Many of us have at one point had the opportunity to look for a church to attend and from the many churches it is difficult to choose one to attend. So considering the difficulty, how can we tell which church is the church that we should commit ourselves to? Here are five things that Christians commonly use to choose a church to attend:
- Is the church filled with sound doctrine?
- How well is the word preached? Can I grow from the preaching?
- Does the style and mode of worship help bring me to a reverence of God?
- Are there people that I can connect with and fellowship with and have accountability with?
- Are there places that I can serve and help contribute to the church?
These are all important things when looking for a church, and they’re not what we should be looking for. Why? Because these questions epitomize what I call “ecclesial consumerism.” The idea that there is a perfect church, that the church exists to feed and nourish its members, namely from the perspective of one’s self. This, frankly, is not church and I do not believe that these questions are the right questions to be asking and I will treat each question in turn.
Is the church filled with sound doctrine? Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe that the question of doctrine in choosing churches so often overplayed because we have a tendency to treat all “others” as wrong. Many Evangelicals are baptistic in orientation, but does that mean we should rule out a presbyterian church because of infant baptism? Maybe. I think a better qualifier for church soundness is not being perceived as correct on every single point of doctrine but on a church’s fidelity to the gospel. The Gospel is the centre of the Christian life it is what is essential to be Christian. If a church doesn’t recognize the need of all people for Christ and act in such a manner, then that church is not a real church. Minor quibbles of doctrine do not overtake this one requirement, so yes we might disagree on baptism, or on women’s ordination, or on whatever else (and some of these things are larger than others) but if the gospel is being preached, and there is no other church, then that is the church I will attend. This is best summed up in the phrase “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” or that is to say “unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things” and what is necessary but the gospel? To this question all other questions are subordinate.
The second question is “how well is the Word preached?” We all love good sermons, the disciples loved hearing their teacher to the point where we see Christ himself saying “but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.” The disciples wanted so much to hear the teacher that they hindered others from coming to Christ and with sermons it is the same. We should not be being fed all the time, and indeed one of my respected mentors who shared this with me said that perhaps one of the best signs of a true church is that you are not being fed, that someone else is going before you. The Word should be preached well, but do not judge that on how much you might learn, rather the test of true preaching is if someone somewhere is being fed with truth so that truth might be simple, it might not be for you “meat” but that doesn’t mean that such a church where you are not fed is a church you should not attend.
The third question deals with worship and in a similar note, worship comes in many different styles. So as conservative mennonites do not use instruments, or traditional reformed churches only use psalms in worship to the exclusion of all songs, or evangelicals worship with modern music and the historical Black churches of america with shouting and dancing we know that worship is not found in any one way. And this question is one of culture, it is indeed harder for someone to worship in a church that is unfamiliar, but worship is still worship. I would encourage each reader to take some time to see how different churches worship, because no church is the same and what is familiar is not the only way people worship. The question is not “do I resonate with the worship” but rather “is the worship directed towards God” and any church where God is worshiped, I can attend. (And there is certainly worship that is not worship to God that is done by Christian churches)
The fourth question deals with fellowship and this question is perhaps the hardest to answer because fellowship is indeed important and it is perhaps also the most elusive. The only thing that I’d like to note is that fellowship takes two. If no one reaches out to you, you should be reaching out to others. Fellowship is something that is built so let us sacrifice to build it rather than expecting it to come to us.
The final question deals with service. There is nothing wrong with wanting to serve, but seeking the opportunity to serve is not something that I think is biblical. Why? Because church membership is integral to a proper church structure and before serving we need to become members of that church in which we want to serve. Serving is the last thing we do as people integrating into a new church. Rather than seeking places to serve, as if our presence is needed by God (the hubris!), look at how a church serves its community and the world in missions and in social justice because this is the service of the church to the world. A church that is properly doing what the gospel proclaims will be caring for the poor, the hungry, and the afflicted and have a passion for the salvation of all people both at home and abroad.
These five questions are the five questions we need to ask because these questions address the five roles of the church (as Avery Dulles writes in the first. ed of his book, Models of the Church): institution (defender of truth), herald (proclaimer of truth), communion (fellowship among believers), the church as sacrament (the means of worship), and the church as servant (a church that lives in the world as the light of truth). So these questions I posed at the beginning are the right questions, in a sense, but they need to be changed from something that is inward to something that is outward. We are part of the church, and the church is not for us. So let me finish by summing up what these questions, I think, should be in a manner that reflects our service to the church and not its service to us. Let us all stop being ecclesial consumerists and become builders and servants of the true church, the Kingdom of God which is the body of Christ.
- Is the gospel evident in what the church does?
- Is the church reaching someone with the truth?
- Is God the object of worship? Are the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) rightly and commonly administered?
- Can I sacrifice myself and build relationships with the people here?
- How is this church serving out the great commission in the community and in the world?
1. the blog from which I draw this term is one devoted to converting protestants to Catholicism, however the questions this post raises are an important consideration in anything we do as Protestants regarding church membership