Priorities in Choosing a Church

Priorities in Choosing a Church

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When I was in my mid-30s, I moved to a new city and set out to find a church to join. Within my denomination, there were three or four within reasonable driving range, with a couple more within city limits. I decided to visit them all. I had an idea in mind going in: If the most important things were roughly equal, I'd have preferred a larger church simply because that's where I was most likely to find single women. (It's honesty time: How many of the rest of you hunt for prospective mates by checking the photos in a church's membership directory first chance you get? Let's see a show of hands. Ah, just as I thought.)

But I soon found that the most important things weren't roughly equal. The largest church turned out to be the weakest on matters of teaching and doctrine, focusing more on emotionalism and sentimentality. The pastor's entire sermon was 10 minutes on how he felt when he was a kid and his dog died. It was very moving, but it wasn't remotely scriptural. Then, at the very end, he tacked on a couple sentences where he said that Jesus would dry all our tears in heaven. That was it. And I thought: Where's the Gospel? Where's the Law? Where's anything biblical at all?

The smallest church, by contrast, turned out to be the strongest in its teachings, and its pastor was the boldest in his preaching, showing a willingness to speak biblical truths that many people would shun as "divisive." There were less than 100 active members and virtually no single women in my age range, but after my first visit, I pretty much knew I'd found home. Though I visited a couple other churches after that, it was no contest. I never regretted joining that little church for all the years I lived there. I came away with a much deeper understanding of — and love for — God's Word than I'd had going in.

Whenever you're looking for a church, the No. 1 consideration by far is this: Is Christ preached and taught rightly, in all of His truth? That may seem obvious, but it's so easy to slip into giving other things priority. Whether I like the pastor's personality or find his preaching style dynamic enough. Whether the people are the sort I'd like to know — the right age range, the right education level, the right professional status. Whether they have programs tailored to people like me — say, a singles group. Whether I have friends there. Whether there's someone there I find attractive. Like, really, really attractive.

And then the voices in your head start up. OK, the scriptural teaching in this church has problems. But hey, I already know my Bible the main parts, anyway. I don't really need the church to keep telling me what it says; I don't need the church to guide me. I can read on my own. I'll do fine. Meanwhile, there are these other things I really like about this church. And I'm sorry, but I just can't find those things in that other church with the strong, solid biblical teaching. So right now, at this time in my life ...

If you find yourself going there — well, just don't go there.

That's not to say that nothing besides the church's Christ-focus can factor into your decision. If you're a parent, for example, it's OK to consider what the church has to offer children. And if you're single, it's OK to consider whether you might find a mate there. Just make sure that the most important things are there first. And step one is to keep them first in your own mind, too.

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  • --Matt, you already know this, but it's worth noting for your readership that "speaking biblical truth" and "divisive" are not always synonomous. You shouldn't choose a church that is needlessly offensive and covers its sins by saying "the gospel is offensive" simply because it is controversial.

    A wise sunday school teacher once told me, *always* choose your church based on the quality of the teaching. I would say, perhaps, once you have kids you should also condier the quality of the teaching THEY recieve as well, perhaps at a higher level than your own. But everything else should be secondary, the music, the programs, the small groups -- should all take a backseat to sound theology and good teaching.

    One other thing I look for in a church is the amount of their community and world investment, coupled with their cooperation with other churches. I do not want to attend a church that thinks that their congregation is the only way to worship, I want to attend somewhere that thanks and blesses God for the other churches doing his work in their regional area. One of the most encouraging things I can hear from a potential pastor is "our church might not be the church for you, but if you let us, we will help you find the one that is."

  • --Excellent. I would add that you should also look at whether Christ is preached and taught rightly in the songs that they sing. Musical styles aside, there's a marked difference between, "We are a generation rising up (oh oh oh!)/You are a God who's filled with love (oh oh oh!)/We're moving forward, won't turn back around (No, no, no!)/Hear our anthem rising with this sound (whoa, whoa, whoa!)" and a worship song that actually has lyrics with any substance.

    The actual style of music really comes down to personal taste, but a church where the leadership is concerned with proclaiming the Gospel is going to make sure that the songs the worship leader chooses accomplish that mission as well and aren't just catchy non-words and lazy songwriting disguised by repetition and a strong on-stage performance.

  • --G&B: Come on now, I like Hillsong as much as the next person, but I will say I do like an old hymn every now and then. The ones that get me though are the songs about how "Jesus is all I need, I literally need nothing else, and I won't move without him. at all. ever." eeeeeeeeeeehh...

  • --I think what frustrates me with so many modern worship songs is that they come across like the songwriters put no effort into coming up with them. If I found out tomorrow that a popular worship song had been written by pulling Christian-y sounding lines from a hat, I don't think I would be that surprised. I wrote that chorus in less than 30 seconds, and if I introduced it at a national conference, I'd probably sell 100,000 singles on iTunes before I got home.

    I guarantee that Robert Robinson spent a lot more than 30 seconds per verse on, "Come Thou Fount," back in 1757, but I'm also sure that Jordan Kauflin put more than 30 seconds of effort in on, "All I Have is Christ," nearly 250 years later. It's not so much an issue of a song's age to me as it is an issue of feeling like the parts about God are often phoned in.

  • --Personally, I don't judge a church by the quality of the preacher's sermons - it just puts too much pressure and expectations on the minister, and that is just too much pressure on only one person. The litmus test for me is how warm and welcoming people are - if they seem down to earth and real, or if they are just going through the motions of saying "hi" because the pastor paused in the worship service to tell them to shake hands with everybody. John 13:35 is the test. I'm single (never married) in my 40s, so I have had many experiences of receiving the "cold shoulder" when I visit various churches around town. Many of the most conservative denominations are also very condescending to unmarried women, which I don't find a particularly "loving" attitude (again, see John 13:35). At this time, I consider myself a de-churched, unaffiliated (not even a small group) Methodist. When I was younger, I had a longer checklist of what I wanted from a church - in terms of music, worship style, activities, etc. etc. Now, I just fantasize about belonging to a warm group of friendly people, where I can experience being a round peg in a round hole, instead of a square peg in a round hole (which is very alienating). I'm less worried about committing myself to a particular church than I used to be. I now feel it's okay to experience involvement in a local church on a more visceral level. Throughout Christian history, the fundamentals are the same - they're called the sacraments. Tithing and communion. I don't always take communion at the same church every time, but I did pick one church to give my tithe to, even if I am not in any other way affiliated with that church. I view "affiliation" as a spectrum of activities, of which the most important, fundamental activities are the sacraments. If I don't fit in with the small group scene, it's not a big deal, since that's not a sacrament anyway. If I can't make it to church services on Sundays due to my work schedule, I just watch the recorded service on tv or the internet, and conduct a kind of modified "shabbat" style spa day for myself, at home. I'm not Jewish, culturally or otherwise, but I think the Jewish-style sabbath observances can be helpful for Christians who are unaffiliated or can't find a church home that feels like "home." (Lauren Winner's book "Mudhouse Sabbath" is a good place to start.) I have been told by others I should just keep going to church and be more involved, whether it feels right or not, but I'm opposed to the idea of expecting someone to force themselves into a community that doesn't welcome them. Don't force yourself to be a square peg in a round hold. If going to church is more painful than staying home, just explore ways to participate in more visceral levels in multiple churches until one of them starts acting like they want you. (It's not unlike "circular dating"!)  It is really painful to keep knocking on the door of a church family that keeps on cold-shouldering you, making you feel like the unpopular girl without a date to the prom. I participate in community, but in ways that show the local churches that I'm open to the idea of being approached, but I'm not willing to do the pursuing. That's the welcoming committee's job, not mine.

  • --I have been on that journey since leaving my little church.  i was looking for a bible teaching church closer to my new home and after trying all different sizes and kinds, protestant and non denominational, i came back to my own little church.  The teacher had changed, and although we don't have a pastor, we are being fed the Word.  Our worship is from the heat, not all jazzed up.  The women are my sisters in Christ.  I have to drive 25 minutes to get there but it is so worth it.

  • --Do they value kids and does the children's department have good lessons and activities.  I have fond memories growing up in church which is why I probably stayed.  Trying to do the same for my daughter and soon to be son

  • --" once you have kids you should also condier the quality of the teaching THEY recieve as well, perhaps at a higher level than your own. "

    A lot of our church left after the youth pastor left (he was a volunteer) and the youth group was pretty much disbanded.  It has taken 3 years to get a youth group going again, so I can't blame the families that left.  

  • --G&B: "I wrote that chorus in less than 30 seconds, and if I introduced it at a national conference, I'd probably sell 100,000 singles on iTunes before I got home."

    Hahaha, I thought you were quoting an actual song. I think that proves your point. Look up Blimey Cow worship song on Youtube for another particularly brilliant parody, if you haven't already seen it... (My favourite part is "I once was lost but now I see". :)

  • --There's a blog/personal webpage someone made awhile ago that I like to revisit every now and than... I find it refreshing.  It separates and identifies the extra-Biblical traditions and practices in today's various Churches.(some are good, some aren't)   This statement stuck with me the most and I think it's a good principle to use in deciding where to attend:

    "If your church decided to abandon all entertainment and operate in a warehouse with a wooden podium and a singe microphone, if it cut out all the amenities, the kids programs, the refreshments, the sound systems, the jumbo-trons, all the fancy bands and the notebooks/paraphernalia, if it did all this would you still attend this church?"

  • --@JosieJo, maybe the real problem here is that I'm missing my calling as a Christian songwriter. Haha.

  • --Great article, Matt!  I’m really enjoying this entire series on the church.  I made a similar mistake regarding choosing churches.  A few years ago, I left my somewhat small church….which was solid in doctrine, had outstanding expository preaching, caring pastor and shepherds, awesome deacons, encouraging ladies fellowships, tons of people who knew and loved me…..because there were no singles my age.  Well, really, no marry-able single men my age.  That’s what I was looking for.

    I went to the local megachurch for six months and was absolutely miserable the entire time I was gone.  Sure, there were lots of handsome single men there but they all had such a shallow view of Christianity I didn’t find them attractive for long.  I finally went back to the church I absolutely love and, like you, I have no regrets.

    No ring, but no regrets.  

  • -- I think I'm a bit of an anomaly in the Boundless community.  As of tomorrow, I've been a member of my church for 20 years!  My family joined when I was 13 after moving to a new city, and I've never transferred membership (I left only for the 4 years I was in college, and jumped back into my home church upon return).  I'm not saying that everyone should stay at their home church forever, because there are good reasons to leave a church, but there are also such sweet blessings in knowing my church family and being known.  We are truly family, even though I don't "fit" the norm as a 33-year-old, never-married single.  I'm excited for the work Boundless is doing in promoting commitment among our generation, in many areas of life, because it's truly wonderful to be attached...including attachment to a loving church community.  :)

  • -- ruis2002

    "Personally, I don't judge a church by the quality of the preacher's sermons - it just puts too much pressure and expectations on the minister, and that is just too much pressure on only one person. The litmus test for me is how warm and welcoming people are - if they seem down to earth and real, or if they are just going through the motions of saying "hi" because the pastor paused in the worship service to tell them to shake hands with everybody."

    I think this litmus test is how a lot of people get sucked into cults.

    "Throughout Christian history, the fundamentals are the same - they're called the sacraments. Tithing and communion. "

    I'd love to know where you heard that tithing is a sacrament. The two main sacraments have always been baptism and communion/Eucharist. Tithing isn't even mentioned in the Didache.

    G&B: Maybe the greater calling is that you haven't been called to be a Christian songwriter. ;)

    On the topic of music, though, one of the things I love about my church is the great appreciation for good art. There's a huge artists group with everyone from singers to painters to knitters to musicians; members write songs for use in worship, or paint pictures for use during the liturgical seasons. Right now I'm trying to spearhead a project to get the artists group to do the Stations of the Cross. The more I work with them, the more I'm starting to see that people who appreciate good art (and don't put up with bad art,) also don't have a lot of patience for bad teaching, bad doctrine, etc. I'm still not entirely certain why the two should go together, but I really like it, and I admire them for it.

  • --@ G&B: I would add that you should also look at whether Christ is preached and taught rightly in the songs that they sing."

    Totally. Truthful biblical preaching is always first, but truthful biblical declaration in music should also be in there too. And yes, i agree about alot of modern worship music, especially what's on the radio. i spend most of my driving time alternating between stations and rolling my eyes  (CD player is broken in my car, which is not helpful). I love me some Jeremy Camp and some others who actually have some substance, but the cheesy fluffy ones get to me pretty quickly, LOL. At the same time, there are some pretty cheesy hymns out there too--believe me, i had to sing them Every.Single.Sunday. when i was in my late teens at the church I was in. As I stood contemplating which would assure quicker release from my suffering, banging my head on the pew or jumping through the closest glass window. And i do love hymns dearly, I'm not all knocking them. just saying both styles have their wonderful deeply truthful songs, and then their float-away-on-the--nice-pink-puffy-cloud-songs.

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