Many Christians understandably think trying churches out to see which one to join—also known as “church-shopping”—is wrong. C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Screwtape Letters that “the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where [God] wants him to be a pupil.” We assume the position of judge, whereas it’s far more appropriate for us to assume the position of defendant.
To a degree this is true. When we pick a church, we tend to base our decision on what we like, not what we need. We pick the music style we’re used to: rock bands or hymns. We pick the preaching style we’re used to: lecture hall professor or shouting motivational speaker. We like an impressive church building and a big-enough congregation. We like a certain level of professionalism: nice-looking bulletins and slideshows and videos and a well-balanced sound system—strong production values.
Is any of that stuff what we need in a church? No.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying reject such churches. Size and professionalism are not in themselves wrong. They may be indicators that the church is doing everything right, so God is blessing them. Or they’re indicators that the church is nothing but a fancy façade, so it’s really popular with hypocrites. Either way, rejecting a church solely because it’s big and popular is a form of snobbery and pride. If that’s our attitude, we should make sure to join a big popular church and get that attitude out of ourselves.
And attitude is actually what you have to judge. Not orthodoxy. There are many who insist that orthodoxy is the only important thing in picking a church. It’s not. The most important thing in a church, any church, is not whether it believes all the right things, but whether it does all the right things: Whether it tries to put into practice the things it claims to believe.
Once you understand that, shopping for a church is easy.
Step 1. Look at the websites.
Look up the churches in your neighborhood and town and visit their websites. If they don’t have a website—or if their website doesn’t tell you very much at all—the church may not be as technology-savvy as you want. Or maybe you really don’t want a technology-savvy church—hopefully not because you’re trying to hide a secret Internet life. Either way, you can learn a whole lot about churches before you ever set foot in their buildings.
Check out the church’s beliefs. Usually it’s listed under “Statement of Faith” or “Our Doctrines” or “What We Believe” or something of that sort. Make sure you agree with all the important doctrines. If the way they phrase a certain belief sounds iffy or unclear, you can email them and get it cleared up.
Check out their ministries. If you have children, check out their children’s ministries. If you want to go to a bible study, make sure they have one. If you’re into helping the needy, make sure they do that. If you’re into evangelism, make sure they do that.
Some churches make podcasts of their sermons. You can actually download the past month of sermons—heck, the last year of sermons—and find out what sort of preachers these churches have. Are they boring, or do they hold your attention? Do they do their homework, or do they rant off the top of their heads? Do they focus on Jesus and the Christian walk, or are they all about politics and conspiracy theories and End Times paranoia? Do their sermons actually have a practical point to them, or are they purely informative or entertaining? Let’s face it: sitting through bad preaching is uncomfortable. Preview it.
The great thing about a well-done website is that you can now step through the doors of that church with a solid idea of what you’re in for.
Step 2. Visit your top five.
Specifically five. If your town is so small that there aren’t five (or there are, but you don’t want to go to most of them), consider churches in the next town. Or the town after that. Just don’t look at churches too far away; you’re going to make friends in your church, and it’s going to become a major hassle if you’re attending a church five towns away… and some of your friends live six or seven towns away. (Plus, you’re going to want a church close enough to regularly attend.)
Anyway, pick five. Start with the church that feels to you like the best fit; then the next, then the next, and so forth. Go to each of them, a week at a time: your first church the first week, your second church the second week, your third church the third week, and so on. No matter how much you like one particular church—no matter how much they beg you to come back next week (and they will, and that’s fine, but good churches will be patient with you), go to all five anyway. Rule churches out only after you’ve attended them once. You’ll only need one visit, and here’s why:
Step 3. Look at the people.
Ultimately, churches are people. They’re not the services, they’re not the ministries, they’re not even the pastor and leadership. Those orthodox beliefs you read on the website? The leaders wrote those. Not the people. Don’t confuse the two.
The church is the people sitting in the congregation with you. They’re either seeking God with all their hearts and enthusiastically contributing to the church, or they’re passively letting the pastors run the show, contributing little to nothing, and leaving the church with that empty, cavernous feeling that the Holy Spirit left the building a long time ago.
That’s what you look at. Not any of the other stuff. Not the beliefs, or the ministries, or the preacher, or the professionalism. Remember, the church is supposed to be our support system. These are the people who will be supporting you. Now, can you actually trust them to do it? Or do they figure that’s the pastor’s job, whereas they’re free to be needy, whiny, bitter, or self-centered? That’s a worst-case scenario… but honestly, there are many churches that fit it.
So what are the people like? Are they friendly? Do they introduce themselves and try to make conversation? Do they make sure they talk to you before you can slip out of the service undetected? Do they try to involve you in upcoming events?—in particular, events you don’t have to pay for, or if there is any cost, they’ll cover you ’cause you’re new. Do they make contact with you after the service?
Do they want you to become a part of what they’re doing? Or do they not even notice you were there? Because if the church truly is following Jesus’ command to love one another, it should be completely obvious one way or the other. One visit will tell you everything. You won’t need two.
If you want to give ’em a challenge—and it’s okay if you do—try to slip in and out of their service undetected. Don’t draw attention to the fact you’re visiting. Don’t fill out a visitor card, or go to any new visitors’ group, unless you’re asked personally. Don’t sign up for anything. Don’t put any money in the offering. Don’t be antisocial, but just see whether they’re actually prepared for new people. Many churches usually are. Good churches pass this test easily.
True, sometimes it’s not the church that passes this test; it’s the leadership. The pastor makes a point of identifying and greeting new people, or the church has greeters who are really good at catching visitors. It’s perfectly fine if the first people who show an interest in you are the leaders. But if they’re the only ones—and it won’t take long for you to figure that out—that’s really not good. You’d expect some of the folks in that church to be interested in what the leaders are interested in. If none is, there’s a serious disconnect between the leaders and the church. Trust me: You don’t want to get in the middle of that. It’ll be ugly.
In any event, that’s the primary thing you need to look for in a church: people who exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, namely love. Love for neighbors; love for fellow believers; love towards you. Churches that lack love are dysfunctional. (1Co 13.1-3) Avoid those churches at all costs.
Step 4. Weed out churches.
Once you’ve attended all five churches on your list, drop any church that was unwelcoming. Drop any church that lacked any other fruit of the Spirit: they weren’t loving, or joyous, or peaceful, or patient, or kind, or good, or faithful, or gentle, or self-controlled. (Ga 5.22-23)
The church ministers to sinners, so it’s reasonable to expect some folks in every church are going to have problems and bad behaviors that they’re working to overcome. The difference is that in a good church, people are actually working to overcome them. In a fruitless church, this stuff is clearly there, but people are just pretending everything’s just fine and are desperately trying to avoid the issues. Sometimes it’s called “tolerance”—but tolerance of sinners does not mean we ignore sin. We help people fight sin. Otherwise we’re no help.
So you don’t want a church that’s overly permissive. At the same time, you don’t want a church that’s too legalistic. Again, it all comes down to love. Are people trying to help free one another from sin or free themselves from the things that personally offend them?
Do the people actually follow the leadership, take their teachings to heart, and try to apply them? Can they actually recall something that was preached in their church within the past month or two that actually impacted them? Or do they forget the entire sermon over lunch? You see—unless the preacher is boring—when people forget sermons, it’s a clear sign that they’re passive Christians. (Jm 1.22-25) If they can tell you all about the church’s resources, but can’t tell you about the church’s teachings, it means they’re availing themselves of those resources, but they themselves aren’t growing and probably aren’t ministering. That’s a bad sign.
While you might not necessarily be the best judge of orthodoxy, I expect you certainly can identify whether the people of a church are fruitful. If that church isn’t loving and if you simply can’t detect any fruit of the Spirit anywhere except in the leadership (and sometimes not even then), just don’t go there.
If none of your top five churches is fruitful—which can happen, annoyingly—start researching another five churches to visit, and start again. Repeat as many times as necessary. If you’ve gone through every church in town and are worried that you, not the church, may be the problem: Don’t. Even if you are the problem, a good church will make the effort to work with your hang-ups.
What if all of them are fruitful? Well, great! Now you can look at those other, secondary things—good music, good preaching, good ministries—and use those as your criteria.
Step 5. Pick your church.
At the end of two months—maybe sooner—you should have decided upon one of those churches. They might all be good, loving, fruitful churches, but one of them is a standout. You like the music more, or the ministries more, or the preaching more, or everything more. Or it’s possible none of them is a standout; they’re all equally good. Even so, one of them should be your primary church: the one you worship at every Sunday morning, the one you minister in, the one you financially contribute to, and the one you join. Pick one.
You might still want to attend one or more of the others. Maybe one has a ministry that you’re fond of and want to participate in; meanwhile, another has every other thing you were looking for, so you want to join that one. Or vice-versa. There’s nothing wrong with visiting other churches or ministering with them. They all belong to Jesus, after all. But you need to commit to one.
Pick one that you can stick with. Then stick with it.
Oh, and as always: If God tells you, “Go to this church,” and you’ve clearly determined it’s Him, you can skip this whole process. Just do as He tells you.
K.W. Leslie writes a blog about how to grow as a Christian. For more insights, visit www.morechrist.blogspot.com