Looking for a church can be quite challenging. Even in a city like Boston, there are dozens of churches in the city that span a wide range of beliefs. How do you decide? How do you know which church to go to?
Common responses are to attend a Sunday gathering, check out a small group, or perhaps ask friends and people close to you. All of these are good and valid things to do, and we certainly recommend that you do them.
There also might be a list of things you are looking for: good preaching, good music, music of a certain type, a certain amount of solemnity or expression during worship...perhaps it’s the length of the service or the times it meets. Perhaps it’s whether the church has an excellent children’s ministry or enough people in your life stage.
All of these things, however, while good to observe, may prevent you from doing two things that are most important: seeking God and actually making a commitment to a church.
Listen to God
One of the most important things to do while looking for a church is to seek where God would have you go! While this might seem obvious, people often put a lot of stock in their perceptions of people they meet when they go, how good the sermon was that week, and other external factors. While these things are important, if you’re not asking the Holy Spirit for direction, then you may be missing out on where He is actually calling you to!
Understand the non-negotiables
You also make sure that the church closely aligns with what God’s revealed word says about the church. Some questions to ask:
Is Jesus worshipped as Lord? (Matt 28:9)
Does the church have public reading of scripture, as well as exhortation and teaching from Bible? (1 Tim 4:13)
Are there elders in that church (Titus 1:5)?
Is the church a gathering, or a true group of believers who are devoted to discipleship and fellowship (Acts 2:42)?
Does the church practice the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26) and baptism (Matt 28:19)?
Don’t just look for people like you
However, an important thing to do here is make sure you are not rejecting a body of believers because they seem “different” or make you less comfortable. It’s hard to say how we can ground that kind of sentiment in scripture. The gospel is about breaking down dividing walls between people (Eph 2:14) and bridging people despite their distinctions (Gal 3:28)!
Think long and hard about this when you encounter a church community where the good news of Jesus is preached, but certain things aren’t the “style” you’d like! The temptation to make such distinctions “ultimate” is why the church has remained a largely segregated institution, resembling the world as Christians divide and worship based on affinity, and not the truth of God’s word. We’ve seen God sustain many people who largely felt alone in their experiences but decided to join our church anyway, and then bring about great change throughout their commitment!
All that to say, as you seek a church to join, perhaps you ought to go to a church which makes you vastly uncomfortable. There is indeed a lot of growth to be had in that, and a lot of ways in which you might be able to bless people in a huge way!
Think of what you contribute, not of what you can consume
A few years ago, a couple arrived with a young daughter when we had a total of one person in our children’s ministry. Rather than see that and consider that a barrier, they prayerfully decided instead to join City on a Hill, stepping out in faith that perhaps they were being called to help grow the church in this area. In just two short years, we have dozens of children across a wide variety of ages, and the mother is actually our children’s ministry director and doing an incredible job of leading this part of our church.
A Korean couple began attending our church, and while English was not their first language, they decided to join our church rather than Korean-speaking congregation because of their desire to be able to invite friends from school and be on mission in the city. While there was a season of adjustment and questions, their commitment to the church has been a great blessing as they ministered to others by playing music on the worship team and bridging other visitors to our church from similar backgrounds.
Thinking of what you can contribute instead of what you can consume is especially important if you’re tempted to idolize comfort. Isn’t it comfortable to be in a church where everyone is just like you and has no needs? Unfortunately, this is not the picture of community we have in the Scriptures.
On the other hand, if you’re drawn to overcommitment or a “savior-mentality” you may want to think about making a sustainable commitment. There may be seasons in your life or in the life of certain churches where it may be best for you to look for a better match. For example, if youre marriage is on the rocks, it may be prudent of you to commit to a church that is not exclusively college students and singles (although, God certainly does call people into churches like that on occassion!)
Don’t delay too long!
An old pastor of mine once said “Commitment before certainty.” As is true with many relationships and commitments in life, you can almost never truly anticipate what life in a church will be like. To know that, you’d have to commit and stay a long time, maybe years, or a lifetime! But then how can you know? You can’t!
Hence the phrase “commitment before certainty.” You are certain about a church because you’ve committed to it, not the other way around. Churches are not static entities. Recent research suggests that people change in personality every ten years - how much more so with a church being changed by the Holy Spirit!
Many people in Boston are coming from a “home church,” and are looking for a place that makes them feel the same way upon visiting. I can’t tell you how many people I talked to who were so bent on feeling “comfortable” or “happy” at a church that 4 years later they still hadn’t fully committed anywhere!
Choosing a church is difficult in the same way that all of Christian life is difficult! We must discern God’s call for us, navigating a life in which God is control, and yet we are called at every moment to choose to live in step with His word and presence with in us. But listen to God and His word, know that certainty comes after commitment, and seek a place of sustainable commitment by the Spirit’s power. And when you commit, COMMIT. Be all in. After all, isn’t that the message of the gospel? When we enter a relationship with God, we should be all in, because he’s all in with us!