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A “Church Shopper’s” Guide
Seven Simple Steps to Finding a good Church

Looking for a church home can be a little overwhelming ... 
America contains more than 300 Christian denominations. 
Sorting through differences in beliefs and practices, can be bewildering.
But, the process is simpler than you may think.  Consider these Seven Simple Steps:

Step 1.
Programs or People

When you thumb through the Yellow Pages, what is it that first draws your attention to a particular church?  Is it the programs they offer?

diverse group of peopleThe 20th Century saw the establishment of “mega” churches.  They may have gyms, exercise rooms, daycare centers, and a staggering variety of programs for every conceivable age and need. While these are not bad things, they are not among God’s criteria for selecting a church.

After Jesus had instructed the multitudes, healed their sick, and fed the five thousand, many followed Jesus for the wrong reasons.  Instead of recognizing His miracles as signs which identified him as the promised Savior, they valued food and healing for their bodies, more than nourishment for their souls.  (Mark 6:36, John 6:26-27)

Popularity is not God’s measure of a church, and bigger is not necessarily better.  Instead of the “broad” way, Jesus invited us to follow in the “narrow” way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14)   and which is expressed through humble service to God and people:  “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, ... just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Matthew 20:26-27)

While large churches offer impressive programs, you can get lost in the crowd.  Jesus’ measure of a church begins with the question: Where are you most truly needed and valued?

In a smaller congregation the pastor is a shepherd who knows his flock.  Your service of Christ is significant and appreciated.  Rather than struggling to meet people in a crowd, a smaller church is a family where you can more easily cultivate meaningful and enduring relationships.

Step 2.
Style or Substance

Church Architecture - As your car approaches, your first impression of a church is it’s exterior.  Does it “look” like a church?  While some favor a majestic edifice, others prefer a non-traditional
look. Building design may provide clues to a church’s teachings and practice, and can set a mood for worship, but it is best not to judge based on external appearances.  Any church can temporarily meet in a gym, auditorium, or motel while getting established, and even the most unorthodox church can meet in Gothic grandeur.  (1 Samuel 16:7, Matthew 23:27, 24:1-2)

Friendliness - Your second impression is likely to be based on whether you receive a friendly welcome, or feel ignored.   While Jesus said that people would know his disciples by their “love,” some people are more reserved than others.  Please be patient, realizing that hospitality is but one of many gifts, and its expression is largely determined by cultural background, and  whether or not a church has trained greeters.  Also, since many people prefer to be anonymous when first visiting a church, a “cool” reception may be an expression of sensitivity to your needs.

Mode of Worship - The third thing you will probably notice is a church’s style of worship. Some have a printed order of service in a worship bulletin or hymnal, while others have a more free-flowing service, with hymns perhaps projected on a large screen.  Some sing “traditional” hymns, while others sing contemporary “praise” songs.

One of the most common worship words in the New Testament literally means “a pleasing towardness.”  This is not a reference to whether it “pleases” us, but whether it is pleasing to God.

While it is hoped that worship will be enjoyable, its purpose is not entertainment.  Instead, it is time with God: to be instructed from His Word, and to respond to God’s mercy with prayers and praises from grateful believing hearts.  Worship should be evaluated, therefore, not by how it feels, but by other factors.

While it is true that the Bible does not command a particular style of worship, it is also true that traditional elements of worship have been passed down to us from the early church, as a way to communicate and preserve Scriptural teaching.

For example: A man in Lazarevka, Ukraine named Stepan,  was prevented from participating in public worship for several decades.  When his church was finally reestablished, and he was asked what he believed, he recited the liturgy from memory as his confession of faith.  His beliefs had taken deep root in the fertile soil of God’s Word, woven throughout the worship services he had participated in as a child.

Step 3.
Is Scripture the Source

Why are there so many Churches?  Because people look to various sources for information about God, such as human reason, man made traditions, personal feelings, and experience. 

closed bible with embossed letteringThe Bible warns us not to rely on such things: My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own under-standing. There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
(Isaiah 55:8, Jeremiah 17:9, Proverbs 3:5, 14:12)

Even as Christians, we can’t reliably distinguish between spiritual experiences and Satanic deception: “for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”  (2 Corinthians 11:14)

It may sound spiritual to say “The Lord laid this on my heart,” but God told us not to go beyond what is written in Scripture (1 Corinthians 4:6).  Our guide in spiritual matters is the Bible alone  (2 Timothy 3:15-17).  Listen carefully to sermons.  Ask questions in Bible Classes.  If statements are not supported by clear and specific Scripture, continue your search for a church.

“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true”.  (Acts 17:11, also see 2 Peter 1:20)

Step 4.
Care about Content

There is one question which should chiefly determine your selection of a church:  What do they teach?  As a diligent grocery shopper scans labels for ingredients, Christians should be careful about the “contents” of their church’s teaching.

pastor preaching sermon from pulpitBut don’t all churches teach the same thing? Actually, no. Truly Christian churches affirm the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace.  However, since many churches today deny the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, these and other basic Christian beliefs are often denied.  Among churches which still teach that the Bible is fully God’s Word, there are also many crucial differences in content.

There is really no such thing as a “generic” Christian church.  This is also true of “non-denominational” (“community” or “family”) churches.  A church “denominates” when its teachings are distinct from other churches.  If it teaches that children are to be baptized (or not), or that baptism must be by immersion (or not), or that Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper are only symbols (or not), it has denominated.

To be truly non-denominational, a church would have to avoid taking a stand on these and other topics, and would be so lukewarm as to merit Jesus’ denunciation in Revelation 3:16.

What a church teaches, and what we believe, matters.  Jesus wants his church to be “perfectly united” in teaching “all what-so-ever” he has taught us.
(1 Corinthians 1:10, Matthew 28:20)

According to Scripture, denominational divisions are not the problem, but merely a visible indication that churches are not united in following Biblical teaching.
(1 Corinthians 11:18-19)

Sometimes pastors say “a denomination doesn’t save you, Jesus saves you.”  Well, of course a denominational label doesn’t save you, but what a church teaches impacts your soul.  Scripture repeatedly warn us against the “leaven” of false teaching. 
(Matthew 7:15, 16:6,12, Galatians 1:6-8, 5:4-9)

When a church brings teaching that deviates from Scripture, God commands Christians to separate:  “I urge you brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.”
(Romans 16:17, also see 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Matthew 7:15)

When you visit a church, if you have concerns that something you see or hear may be contrary to Scripture, wait for an opportune time and ask the pastor.  This gives him an opportunity to provide Biblical support, and for you to learn whether you truly have reasons for concern.

Even if the people in a church are not the friendliest, the music not the most pleasing, its location not the most convenient, its building not the most impressive, the pastor not the most eloquent - so long as a church faithfully and consistently passes on the message entrusted to it by God in Scripture, it is a good church.

Step 5.
The Whole Truth

Beware of proclamation which bends God’s Word, rather than faithfully proclaiming it:

1. Prosperity theology - “Name it and claim it” churches promise abundance to believers in proportion to their faithfulness, while the Bible denies such claims.  (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)  

Though God always answers our prayers, sometimes his answer is “no,” “later,” or to use a difficult circumstance to strengthen us, rather than to take it away.  God’s blessings come in many forms, purely as a result of His merciful goodness in Christ, and never as a result of human merit.

2. Political sermons which tell you that you “need to get right with God” if you are a member of the “wrong” political party - While the Bible includes ample instruction on morals, it is not a political science text book.  Jesus said “The kingdom of God does not come visibly”.  
(Luke 17:20, also verse 21

thermometer showing the dgrees of truth 3. Politically correct sermons -  Not everything the Bible says is      popular.  It often surprises us.  Occasionally it may even make us       
 angry.  The teachings of the Bible often run headlong against     contemporary values and morals.  So, if you like everything a church tells you, you are very likely in a church that has compromised with the world.

 4. Perfectionism - which offers you personal righteousness by human effort, rather than purely by as a fruit of God’s work in Christian hearts.

Though we need God’s law as a guide for life, a church’s proclamation must make clear that our works do not save us. (Ephesians 2:9, Galatians 2:16

God’s law gives no comfort, but reminds us that even our best efforts are tainted by sin, since the law  requires “perfect” obedience, all of the time.
(Matthew 5:48, James 2:10, Galatians 3:10)

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.  After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?  (Galatians 2:21, 3:3)

Our service of Christ pleases God, not because it measures up to his righteous requirements, but because we have been reconciled to God through faith in Christ. 
(Hebrews 11:5)

Perfectionism (“legalism”, “moralism”) is popular because it feeds our pride.  What the Bible teaches bruises our ego, but unless a church clearly and consistently reminds us of our need, we are in danger of relying on our claimed goodness to get us to heaven, rather than on God’s mercy.  Look for a church with enough integrity to tell you the whole truth.

Step 6.
A Gospel Focus

How often do you hear that God loves you, just the way you are?  Every sermon and Bible Class should reassure you that because of Jesus, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”  (Isaiah 1:18).  This is the central teaching of the Bible in both the Old Testament, and the New Testament (Luke 24:25-27, John 5:39):

open bible with picture of jesus and verseHe [Jesus] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6-7, also Isaiah 43:25,Psalm 32:1-2, 103:10-12, etc.)

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.   
(Ephesians 2:8, see Romans 4:5

Christian churches teach that our relationship with God is based on God’s “grace” (undeserved gift), and is received through faith (trusting) in what Jesus has accomplished for us and all people on the cross, rather than on  human effort.

street sign representing the opposing messages of the law and gospelOften there is confusion, because churches do not always clearly distinguish between “Law” (which shows our sin, and tells us what God requires) and “Gospel” (the message of what Jesus has accomplished for us, and for all people upon the cross).

While we need to continue hearing God’s law (what God requires), only the Gospel (what Christ has done) saves us.  A church’s proclamation of “do’s” must not drown out God’s “done” in Christ.  The focus of a church’s message must be the gospel, which never requires, but only gives.  Even faith is a gift. (Romans 10:17)

If a church provides you with just one thing, it should be assurance that you “have eternal life” (1 John 5:13), not because you deserve it (Romans 4:5), but because of Jesus.  Do you depart from worship confused, having been admonished to try harder, or are you reassured and confident of God’s grace?  If a church doesn’t give you assurance of God’s forgiveness, keep looking.

Step 7.
Study the Details

Ask about pre-membership classes.  Some churches require a period of instruction to prepare you for church membership, while others do not.  The length of such a course may span several months, or be as brief as a few hours.  In light of the importance which God places on “careful instruction” and growth in His Word, (magnifying glass highlighting the word details2 Timothy 4:2, Hebrews 5:11-14)  a lengthy period of instruction should not be seen as an obstacle.  Providing such classes indicates that they care more about helping you grow in your life with God, than they do about rapid growth in numbers.

Such “information” or “confirmation” classes are an opportunity to grow in your knowledge of Scripture, to ask lots of questions, and to begin forming relationships in a small group setting.  Most important, they are a time to form a deeper relationship with God.

For some, these classes may be a time for some soul-searching and reevaluation of long-held beliefs.  For others the course may strengthen  their present convictions.  Either way, they allow you to investigate a church before making a membership commitment.  They are well worth the investment of time, both for yourself and for other members of your family.




step 1.
Programs or people

step 2.
Style or Substance

step 3.
is Scripture the Source

step 4.
Care about Content

step 5.
the Whole Truth

step 6.
a Gospel Focus

step 7.
Study the Details