What to Look For in a Church
The Complexity of SearchingLooking for a new church is difficult. Sometimes painful. Excruciating.Unless you're leaving your church because of a move, the process is going to hurt all the more. It is no coincidence that one of the primary images for the church in the New Testament is the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor 12:12-27). When members release themselves from a local expression of the body, it makes for a season of agony.
After being at the same church for more than twenty years, I began the arduous and discouraging search for a new church to call home. The journey spanned two summers—roughly six months. The first thing I did in my church hunting was review a church’s doctrinal statement. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Non denominational—I looked at every protestant church website within an hour’s drive from my home and read their doctrinal statements. Some churches didn’t even bother to post one on their website. After reading the statements and marking off some from the list, I emailed the pastor with further questions.
The next stop in the process was meeting the pastor and talking about family, theology, ministry and relationship with Christ. After that, I would attend the church. Sometimes a pastor didn’t respond to my email and we didn't meet, but I attended the church anyway. I wanted to visit as many churches as possible. Some stereotypes I had of churches and denominations were warranted, and as I experienced these churches myself, I saw that some were not. It was a season of learning and growth for me.
Whether the pastor wears a tie or not, the church has pews or not, Bible translation, and worship style (traditional or contemporary) should not be the deciding factors in finding a church. Below are the principles that guided me in my church hunting. They provided a framework for me in my searching.
Doctrine is word referring to Christian teaching. This term is tied to theology. Individual sections of theology are usually called doctrines. For more explanation concerning theology you can read an overview here.
What a church believes theologically is a monumental consideration. Maybe it is even the consideration. It is no secondary issue. When a church doesn’t even post their doctrinal statement that says something about them. A church’s doctrine is its foundation. What they believe about God, His Word, and His people will effect every area of their practice. Everything is determined by beliefs.
Having been in the same place for over two decades, I was very comfortable in church. I was accustomed to seeing the same people usually three times a week if not more. Because I attended the church’s Christian school, I saw some people six out of seven days a week. That all changed when I began searching for a new church. It’s hard to articulate the vulnerability I felt when I walked into a building entirely foreign to me filled with people I didn't know.
For a visitor, someone in the church making a real effort to meet them and get to know them makes all the difference. Often, a person’s expression of love in conversation or a pastor’s gentle, welcoming hug means more to people than what is being said in the pulpit. Lived life is always a stronger testimony than spoken word.
Is the pastor welcoming or is he aloof? The pastor sets the tone and usually the church will imitate its pastor. If the pastor is not meeting people, taking them to lunch, or having people in his home it is likely that the congregation will follow that example. People stay in churches because of people. Christian community drenched in love is what Jesus attributes to powerful witness—real identification with Him (Jn. 13:25). The community of Christ, if loving, is essential to a church’s health and should be something you're looking for.
Part of shepherding is guiding the sheep. A pastor should be leading his congregation towards a destination or a goal. A church that has no defined purpose and no objectives for mission will plateau before slowly withering away.
A church should have a vision for its community. If a pastor or church body complains about their place of service or makes degrading remarks about its local people and culture, serious doubt about that church’s missional heart is warranted. We’re supposed to reach our community(Mt. 28:18-20) not ridicule it. Churches should have a missional mindset, actively seeking ways to share the Gospel and make life long disciples of Jesus.
At Desert Heights our mission statement is “Desert Heights Church exists to reach people with the life giving message of Jesus that they might become fully devoted followers of Christ.” Clear. Succinct. Missional. It nicely communicates our purpose as a local expression of Christ’s body. The mission statement is on the wall on the lobby next to the entrance and we recite it nearly every week during the worship service. It is essential to remind the church why we do what we do.
A church that disciplines its unrepentant members is a church that takes the Bible seriously even if it is extremely uncomfortable. It speaks volumes about their integrity and their view of Scripture’s authority. They are willing to do the unpopular because that's what the Bible commands. Corporate discipline is a mandate implemented by Jesus Himself:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)This concept of discipline is carried even further by Paul. He further describes incidents calling for discipline and its process throughout his letters: 1 Corinthians 5:1-11; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Tit. 3:9-11. A church that disciplines its members who are living in blatant sin and refusing to repent is a healthy church. Discipline is not comfortable or even desirable, but it is thoroughly biblical. It should be the practice of the church.
Plurality of Leadership
Although a case can be made for a pastor-deacon governmental structure, I believe plurality of leadership found in elders is most faithful to the biblical texts. The early church church pattern definitely had a plurality of leadership (Acts 14:23, 20:17). Paul instructed Titus to appoint multiple elders in Crete (Tit. 1:5). The writer of Hebrews instructed his readers to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17). After surveying the biblical data, theologian Wayne Grudem writes1:
Two significant conclusions may be drawn from this survey of the New Testament evidence. First, no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders "in every church" (Acts 14:23) and "in every town" (Titus 1:15). Second, we do not see a diversity of forms of government in the New Testament church, but a unified and consistent pattern in every church had elders governing it and keeping watch over it (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2-3).
Feeding the flock through preaching, practicing care, and managing business are responsibilities that are just too much for one person. A one man show pastor is an exhausted pastor. Plurality of leadership allows for the elder/s teaching the time necessary to devote to himself/themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Plurality of leadership safeguards the congregation from one man’s weaknesses because it is filtered through the grid of plurality. It allows for variation of opinion in the shepherding of the local body. Plurality of leadership allows for gifted men in the church to exercise their corporate gifts to the body—teaching and preaching among them. When one man teaches exclusively, it robs gifted men of their opportunity to edify the body through their gifts. Eldership is both biblical and practical.
Mark Dever recollects, “Probably the single most useful thing for me in my pastoral ministry has been the recognition of a group of men in our church as elders. Knowing that these are men that the congregation has recognized as gifted and godly has helped me immensely in my pastoral work. We meet and pray and talk over matters and, by so doing, they greatly supplement my wisdom. So my own experience attests to the usefulness of following the New Testament practice of having, where possible, more elders in a local church than simply a lone pastor—and of their being people rooted in the congregation, not simply church staff hired from outside.”2
We express excitement, or praise, in what are are passionate about. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, even through twenty years of mediocrity. I do ridiculous things sometimes, like proudly donning a ginormous foam Cowboys hat, or making sure the tennis shoes I buy are silver and blue, or throwing a chair when we lose a close game. When I was at Cowboys Stadium, I joined the chorus of nearly a hundred thousand people screaming out, cheering for our team. Why? Because I love the Dallas Cowboys and I’m passionate about them.
I was raised in a tradition that is solemn in worship—not in intent, but in practice. The songs were written predominantly in the 1800s up to the 1950s. They were folksy lyrics, with folksy tunes from another generation. It made it difficult to worship with such distracting, foreign sound. People should be excited in worship. That doesn’t have to mean hand raising, or clapping. People are all different and express themselves differently. In worship, there should be some expression of adoration and praise to God. When you visit a church and a congregation is excited about their God, that is a wonderful thing.
One of the most discouraging things I discovered while visiting was the prevailing lack of serious, careful explanation of biblical passages. I heard an entire sermon about being God's friend from James 2:23. The entire surrounding context of works proving genuine faith was completely ignored. I was shocked. Sustained, solid exposition of Scripture was replaced by superficial life coaching. Missing was the power of God’s Word.
The danger of topical preaching is that both the topic and proof texts are chosen by the pastor. The messages, then, will reflect his strengths (what he’s passionate about) but it will also showcase his weaknesses (soapboxes and oversights). While topical preaching can be done well and it is sometimes necessary, it shouldn’t be the normal practice of a church. It will lead to a malnourished congregation.
Expository preaching should be the homiletical philosophy implemented in the regular, weekly unfolding of a text or book. What amazing riches are gleaned in sermons that begin at the beginning of a book and weekly unpacks the text word by word, paragraph by paragraph! This kind of preaching demonstrates to the congregation that the Bible is a cohesive whole. It is not all like Proverbs 10-29 where mostly unconnected verses are placed next to each other. In expository preaching the pastor submits himself to the lordship of Christ. He is only a messenger delivering the herald of the King. The congregation needs this kind of meaty preaching.
A Place to Serve
Finally, when considering a church and weighing all of the different factors above, it is essential not to approach the situation with a consumer mentality. Churches are not places to only take, but to give as well. Both giving and taking are involved in body relationship. In worship—in song and sermon—we give God praise and eat the rich feast doing so provides. We give and we take. The two are not mutually exclusive. While looking for a church you should be looking for a place to serve.
1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 913.
2 Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013),241-242.