In the mobile society in which we live, a phrase most of us have heard–if not used–is, “church shopping”. Many have had the experience of moving into a new area and trying to find a new church. As we continue in our transition (see the last post) Donna and I have experienced this–twice–for the first time in over 40 years. Those of us in vocational ministry don’t shop for churches–we are part of the church we serve. Part of our decision whether to serve a specific congregation is whether this is a church we can truly be part of. When we left our congregation on January 1 we had to find a new church with whom to worship, share fellowship and hopefully serve–a church I would not be serving as a staff member. We did that within a few months. Then, just as we were beginning to feel part of this church, we made the decision to move to Texas, and we began the process again.
For over 40 years I have seen people go through this process–and sometimes the process has crushed them. Some have visited churches I have served telling me they have been “church shopping” for months–even years. Unfortunately, most of them have no idea what they are doing. They just go from place to place looking for the perfect church, or a church they will “feel good” about (they often find the latter–and often leave it as soon as the feeling changes).
For years I have offered some basic principles to those who are looking for a new church (even if it is in the same area). I have seen others successfully apply these principles, and now we have had the opportunity to put them in practice as well. They are founded on the assumption that THERE IS NO PERFECT CONGREGATION (forgive the yelling, but this is too important to miss)! There are problems in all churches because the Church is made up of sinners–you and me. So, leaving behind the hope of finding that “perfect church”, here are a few principles we have found work.
1. Know what beliefs and values are most important to you, and find out which churches hold to those beliefs and values. I have been amazed when people leave our congregation and join another with radically different beliefs. I have asked many why they decided to do this, and in almost every case I have been told they didn’t even realize what this church believes! They think that because they sing the same songs, have friends who attend services, and often use similar catch-phrases they are all the same. The fact is that many of the differences among congregations exist because they believe very different things–frequently beliefs that are not only important but contradictory. In some cases, “churches” even believe things that, Biblically, mean they are not a church (body of Christians) at all.
A disciple of Jesus believes. That isn’t just an academic exercise, but it does include knowing the basics of their faith. We need to know what we believe about the Bible, the church, salvation–and most importantly, about Jesus Himself. If we don’t know and understand these things, we are at best infants and in danger of being deceived by false teachers. Once we know what we believe, we begin looking for a new church by asking what they believe about these same things. If we are not in basic agreement on these–or if they are not willing to tell you what they believe, we should not try to be part of that church. (NOTE: Don’t just look for “sound bytes” when asking what someone believes–ask where in scripture they find this teaching. I have never served a church that wasn’t “non creedal”, meaning we refuse to take some phrase and substitute it for the scripture. If asked, “what do you believe about salvation”, our answer was “we believe what the Bible says”. However, then we had to be willing to discuss those passages with the person questioning so that they could be sure what we were teaching.)
2. Know what practices and ministries are most important to you and your family. Each congregation has a different personality, and this often means different ministries. If a family has small children, but there is no children’s ministry in the church, it is probably not a good fit. If you believe it is extremely important to observe communion on a weekly basis, find out how often this new congregation observes communion and why. If you believe strongly in the priesthood of all believers, be sure this congregation doesn’t place the Senior Minister, or pastoral staff, on a pedestal, supporting his or their ministry rather than the ministry of the church.
3. Finally–and I believe this should be in the third place–after visiting the church a few times, ask if it is a “fit” for you in personal ways. These aren’t necessarily essential, but if a congregation meets the criteria above, ask whether you feel drawn to personally worship by the style of the worship service, if you feel a personal “fit” with the others in the congregation; if it would be easyfor you to be involved in service; even if it is convenient geographically. None of these should overshadow the church’s beliefs, but if more than one church shares your core beliefs, there is nothing wrong with finding as close a “match” as possible.
4. Choose the best fit, beginning with shared beliefs, and become part of the solution instead of the problem. It is too easy to join a new church and gripe about what they don’t have or do. Instead, become part of the church and begin to make positive changes yourself. As you do, you may be surprised how quickly you find yourself identifying with this new congregation as your church home.
There are many congregations in most towns and areas of the U.S. today. Not all of them are Christian. Not all of them teach faithfully. They are NOT all the same. But when we genuinely want to be faithful to the Lord and connected to His body, He will lead us to a congregation we can be part of as we all grow in our faithfulness to the Lord.
Know Jesus and Be Faithful.