So you're away from home or just moved into a new community. Convinced by a blogger you trust that life together with other Christians is important, now it's time to put on your grown-up pants and find a church you can call your own. One thing is for certain; there's no shortage of options. Further complicating things, it used to be you could go to a church of one stripe (a.k.a. denomination) then move across the country, find a church of that same stripe and be confident that while the flavor may be a little different the ingredients would be the same; but those days are gone. Besides, now distaste for denominations in general is so high that many churches practically try to hide the fact they are a part of one. While it is easy enough to determine the quality of the music, coffee, and people, the real question is how do you know it's a church you can trust; one that teaches truth and is faithful to Christ. As you search here are three questions that will help you figure that out.
Does the worship honor God? Pay attention in worship. The purpose of a worship service (experience, venue, or whatever it's called) is to direct people's attention to God as he has revealed himself in the Bible. This is admittedly harder than it sounds, so bear in mind you're looking for a pattern over time, not a one shot "that settles it" answer. And be honest. If your focus is not directed toward God it may not be the church's fault! So pay attention and then ask yourself: Who are the songs about; me or God? Is the Bible on the fringe here or is it central to what's going on and being taught? Most importantly is the aim of every sermon (speaker, talk, discussion, or whatever it's called) to make me a "better person" or to point me to Jesus Christ? In regard to all three of these questions the answer should be the latter: about God, Bible centered, and pointing to Jesus Christ.
Does the church administer the sacraments? The sacraments are Baptism and Communion (a.k.a. Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper...and if it's referred to as "whatever it's called" you should probably leave immediately). They represent the covenant God has established with his people in Jesus Christ and they are invitations to enter into and share fellowship with him...kind of a big deal and not to be taken lightly. Whether it's grape juice or wine, infant or adult, sprinkling or dunking...these are all details to work out later. Again, it's not like the sacraments happen every week (although some churches will serve communion weekly). You're looking for an established pattern.
Does the church discipline its members? Wait...am I implying that the church should get involved in people's personal lives? Well, yeah...maybe. I mean that is one of the functions of the church; to hold it's members accountable to the faith they profess. I'm not talking about keeping attendance and kicking out the slackers. I'm talking about correcting those who hold beliefs that are errant, needlessly divisive, or plainly not from the Bible. But who wants to be part of an overbearing, judgmental group of people that's all up in each other's business? And how would you know they're exercising church discipline otherwise? Hmm...
Here's an example. Suppose you go to a church where you meet a lovely couple, Bill and Mary, who invite you to a small group. It meets at their apartment a few blocks away. Your assumption is that Bill and Mary are married and lead a group for young adults. Cool. Check it out. When you visit their apartment you meet some other people, have a great time, and Bill leads the Bible study. Afterwards you stick around a little longer, munch on some Cheetos, and get to know Bill. In the course of conversation you ask, "So how long have you and Mary been married?" Bill replies, "Oh, we're not married. We met at church a couple years ago when we were in college and decided to move in together a few months ago..." Such would be a red flag for you to pay heed to. The problem (for you) is not that Bill and Mary are living together outside the covenant of marriage. The problem (for you) is the church allows Bill to lead and teach a small group Bible study even as he clearly chooses to ignore the Bible's teaching and application to his own life. The church should be a welcoming and inviting place for the Bill and Mary's of the world, but membership and certainly leadership should be out of the question. The above situation is not exactly what church discipline (or lack thereof) looks like, but such predicaments are probably the best indication you will get as to whether or not it is practiced.
There you have it. Maybe you were expecting advice on what sort of ministries or missions projects to look for, or styles of worship...or what to do if people start speaking in tongues. But to start with, keep it simple...if the three things above are not in place, don't waste your time. Sure, there are a lot of other things to figure out that will make a difference in regard to whether you park yourself in a particular church or not. You don't have to agree or even like the way every church does things, but if doesn't focus on worshiping the God of the Bible, the sacraments, and discipline, it may not be a church at all...regardless of what it calls itself.
Photo credit: temeculachurches.blogspot.com