You asked me how I went picking a Church. You wisely didn’t ask me for the “true Church,” since my level of confidence in my own judgment would never let me tell you that!
Nobody associated with me, even my family, but especially my University, will agree with everything I am about to say.
I must admit to having a head start by having godly examples as a little boy. Before I knew much, my Dad was preaching the gospel and bringing me to a living relationship with Jesus. Good men like George Osborne also encouraged me to love Jesus with my heart, soul, and mind. I have childhood memories of my grandparent’s little West Virginia church and the powerful testimonies of some of the old folks there . . .and the younger ones as well!
Thinking about church then began knowing that I could not reject the truth I had seen in those lives. I knew Mom and Dad knew Jesus and so any church that rejected their relationship with the Lord was not going to work for me without major labor!
If you have been brought to salvation by a community, then a good strategy is to stay unless you cannot. Even if you must go, then you should go with gratitude for the good you have received. The more family and other relationships would be harmed, the more sure you had better be before heading to a new church home.
Also be careful never to pick a church based on emotional or erotic desire. If your home church views divorce as a grave evil (the Scriptural position), then it overwhelmingly easy to see the case against their view. But surely no person can ever change their mind, when in the grip of an emotional change and feel good about it? If my view was one thing when I was not emotionally charged, then can I ever be satisfied that my change was not motivated by personal comfort?
Doesn’t religious truth exist partly to check my desires when it is hardest to do so?
In any case, here (in general order of importance) are the things I consider when thinking about Church.
Find a Church based on Sacred Scriptures.
The Bible is the font of divine revelation. Before the New Testament, the Church was guided by the Old Testament and through inspiration produced the New Testament.
Of course, from the start the Bible was written simultaneously with the formation of a Covenant community. Abraham lived out the Bible story . . . and his life became Scripture. Any community that does not do the same cannot be Christian.
Find a Church that understands Scriptures using reason and the history of the Church.
The Bible does not interpret itself. If God is in your heart, He will guide, but you know better than to trust yourself to hear correctly. We need a community of like believers and we must include in that community the believers who have gone before us. If my reading of Scripture or truth makes utter gibberish of Bunyan and Boethius, something has gone wrong with my spiritual hearing!
There are divisions in the Church, but I cannot go to a community that will not learn from Saint Francis and John Wesley. C.S. Lewis was right that there is a mainstream of Church understanding and we need to stick with it.
Find a global Church.
Too many American churches are parochial. We think our national election the most important event, but while we ponder our vote, three priests in Syria have been murdered. Going to a Church with members in places like Syria put our own “first world” problem in perspective. If we are “developing world,” then our first world brothers and sisters remind us not to covet, envy, or judge.
Find a Spirit filled Church.
Forget for a moment the particular problem of “charismatic” gifts.
Don’t go to a “dead” Church, however doctrinally correct. You know a dead Church when it has no plan to reach out to the lost, isn’t growing, and isn’t alive with the desire to read the Bible, pray, grow holy, and give money and help to the poor.
No congregation is perfect, but love, tough love, should dominate.
Find a sacramental Church.
Jesus left us (at least) baptism and communion as (at least) the outer signs of His work in our lives. Forget for a minute how this works: does the Church you attend practice baptism and communion frequently?
I meet too many young people who have not been baptized (breaking the commands of Jesus) or how partake of communion once a year. Is this really what the Bible or church history patterns for us in worship?
If you find a Church that urges baptism on all members and practices frequent communion, then decide what you think a sacrament is.
Look for a pastoral pastor.
You can hear a good sermon on You-Tube. You can get good teaching in books. We are blessed that way today.
What you cannot get from the Internet is someone to stand by you when your baby dies. Look for a man who will know you well enough to know when you are hurting or sinning. A pastor should be a man of integrity: true to his calling.
Look for a good man. If he can preach and teach, then that is a bonus (an important one)!
Avoid huge or tiny churches if you can.
It is hard to be pastored in a huge church, but easy to be over-pastored in a tiny one.
A tiny church needs you and knows (almost!) too much of your life. Such groups easily become inbred and weird. A big church easily becomes impersonal and (often) allows us to hide. We need not “do,” because someone else is better at doing, often a paid somebody.
You can find churches that are large (see Saddleback) that avoid this if you do as they suggest, but it is very easy not to do so. If you tend to nominal commitments, avoid a large church!
If by contrast, you are very apt to overly commitment or extremism in religion small churches are toxic! You can end up in the Only True Church very easily there (the Apostolic Church of Saint Bearded One Full of Faith and Glory).
Find a diverse Church with at least some people who make you uncomfortable.
Ideally, your Church should look like your city . . . not your neighborhood. Your residence might be segregated by ethnicity, race, or (especially) education and money. Don’t go to a church like that!
Find a church with some folk who challenge your assumptions about what Christians are!
Home church generally isn’t.
God established a church, the state, and family. These authorities check and balance each other. When one becomes the other, the balance is lost and danger results.
Just as the local church can fill in for the state in a disaster, so the family can reform a church community in a local religious disaster. The goal should be to get out of the disaster situation not stay there!
In religion, the more inbred a group, the more dangerous. This happens, by the way, on the “right” and the “left” of Churches. American progressive churches are as insulated from developing world and church history opinons as any KJV only Baptist church.
If you can, attend a Church within a mile of your house.
Local is good . . . unless your neighborhood lacks diversity (itself a problem).
Finally, stick with the Church you pick. Four years or so will be necessary to see what it is all about. Most churches have dry times. Be part of the revival!
Mostly pray daily: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!
John Mark (Nicholas)