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How Not to Choose a Church

January 8, 2013

Rarely in history have churches been so focused on drawing in visitors. Whether or not you’re searching for a church home you will likely receive mail (and possibly electronic communication) from churches in your area. And when you are searching for a new church home it can be difficult to decide even which ones to visit, much less join! There are many ways to be caught up in the “hype” many churches are whipping up, including reading real significance behind their carefully crafted slogans:

“Connecting People, Changing Lives” / “Transforming Lives and Building Dreams” / “A Place You can call Home” / “Building a Community of Grace” / “A New Kind of Church” / “Something for Everyone” / “The Church for People Who Hate Church”

Don’t choose a church based on their marketing. Of course every church probably wants to be a welcoming place for visitors, and every church probably considers it a good thing when like-minded families want to join them – but some churches seem to have adopted a corporate marketing model approaching hyperbole. Consider whether you want to join together with a group of people who themselves have been drawn in by advertising hype, or rather with a group of people who are there because of a purposeful informed decision?

What about church programs? Their websites often give a large amount of detail about available programs and push the benefits of everyone in your family having a place to “plug in”:

Women’s Encouragement Group / Men’s Breakfast Club / High School “Xtreme” Youth / Middle School “Edge” Youth / Couples Club / “New Beginnings” Divorced Group / “Young at Heart” Seniors / Vacation Bible School / Awanas

Don’t choose a church based on their programs. Of course it is a blessing to be in a church community with others in similar life situations and interests, enabling you to share wisdom and encouragement and to have many things to talk about. Consider though, how many of these programs separate a family on Sunday and throughout the week? This doesn’t seem to align with the Biblical model for church (Acts 11:14). Not only are the programs themselves a frequent temptation for everyone in your family to pursue one’s own interests and let the rest go elsewhere, but the proliferation of church programs also leads to a constant pressure on the church membership to volunteer in leadership to coordinate one or more of these programs. At times this can put a focus on tasks, responsibilities and hierarchy rather than on God. Individual programs themselves may not be bad, but neither are they necessarily a requirement for (or sign of) a strong healthy church.

So if the slogan and their programs aren’t good measurement, what about the production quality of their worship services?

Rock concert-style lighting and sound / Talented musicians and singers / “Mood” music during prayer and transitions / Choreographed transitions / Multiple projector screen camera angles / Dimming lights during softer songs and quiet moments

Don’t choose a church based on their production quality. Although it is a good thing to aim for excellence in worship, not for any awkwardness or sloppiness to distract the congregation from their focus on God, too much attention to orchestrated “performance” creates a different kind of distraction for those involved “on-stage”. Also consider what is happening when music and lighting are used to induce a certain mood on a congregation – manipulation of emotions by man-made means. It seems based on a skepticism that the “audience” will really understand the earnestness of the topic, or based on a hope that they will be more likely to “walk down front” if their emotions have been heightened. It seems to increase the risk of false conversions and to increase expectations of the congregation that they will arrive each Sunday to be “entertained”.

What about Sunday School? Isn’t it a hallmark of a great church to give adults and children opportunities to study the Bible and life applications alongside others in a similar place in their spiritual walk?

Young Marrieds / Middle Aged / Seniors / Singles / High School / Middle School / K-5th grade, often each grade its own class / Pre-school 3s, 4s / Toddlers / Nursery

Don’t choose a church based on their Sunday School options. Of course studying the Bible is a critical component of learning and growing as a Christian, and doing this in a group can lead to rich discussion and insights from the experiences of others. But consider what is lost when this is done in separate age-divided classes: young couples do not benefit from the wisdom of older couples, singles do not gain insights into marriage by studying God’s Word with married couples, children do not see their parents earnestly seeking understanding of God’s Word – missing a great opportunity for a Godly example and an enriched relationship on both sides. Separating children into their own classes can create a temptation to entertain them more than educate them – in the spirit of avoiding boredom/whining; some churches give up altogether and just put on videos or offer video games for the kids during Sunday School time. Even if teachers are trying their best to teach rather than entertain, sending children to classes for other adults to teach them about the Bible creates a blind spot for the parents into their children’s spiritual journey, and creates an annual mentorship whiplash when they’re put in with a new teacher one grade up. Even if the father is also leading the family in worship at home, at best this is a mixed message sent to the child that the parents choose to “outsource” part of this most important of all responsibilities – spiritual discipleship.

“These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — Deut.6:6-7

What about churching at home? If a good church can’t be found near one’s home is it okay to stay at home and worship as a family?

Don’t give up finding a church with whom to join for worship and fellowship. Worshipping at home together should be a hallmark of a Christian family’s life, and for intermittent Sundays it may be necessary for logistical/health reasons, but it is not a sufficient long-term replacement for belonging to a local church. The Bible contains many instructions for how we should treat other believers in our local church – the “one-another” commandments and instructions about elders/deacons (Heb.13:17). It is a mixed message to our children to take the Bible seriously and follow its commandments on other topics, but to ignore those on this topic. Believers risk their lives in some parts of the world in order to obey these commandments and to come together for Sunday-morning worship; do not let a scarcity of potential churches in your area be a hindrance. If it were necessary, wouldn’t it be worth driving several hours (more than a job commute)?

So what is the right way to choose a church?

It’s likely that this may come down to prayerful consideration and comparison; it is an important decision. As minimum criteria a church should teach correct doctrine (and should take doctrine seriously, publishing a statement of faith, etc.) and should be Biblically purposeful in their decisions about worship, fellowship, even their finances and other logistics, avoiding the pitfalls noted above. It should possess a focus not on “growing”, or “making people comfortable”, but on glorifying God and following His instructions. Aside from researching their published materials and listening to the statements of their leadership, perhaps one of the best ways to identify a solid church is to follow Jesus’ teaching: to judge the tree by its fruit…

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” — Luke 6:43-44

How do the church members treat each other? Are the fathers leading their families? – if so this a sign that they are being equipped. Are the wives submissive and Godly? – this a sign that they are being discipled. Are the children displaying fruits of the Spirit? – seeing this is a hallmark of Godly families and churches.

Although there are many ways not to choose a church, unfortunately there is no checklist that will insure that a church is the right one. A well-oriented search process though, coupled with a good deal of prayer, will increase the chances of finding the one God has for you.

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From → Bible

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