eternal justification comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. You need to join a church that preaches the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the literal bodily resurrection of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, and that salvation is by faith alone--not by good works, political action, or anything else. This is a non-negotiable.
3. Make sure the practices of the church accord with your view of God's commands in Scripture. There are some differences of opinion among true, gospel-proclaiming churches about how church should be done, which is why most denominations exist. For example, you cannot have a church that both baptizes babies and does not baptize babies. Personally, I think it would be most obedient to God for every Christian to be part of a church whose practices were Baptist in form, even if the word "Baptist" is not on the sign. You need to search the Scriptures for yourself and decide what you think about baptism, the Lord's Supper, charismatic gifts, and church government, then join a church whose views match yours. In some very rare situations a Christian might live in an area where the only church that preaches the true gospel is one that has the wrong view on baptism or another church practice. Only in this extreme circumstance would I suggest that someone is right to join such a church.
4. Evaluate your beliefs on other issues and be a little flexible. All issues of Christian doctrine are important. Some ought to be make-or-break issues when finding a church (like points 2 and 3), but some should not. If you feel strongly about some particular issue, then it is best to find a church whose views match yours. However, if you have strong opinions about more than two or three of these issues, then you will probably never find a church that matches all of your views. If that describes you, then you need to be a little flexible, understand that you can still have fellowship with Christians who disagree on secondary matters, and join a church. I once knew a family who hadn't attended church together in a decade because there were no churches in their community that only used the King James Version of the Bible. You are just as foolish if your views on election, dispensationalism, or eschatology prevent you from finding a church home.
5. Don't be an elitist. Way, way too many people compromise their beliefs so that they can join a church that's more sophisticated than their parents' church. If this is you, you need to turn off the computer, get on your knees, and repent immediately. Often the churches that are most faithful to God are the ones with the least educated people and the most reinforcements of Christian stereotypes. In fact, God planned it that way. Here is how Paul explained it to the church in Corinth: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him."
6. Pay attention to the sincerity of the people. Many Christians make the mistake of joining a church based on how similar they are to the people in that church. It's much better to consider how sincerely the people desire to do the will of God. This will be evidenced in their friendliness, their attitude toward evangelism and missions, their attentiveness during worship services, how well they treat their pastor and other staff, and their conversations. The people may not be smart, attractive, wealthy, young, or the same race as you, but none of those things matters much if they are sincerely seeking the Lord. Often a good indicator of a church's faithfulness and sincerity is the number of new converts who are there, but this is not always the case.
7. Join a church where the pastor preaches the Bible. Notice that I didn't say "from the Bible". There is a big difference between getting a steady diet of God's Word and getting a steady diet of the pastor's opinions with Bible verses thrown in. Every preacher has to do a sermon on a topic every once in a while, but constant topical sermons demonstrate a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of God's Word.
8. Consider how you could serve the church. Jesus said that he came not to be served but to serve. We are to do the same.
9. Examine the church's programs and budget. I put this point low on the list on purpose, but it's still something to consider. Looking at the church's programs helps you figure out how you can serve, what kinds of opportunities are available, what your children will be doing (even if you don't have them yet), and how busy you will be. The budget shows you where the church's priorities are. If maintenance costs on the pipe organ exceed missions giving, or if the pastor can barely survive on his salary while the church builds a gym, something may be wrong.
10. Pray a lot, go back and read the first three points, and make up your mind. Find a church that proclaims the truth and just join it. Don't be a pansy.