If you do a Google search for “how to find the right church?” you might be surprised (and overwhelmed) by what you see at the top of the results page: “About 8,280,000,000 results (0.75 seconds).” Eight BILLION hits!?! Where do you even start?
A good place to start when looking for the right church is definitely the Bible. Close your browser, open you Bible and read the New Testament (minus the Gospels, for now). It’ll take about seven to eight hours, but you can do it. Knock it out one book a day for a couple weeks. Some books take less time to read than watching a YouTube ad. See for yourself either again or for the first time what Luke, Paul, Peter, John and others have to say about church. You may or may not be surprised to find that many of the same issues they were having then (especially in Corinth) are many of the issues we’re having now. That means a couple things. First is that Solomon was not inaccurate when he said in Ecclesiastes there’s nothing new under the sun. The second thing, and what’s most relevant right now, is that what God’s Word says about the church then is relevant, applicable and authoritative today.
Now that we’ve established the fact the Bible is the primary, relevant source for anything related to church, let me explain why I think I’m even in a position to try to offer suggestions for how to find a church.
First of all, I am not a pastor. I am not paid by, or belong to, any church, denomination or any other religious entity. I don’t consider myself Baptist, Presbyterian or any other flavor of Christian. I am not trying to steer you toward any particular denomination – or non-denomination. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that even within the denominational boxes you can find pastors and churches who are “outside the box.” Every church should be assessed on its own merit; although, I will say as far as denominations go that you are judged by the company you keep. In other words, if you’re looking to avoid Calvinism you might want to skip over the Sovereign Grace or reformed church in your area, or if you want to avoid infant baptism, you want to not visit the Presbyterian or Catholic church. Denominational affiliations can be helpful in general, but there are variants that make deeper inspection worthwhile if you’re having trouble finding something you’re familiar with.
Secondly, my family and I have had the relatively unique experience of “church hunting” every two to three years now for almost two decades as a military family. We have lived in eight states and two countries and visited far more cities than that for weeks or months at a time, and in each of them we sought to find a good church. There are plenty of articles and books about why attending church is so important, so I will not address that here. Suffice it to say that as a family we value being a part of the visible body of Christ no matter where we are and no matter how long or short we’re there. We have attended churches from one week to four years that ranged from Baptist to Grace Brethren to Presbyterian to non-denominational to military chapels and that met in beautiful stained-glass-windowed churches to elementary school gymnasiums to repurposed industrial buildings to massive contemporary church facilities. We have sat under great preachers and terrible preachers and everything in between. We have sung old-time hymns with an organ accompaniment to modern praise songs with ear-splitting electric guitars and drums. We’ve taken communion from a communal wine chalice and large loaf of bread as well as individually sealed, gluten-free “crackers” and “juice.” Needless to say, our experiences have been many and varied, good and bad, and all educational.
What I am about to say is based on these experiences as well as, and primarily, the Bible. These are my opinions and recommendations, not Scripture. In other words, I’m biased, both consciously and unconsciously, and fallible. Take it for what it’s worth, and nothing more.
How to choose church
As Evangelical Christians who are not beholden to a particular denomination, it’s not as simple as for sure attending the closest (or only) Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Calvary Chapel, Catholic church or Latter Day Saints ward like some may do. We have to do our research and shop around to find a place where we’re both confident in the integrity of the teaching and comfortable in an environment where we can thrive and serve. We’ve learned over the years that while there are a lot of factors that go into selecting a church from the quality of the teaching and music to the mid-week week gatherings to proximity to the atmosphere of the whole thing (and for those with kids, the nursery and children’s ministries), there are some aspects that are more important than others.
The Bible is very clear about certain elements that comprise a proper church gathering – the faithful teaching of the Scriptures by a male pastor/elder, prayer and singing. There are certainly other Biblical elements such as the sacraments of communion and baptism as well as the giving of offering and the exercising of spiritual gifts that can also be part of the weekly gathering, but the New Testament is not explicit on when or how often those should happen. So, the first question is whether or not a church is including the prescribed elements into an orderly and God-honoring service.
The reason why additional questions must be asked and why choosing a church is so hard is because there’s some wiggle room for how God’s people decide to conduct a service (or “liturgy”). For example, we are commanded all throughout the Bible to sing, and Paul clarifies that we should sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We’re also told to “sing a new song to the Lord.” So, clearly, we’re not limited to the Psalter or hymnal. Another example is communion. You can find churches that partake in communion weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even annually. Which is right? What does Paul mean by “often” in 1 Corinthians 11?
Another issue we’ve encountered over the years is what version of the Bible is used or recommended by a particular church. Some are “1611 King James Version only!” in spite of the fact we have discovered many more reliable source documents since 1611 that have allowed us to have even more accurate and reliable versions available to us today. Some use the New International Version, or as some call it, the “Nearly Inspired Version” because of some of the word translation choices and verse omissions. Either way, there are people – and I have been one of them in the past – who judge a church and/or preacher based on what version of the Bible they use. The reality is though that most Christians don’t even look at versions. They buy a Bible based on how the cover matches with their shoes or whatever, not on whether it’s the NIV, ESV, NASB or whatever. It’s been said the best version of the Bible is the one you read, and that’s mostly true. As far as the church setting, it matters more that the preaching is faithful to the Bible in general than to some pet version or doctrines affected by choosing a particular version over another. Obviously there are versions created by specific cults, such as the New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses) that should be an immediate red flag and avoided.
I think the point has been made that there are many factors to consider when choosing a church, some of which are more important than others. So, what are the most important factors?
The content of the sermon
Why do I phrase it that way? Why not “the preaching”? Because “the preaching” is typically understood as both the content and delivery. The simple fact is that not every preacher is Charles Spurgeon or John Piper. Some men have a gift for expositing the Word of God, others have a gift for public speaking, and a blessed few have both. Ideally you can find a church where the pastor is at least somewhat gifted in both. We have been to plenty of churches where the pastor was a solid, wonderful, learned man of God, but who was not as dynamic or confident in the pulpit as we would have preferred. Conversely, we’ve witnessed more than enough preachers who could captivate or rile up a crowd, but said nothing truly worth listening to. We’ve attended a church where the pastor read from a manuscript, looking at the congregation 10 percent of the time, versus another previous pastor who was able to preach from notes and looked at the congregation 90 percent of the time. Both preached biblically-sound sermons, but their delivery was very different. Is one better than the other? It depends. While I personally prefer more eye contact and the connection and authenticity to which it lends, I also really benefitted from the content of the manuscript sermons. What really matters is whether or not God’s word is faithfully preached. In other words, the content of the sermon.
There is one element when it comes to church that has proven to be one of the most divisive over the years – music. Music is powerful for many reasons. It’s scientifically proven music affects our emotions, and it has been a part of human life and worship since the beginning of time. I’ve even heard it said that since everything is made up of vibrating atoms that all of creation is literally a song, sung into existence by our triune God. It’s no wonder the Bible is full of songs from beginning to end, from the song Adam sang in the Garden of Eden about Eve as recorded in Genesis to the songs sung by the innumerable multitudes to the Lamb of God in heaven as recorded in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. In fact, whole books of the Bible are songs. Music is immensely important to God, and it should be to us as well.
Have you ever heard it said, “The music really doesn’t matter. What really matters is the preaching”? I have. In fact, I am guilty of saying it as if it were wholly true; but now I want to repent of it. The fact is, music does matter … a lot. That statement, I have come to realize, is not only usually a righteous-sounding lie by the one proclaiming it, it’s an over and mis-used reactionary statement targeted at the people who attend churches solely for the music without any concern for the quality of the sermon content. While it’s true the content of a sermon, given that it is an exposition and application of God’s Word (or, at least it should be), ought to be given the most weight when considering what church to attend, I’ve come to realize a church service is a holistic experience. Just like it’s inadvisable to marry someone who may be outwardly very attractive but is a terrible person, it’s inadvisable to attend a church where only one of the two elements are satisfactory. The preaching may be great, but if you’re struggling to express yourself in song to your God because the music is a style you just can’t learn to appreciate, or because the song lyrics are shallow, repetitive and/or man-centered (more on that in a moment), you may need to keep looking. However, I must state unequivocally that the lyrics are ultimately more important than the style if you’re forced to choose one over the other.
There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of songs that can be sung in church (whether they should be is another thing!), so it’s fair to say that the values and even theology of a church is revealed by the few dozen or so songs they choose to allow into their repertoire. If words matter – and they do – then it matters even more what words we sing to and about the one, holy, high and exalted Lord of all Creation. The words matter because we are to worship Him “in Spirit and in truth” and we don’t want to lie to or about God. The words matter because, as Paul says in Colossians, we teach one another about God and the truth of the Bible through our corporate singing. Thus, it’s imperative we are accurate and biblical in our expressions and words. Some songs are outright problematic or just ridiculous (there’s actually a song registered with CCLI – the primary worship music licensing organization used by many churches – titled “Fire” which has for “lyrics” the word “fire” repeated about thirty times. That’s probably not one that’s going to top the charts anytime soon). However, some songs have subtler issues of bad theology or have a very strong focus on us instead of God. Good churches should be discerning about the songs they sing and be willing to reject something that’s popular if necessary since we’re more likely to remember a song than the sermon.
Another important aspect of music is the quality and delivery of it. We are not only commanded to worship God through song, we’re told in multiple places to do it skillfully. In the Old Testament, not just any Schmo was allowed to play an instrument or sing in the temple. It was to be done in a way that was reverent, authentic and un-distracting by those equipped and called to do so. Nothing has changed for us today. In some cases, it might be better for a congregation to sing a cappella or use a recording if there are insufficient or insufficiently talented musicians. It’s important for a church to be that church and not try to emulate something out of reach in regard to talent or capabilities. Not every church can have a full band, lights, smoke and gifted, charismatic leaders (and in most cases, they are better for it!). Each church needs to find the point at which the line is crossed between doing the music well and un-distractingly to where it’s trying too hard to do or be something it cannot do or be.
Church is not a daycare
Another element to assess, though not as important as the previous two, is the children’s ministry. We have attended churches where the answer to “How’s your children’s ministry?” is “What’s that?” because the congregation was so small the preacher would be alone in the sanctuary if all the requisite help was directed toward children’s programs. We’ve also been to churches where screaming babies and restless toddlers (and restless husbands waiting to get home to check the score of the football game) were a regular occurrence, and yet the pastor carried on with the sermon as if there was no competition for our attention. We’ve been to other churches where the children’s ministry was robust, Gospel-saturated and well worth entrusting our children to. We’ve been to some churches where the children’s ministry was a glorified daycare service to keep those little distractions out of “big church,” and where it was made clear – subtly or bluntly – the kids belonged anywhere but the sanctuary.
Regardless of whether or not there’s “children’s church” for kids over the age of seven or so, you should be able to discern quickly if children are valued and seen as a mission field to be taught the Gospel at every opportunity, or if children are viewed as one bumper sticker I recently saw (and hated) expressed: a “huge financial burden” who should be kept from distracting the flow of service and interfering with the comfort of adults at all costs. Personally, I think it’s good for kids over the age of seven or so to be in the main service with their parents learning how to listen and worship in the full church context, not just watching Veggie Tales and making crafts that will get left on the van floor only to be cleaned up sometime next year. At the end of the day (and this life), it the responsibility of parents to teach their children the Gospel and Word of God, not the church. If you can find a church that loves your kids by teaching them the Gospel and the Word of God, that’s a huge blessing that should only serve to augment and reinforce what you’re already doing at home. That being said, a massive children’s ministry should have considerably less weight in your decision process.
While also not an element with the weight of the sermon and song content or the authenticity of a church body, there’s certainly something to be said for a church’s digital presence, and their website in particular. Fifteen years ago we attended a church that had a pitiful website, to put it honestly, but where we attended for four years anyway and grew and were loved. However, in this day and age, there’s really no excuse for a church that has even an inkling of a desire to draw new and younger people to not have a functional and current website. The cost and difficulty of creating and maintaining a professional-looking, up-to-date website has decreased significantly in the past decade, and just about anyone with even a little computer savvy can make and maintain something presentable.
I have viewed way more websites and read way more statements of beliefs than I’d even thought I would as we have moved all over this world. Some websites were modern and easy to navigate, make it easy to find the two main things we look for with ease: the statement of beliefs, and the leadership composition. Other websites were stale, poorly designed and hard to get around. You can imagine which ones racked and stacked better on our list of “possibles.” On a side note, I’ve also found recommended reading/listening resources as a good gauge of a church’s theology. On another side note, and to all the churches out there that still do this, cheesy spinning gifs get my mouse pointer moving toward the “x” in the upper corner of my browser even faster than seeing “KJV Only.” Gifs have not been cool since the 90’s, and even then that’s debatable.
Wrapping it up
When it comes to choosing which church you will serve and thrive in there’s a lot to consider. The atmosphere matters. The existence (or lack thereof) of genuine love and “brotherly kindness” matters. The quality of the coffee … maybe. Ok, not really at all. The content of the sermon absolutely matters. Next to that, the music matters most and is a solid indicator of the theological depth and accuracy of the church leadership since they are ultimately responsible for what is preached as well as sung. Then, consider other elements – were you welcomed? Invited to lunch? Remembered the second week? Told about other Gospel-centered churches in the area by those in the church you’re visiting (this is huge as it means they care more about you connecting in a good church so you can thrive, not just so you can add to their numbers and bottom line)?
Finding the right church is not easy, and I encourage anyone who’s looking right now, or who will do so in the future, to take heart and trust that God will lead you where you need to be. It may not be where you love every aspect of it. In fact, I think God intentionally makes it so there’s always something or someone who manifests the imperfection of each church so we’re reminded of the perfect “worship service” to come when, and only when, Christ returns and the sin that causes all the dissension and disagreements in the capital “C” Church is done away with and we all see Jesus for who He is, and each other for who we are – redeemed sinners created to love and serve God and each other. Until then, find a church where you can serve, thrive and experience the love of God through the love of His people – even if there are crying babies and music you may not know. Finally, and most importantly, don’t compromise on the essentials. Sound, Biblical teaching is paramount, followed closely by prayer and the song content. Get those right, and everything else will either come together or come to matter less.