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Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations; How to Choose a Church; How to Find a Church; Finding the Right Church; Selecting a Church; What Church is Best?

Choosing a Church:
Some Recommendations

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2008 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

Choosing a Church: Your Help Needed

Part 1 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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A friend of mine and faithful reader of my blog has suggested that I do a series on choosing a church. What should one look for when seeking a new church? What is most important? How should one go about finding a new church? Etc. etc. etc.

I think my friend has an excellent idea, especially since my family and I have just been through the process of choosing a new church. But before I weigh in on this subject, I thought it would be both interesting and helpful to hear from you. What do you think is important in choosing a church? How have you gone about finding a church?

You can answer this question by adding a comment to this post. Or, if you wish, you can weigh in confidentially by sending me an email. I may quote your email, but I won't reveal your name.

Photo montage above: All the churches (buildings) where I've attended worship for a significant length of time. From the upper left corner, moving clockwise: Hollypark United Methodist Church, Gardena, California (1958-1963); First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, Hollywood, California (1963-1991); Cambridge Christian Center, met in Prospect Street Congregational Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1977-1979); Irvine Presbyterian Church, Irvine, California (1991-2007); St. Mark Presbyterian Church, Boerne, Texas (2007-2008); Cambridge Christian Center, met in Christ Church Cambridge, Massachusetts (1976-1977).

Choosing a Church: Some Preliminary Comments

Part 2 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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I'm continuing to collect input from my blog readers on choosing a church. Thanks for your comments and emails. Keep 'em coming!

Before I start offering some recommendations on how to choose a church, I want to make some preliminary comments. These will set the stage for what's to come.

1. How you choose a church depends on your basic understanding of the church.

If you're looking for a church, you already have a basic understanding of the church, even if this understanding is more intuitive than rational. This core theology of church will strongly determine how you look for a church and what you value in a church. Let me offer several examples:

• If you believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the true church, then your search for a church will be limited to Roman Catholic parishes. It's not unlikely that you will simply end up at the Roman Catholic church closest to where you live.

• If you think of church primarily as a place to get theological input, then you'll be inclined to seek strong preaching and teaching, and to make this a top priority.

• If you think of church more as a body of believers who share life and ministry together, then you may be less worried about the quality of the preaching and more interested in finding a church with strong fellowship.

Given the fact that choosing a church depends on your theology of church, it does without saying that my approach to this matter assumes a certain theology of church. Some time ago I began a blog series on What is a Church? There I began to spell out my theology of church. But this series isn't completed. I need to get back to it sometime. At any rate, as I talk about how to choose a church, you'll see through the lines to my basic understanding of the church.

2. In a sense, we don't choose the church. The church chooses us.

Okay, so here is part of my core theology of church: We don't choose it. It "chooses" us. What do I mean? Scripture is clear that when a person becomes a Christian, that person is joined to the church by the Holy Spirit (see, for example, 1 Cor 12:12-13). It's not an option for a believer in Jesus to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ or not. If you're a Christian, you're a member of the church. Period. (Photo to the right: Holypark United Methodist Church, Gardena, California. Retrieved through Google Maps Street View. My first church, where my family attended until I was six-and-half-years old. One of my first memories of this church was sitting in a worship service and noticing a boy crawling through the bushes along the side of the sanctuary. I pointed this out to my mother, who informed me that he was the minister's son. "Minister's kids often get into trouble," she told me. Indeed.)

Of course you can choose not to act on this truth. You can choose to amputate yourself from the body of Christ in practice. There are many Christians who do not associate with other believers in any tangible, regular way. This is not what God intends for us. But it is an option that many Christians take.

Of course, in practice, most Christians choose a church with which to affiliate. But I think it's important to recognize that this isn't some extra credit option for believers, but rather a response to the fact that the Holy Spirit has immersed us in the church of Jesus Christ. When we take this fact seriously, we're inclined to think of choosing a church differently. We realize it isn't a matter of our personal choice so much as it is a matter of discerning God's choice for us.

3. The most important issue is not what church I choose, but what church God has chosen for me.

Choosing a church is like other major decisions in life. The main question isn't what we want, but rather what God wants for us. I might want to join a church in which I can be anonymous, but God wants me to be in a church where I share life with people who know me. I might want a church where I can just sit and enjoy the worship service, whereas God wants me in a church where I am needed. Etc. etc. etc.

Let me hasten to add that discerning God's will for our lives is not necessarily easy. Often we end up doing what we believe is right without any divine revelations or reassurance. I won't go on and on about the will of God where because I've already done that elsewhere (Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God). But putting God in the center of the church-choosing process is essential, because it takes the focus off of "me and what I want" and puts the emphasis upon what God wants for me and for his kingdom.

More tomorrow . . . .

Choosing a Church: A Few More Preliminaries

Part 3 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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Yesterday I put up a few preliminary comments to lay some groundwork for this series on choosing a church:

1. How you choose a church depends on your basic understanding of the church.
2. In a sense, we don't choose the church. The church chooses us.
3. The real question is not what church I choose, but what church God has chosen for me.

Today I want to add a couple more items.

4. There is no perfect church.

If you've been hanging around churches as much as I have, you know this is true. Every church has strengths and every church has weaknesses. Often the strength is closely related to the weakness. If, for example, a church has an excellent choir or worship band, chances are that average singers or musicians are not welcome to participate in the choir or band. So the church gets an A+ for musical quality and a C- for lay ministry (at least in this area). On the contrary, a church might welcome every one into its choir or band, thus guaranteeing relatively low musical quality along with stellar participation.

Of course, from another perspective, there is no perfect church because churches are made up of people, and people are imperfect. Even the healthiest church is composed of forgiven sinners who wrong each other, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. If a church appears to be fully harmonious, know that you're simply looking on the surface.

It's important to acknowledge that there's no perfect church because sometimes people's idealism about church gets in the way of their actually joining one. They keep on looking for a perfect community or a perfect fit, when this just isn't to be found this side of heaven.

If there's no perfect church, then every church you'll consider has trade offs. A megachurch will offer an amazing array of programs, but will allow you to remain disconnected from the body. A house church, on the contrary, will maximize relationship but may lack ministries you deem essential, such as a youth ministry for your kids. You'll have to decide what you value most in a church so that you can accept something less than impossible perfection.

5. Don't idealize the early church.

During my freshman year of college I first experienced "church shopping." Having move far away from my home church in California, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I found myself "churchless" in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As I thought about what kind of church I wanted to join, I expressed this in terms of finding a church "just like the early church."

What I meant by this was that I was looking for a church that was open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit like the church in the Book of Acts. At that time I did not have established views about how spiritual gifts ought to function in the church today, but I sensed that God wanted to do much more through me than I had experienced in the past. I wanted a church that would encourage me in new avenues of ministry and that truly sought the power of God for daily living.

Yet I now chuckle at my desire to find a church "just like the early church." The New Testament is plenty honest about the messes that the first churches made. Conflicts and heresies abounded in the early church, much like we find in today's church. So, though we can surely desire a church that imitates the zeal and commitment of the early church, we should also remember that the early church wasn't perfect either.

6. Don't idealize your own earlier churches.

Throughout my years as a church member and a pastor, I have found a tendency for some people to idealize, even to idolize their own previous church experiences. They remember what was good about their former churches, often magnifying that goodness through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. At the same time, they conveniently forget what wasn't so great about their earlier churches. A friend of mine would wax eloquent about the wonderful "traditional" worship of his boyhood church, yet neglect to mention that this church died out because it failed to connect with its community. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I was involved in this church from 1963 through 1991, both as a member and as a pastor. It was (and is) a wonderful church, and it's easy for me to idolize my experience there.)

When I was the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I often heard from folks who moved away that they couldn't find a church like ours in their new location. I took this as a compliment, but often felt concerned that this kind of comparison was keeping people from getting plugged in to a church in their new community.

It's surely fine to be thankful for your positive church experiences. In fact, you should thank the Lord for such marvelous gifts. But if you dwell upon the past, and if you exaggerate its goodness, you may very well have a hard time finding any new church that measures up to your idealized memories.

In my next post in this series I'll move beyond preliminaries and begin to offer some suggestions about how to choose a church.

Recommendation #1: Clarify what you value most in a church, though with an open mind and heart.

Part 4 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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As most of my blog readers know, recently my family and I moved from California to Texas. We had a fairly easy time deciding that we wanted to live in Boerne, a small town on the outskirts of San Antonio. The schools are excellent in Boerne and it is located halfway between Kerrville (where my office is) and San Antonio (a major city with shopping, an airport, and where I frequently go for meetings).

Deciding to live in Boerne was easy enough, but deciding which house to buy was much trickier because there were so many variables. Did we want more land (which is amazingly inexpensive in Texas compared to California)? Or did we want a view of the hills? Did we want to live out in the country? Or did we prefer proximity to school and church? Then there were questions of price, style, floor plan, etc. etc. etc. It took us a few months of looking around before we were able to identify what we value most in a house. We learned, for example, that it was important to live fairly close to town so we didn't end up spending lots of extra hours each week in the car (and burning gasoline!). (Photo: Our house hiding behind the trees.)

As you consider what you value in a church, as in shopping for a house, you'll probably come up with top priority items (like solid theology), mid-priority items (proximity to home) and low-priority items (not too big). A prioritized list of values will be of great help as you try to settle in on a church. For example, when it comes to preaching, I don't need my preacher to be a fantastic public speaker. That's a low priority item. I don't need great stories or jokes. I don't need engaging PowerPoint. But I do need my preacher to be a person of solid Christian integrity, somebody I can trust. That's a high priority item. I also need my preacher to have at least something worth saying each week. I don't need twenty minutes of brilliance. But I do like to receive at least one thought I can take to heart. My pastor at St. Mark Presbyterian in Boerne fits the bill here, both in his character and in the wisdom of his preaching.

Also, one of the benefits of clarifying your values will come if you're not the only person making this decision. If, for example, you have a spouse and/or children, then the clarifying process will be a corporate one. It will be essential that you know, for example, that your spouse really doesn't like music led by a rock band (or a choir, or a DJ, or whatever).

When you're looking for a new church, you may or may not be able to say at first what you most value. Or you may think that you care about certain features which, in the end, turn out not to matter. I know many people, for example, who begin the church search believing that they are looking for a church in a certain denomination (or independent), but in the end they find a wonderful church in a different denomination than they had expected.

One way to discover what you care most about in a church is to visit several churches and see what happens. I'd encourage you to be engaged, attentive, and open to the direction of the Spirit. You might be surprised by the result.

As you're visiting churches, try to clarify what you care most about. Most of us have expectations and values, but these are often unexpressed. The process of clarification will enable you to know what you value and even to consider whether, in light of your theological convictions, you should in fact value these things. But remember to have an open mind and heart in the process, because God might have in mind a church that's different from what you expect.

Although my example of going to Irvine Presbyterian Church isn't ordinary, since I was being called as the senior pastor of this church, it does function as an analogy. If you had asked me in 1990 what I valued in the church to which I would be called as pastor, I'd have told you that I absolutely did not want to go to a church that needed to build buildings. I had seen churches in my area go through major crises associated with building projects. I had seen the conflicts, the financial drain, and the fiascoes. Moreover, I knew that there were hundreds of Presbyterian churches, often in cities, that had giant facilities but dwindling congregations. I believed I'd be a perfect fit for such a church, given my experience in Hollywood. I could focus on ministry without having to worry about buildings. That is what I thought in 1990, passionately. In fact, I told the search committee at Irvine Pres that I had major reservations about building projects. I said this knowing that this church was on the verge of building a sanctuary, and had more building on the distant horizon.

Well, as most of you know, God had the last laugh here. I ended up going to Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991. And we did indeed build a sanctuary while I was pastor there, and also an administration building. I provided pastoral leadership for four, count 'em, four capital campaigns. For the most part I enjoyed the challenges and opportunities of building, even the capital campaigns.

So, before you tell yourself, "I absolutely will not go to a church that [fill in the blank]," be aware that God might want not only to clarify your values, but also to change them.

At this point I can imagine some of my readers wanting to object: But aren't there some bottom line qualities of a church that are non-negotiable? You're not urging me to be open about everything, are you? You're not suggesting that I should be open to going to a church that has lousy theology, are you? I'll answer these questions tomorrow.

Recommendation #2: Look for a church that is essentially orthodox, unless . . . .

Part 5 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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In my last post I suggested that if you're looking for a church, you should clarify your basic values for a church, but with an open mind and heart, since God might surprise you. This suggestion might seem to imply that there are no absolutes in looking for a church, that anything is possible. But, in fact, I believe that there are certain characteristics of a church that one should almost always seek. I'll explain my "almost" below.

One of these characteristics is right theology. I believe you should seek a church that is essentially orthodox. Let me unpack this phrase. First of all, orthodox means "right believing." I am using a lower-case 'o' because I don't think one must join an Eastern Orthodox Church (with a capital 'O'), though this is one possible option, since Orthodox churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) tend to be orthodox as well. They believe the right things at the core. (Photo: The vast majority of churches in Greece are, as you would expect, Greek Orthodox. While in Athens last year, I was surprised to find a Protestant church. The sign reads: HELLENIKE EVANGELIKE EKKLESIA, or "Greek Evangelical (Protestant) Church.")

Of course you'll find different versions of what constitutes orthodoxy among Christians. But historic orthodox has affirmed such basics as: God as Trinity; Jesus as fully God and fully human; Jesus as Savior of the World. These basics are captured in the classic creeds of the church, especially the Nicene Creed. I realize many Christians would add to the list of essential orthodoxy (the authority of Scripture, the nature of the sacraments, etc.), but I want to focus on the core doctrine affirmed by virtually every true Christian throughout the centuries.

That covers the meaning of orthodox in essentially orthodox. So what about essentially? I'm using this word in two senses. First, I mean that the church should be right-believing in the essential core of doctrine, that which has to do with the nature of God, Christ, and salvation. But I also mean that the essence of the church has to do with God, Christ, and salvation. Churches have to do with all sorts of wonderful things: friendship, helping the poor, music, art, teaching, prayer, and so forth. But every church must be grounded upon and centered in God, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who became human in Jesus Christ in order to save the world. If a church is based upon something other than God and God's salvation in Christ, then that church is not essentially orthodox.

Let me hasten to add at this point that the church is not simply a community of right belief. Scripture is clear, from Genesis 1 straight on through to the end, that faith in God is more than merely believing the right things about God. It is a relationship of trust in God, a relationship that leads to right action (orthopraxy or orthopraxis) as an outgrowth of right belief. Too many churches, especially in my Reformed, evangelical tradition, pride themselves on being orthodox by utterly fail to live out their true belief in obedience and love. I would encourage you to look for a church that is both essentially orthodox and that seeks to live out its faith in everyday life.

My Recommendation #2 stated: " Look for a church that is essentially orthodox, unless . . . ." My use of unless seems to imply that there may be a situation in which it is right for someone to join a church that is not essentially orthodox. Indeed, I am using unless in this sense. But, before I get besieged with critical comments and emails, let me explain my meaning.

I believe that almost every person should look for a church that is essentially orthodox. Several years ago, a good friend of mine, I'll call her Lisa, did this very thing as she began seeking a church. But, in the end, she decided to join a liberal church that did not proclaim Jesus as the Savior. He was merely the Savior of those who happened to believe in him. According to this church, there were plenty of other saviors for other people. Lisa, who believed strongly that Jesus was THE Savior of the world, nevertheless felt called by God to join a church that was not essentially orthodox. Why? Because she believed that God wanted her to bear witness to classic Christian truth in that church.

Now Lisa was not the sort of person to offend people by her arrogance. She had a winsome personality that reflected both the truth and love of God. In time, she did indeed have opportunities to share her orthodox belief. And many people in the church were drawn to orthodoxy through Lisa's faithful witness. As I look back upon Lisa's choice of a church, I do believe that she was in fact called by God to a church that was not essentially orthodox.

This explains my use of "unless." But, let me add in closing that I think Lisa's example is unusual, though not unique. Lisa wasn't your average, every day Christian. She had a bright mind and lots of biblical training. She was solid enough in her core beliefs that she was not persuaded by her new church to give up essential orthodoxy. Most people aren't like Lisa, however. Most of us need, for a wide variety of reasons, to be in a church that gets the basics right.

What I've said about essential orthodox raises a practical question: How can you know what a church believes . . . really? How can you know if a church is essentially orthodox? I address these questions in the next post in this series.

Recommendation #3: Use the Internet

Part 6 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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In my last post, I wrote that if you're looking for a church, you should find one that is "essentially orthodox." The church should affirm as essential beliefs that which Christians have affirmed as essential for centuries (Jesus as fully God and fully human; God as Trinity; Jesus as Savior of the world, etc.).

This raises an obvious question for the one who's looking for a church: How do you know what a church really believes?

This question isn't as easy to answer as one might assume. You might think, for example, that you could read a church's statement of faith. Some churches have them; others don't. And, to make matters more complicated, some churches have quite extensive statements of faith. A church in the Presbyterian Church USA, for example, affirms eleven creeds and confessions, which take up more than 200 pages in our Book of Confessions. Yet members and even leaders of a PCUSA church don't have to affirm every statement in the official Book of Confessions. Moreover, some churches have strayed quite far from classic Presbyterian doctrine such as found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (in the Book of Confessions). To make matters even more complicated, a few PCUSA pastors and churches actually deny some of the basic doctrines of Christianity, like Christ as the Savior of the world. So if you are considering a PCUSA church, the official statements of faith won't necessarily tell you what the church really believes (though they tell you what a church should believe).

Quite a few churches have simple, relatively short statements of faith, in which they summarize core beliefs. Consider, for example, this two-page statement by Oak Hills Church (where Max Lucado is senior minister). If a church has gone to the trouble of condensing their essential beliefs in a statement, chances are that the church really believes what it affirms.

Of course this raises the question of whom we're talking about when we wonder what a church really believes? Are we thinking of the people in the church? Or the senior pastor? Or the elders? Or the deacons? Or . . . ? In most churches today, you'd find a wide range of belief among the members. Therefore, when you're considering a church, it may not help very much to talk with a few members about their beliefs. When I talk about what a church believes, I'm thinking especially of what the central leadership of the church affirms. Usually this would include the pastor (or pastors) and key lay leaders (elders, deacons, vestry, council, etc.).

In days gone by it was hard to find out what a particular church believed without actually attending that church. Often you had to ask for a statement of faith, if one existed. From what was preached on a given Sunday, you might be able to discern something of what the pastor and core leadership believed, though one sermon wouldn't give you too much to go on.

Today, the Internet has made choosing a church much, much easier. Most churches of any size have websites. And you can learn a lot about a church from spending even twenty minutes browsing a church website. Most of the time you'll find a statement of mission or vision. Often you'll discover a church's statement of faith. You can usually read something written by the pastor, and this can give you a good sense of a church's core values and beliefs.

As you peruse a church website, you can look for certain keywords that succinctly reveal much about a church. If, for example, a church highlights being "biblically-based" or "Bible-centered," that usually means the church holds the Bible as God's Word in a strong sense, with teaching and preaching that assumes the full truth of Scripture. If, however, a church claims to be "open and affirming," this phrase usually indicates that a church accepts homosexual behavior as God's will in some cases. This almost always implies that a church gives less authority to Scripture, and more authority to human experience in discerning what is true and right. (In my experience, I've never known a church to have a high view of biblical authority and hold that homosexual behavior can be correct. Most churches that are "open and affirming" let the experience of gay people trump the teaching of Scripture about homosexuality.)

I should add at this point that I don't think you can choose a church simply on the basis of clever web browsing. To be sure, you will need to visit a church that you're seriously considering, many times. But the Internet will allow you to narrow your search by eliminating churches that would be a bad fit for you. And it may point you to the right church before you visit. This happened to me recently, in fact.

Last year, when my family and I were considering a move from Irvine, California to Boerne, Texas, one of the first things I did was to check out the local Presbyterian church on the Internet. There I found statements of mission and vision that revealed a great deal about this church. I knew that St. Mark was essentially orthodox and centered in Jesus Christ. I could see that the church remained significantly engaged with the PCUSA, even as it affirmed a solid evangelical faith. I learned from the St. Mark website that they were active in mission and fellowship. From reading church bulletins and recent newsletters I sensed that St. Mark was an active, caring church . . . one I could imagine being a part of. All of this I learned from an hour on the Internet, weeks before I had ever visited Boerne. As it turned out, my family and I joined the fellowship of St. Mark Pres. (Photo: the chancel of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne).

I have left out one crucial way to know what a church believes. This I'll pick up in my next post.

Recommendation #4: Meet with the Pastor

Part 7 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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So far I've put up three recommendations for those who are looking for a new church home:

#1: Clarify what you value most in a church, though with an open mind and heart.

#2: Look for a church that is essentially orthodox, unless . . . .

#3: Use the Internet.

Today I discuss Recommendation #4: Meet with the Pastor.

Dozens of times during my tenure as senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I had appointments with potential church members. Usually they had visited several times and liked what they experienced of our church. But before they took part in one of our new member's classes, they wanted to talk with the pastor.

Sometimes these visits were relaxed and informal, just "get-to-know-you" sessions. People would tell me a bit of their story, sometimes relating their spiritual testimony. If they didn't bring up how they became Christians, I'd ask. They'd ask me questions about my background, my family, and so forth. These were pleasant, low-blood-pressure kinds of conversations.

Sometimes, however, people came with literal lists of theological questions. Before joining our church, they wanted to know what I and other church leaders believed about a wide variety of subjects, including: salvation, the nature of Christ, the authority of the Bible, women in ministry, spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, homosexuality, abortion, politics, and predestination, just to name a few issues. I would do my best, not to "sell" the church to the potential "buyers," but to describe our core beliefs as accurately as possible.

On quite a few occasions I'd tell people things about our church that they didn't like, knowing that this would in all likelihood mean that they weren't going to join. Some folks were unhappy that our church was inadequately political, either on the right or the left. Some were miffed that we regarded all homosexual activity as sinful. Others were disappointed that we ordained women as pastors and elders. I remember one man who was almost incredulous: "You really ordain women as leaders? But you're such a great church! And your preaching is so biblical? How is this possible?" When I tried to explain that we believed the Bible pointed in the direction of women in leadership, and that I'd be willing to work through the relevant texts with him, he was not satisfied. "There's no way I'd ever be able to join a church that ordains women. But I'm really upset about this because I like this church so much."

Many of my conversations with potential members had to do, not so much with theology as with practical questions about ministry and mission. Folks wanted to be in a church where they could get involved with the work of Christ. They were excited about our church's ministries in the local community and beyond. They wanted to join us as we fed pizza to high schoolers or built homes for homeless families in Mexico.

While I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, the congregation grew from the upper 500s to the upper 700s. We are one the larger side of mid-sized churches. This meant is was possible for potential members to meet with me personally. In larger churches, it's sometimes difficult or impossible for people to meet with the senior pastor. While I was on the staff of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, for example, a person who wanted to make an appointment with Lloyd Ogilvie was able to do so, but there was often about a one-year waiting period. Given the size of the church, then over 4,000, and the widespread popularity and influence of Lloyd Ogilvie, this kind of delay was understandable. But it meant that, in reality, most people who wanted to learn about the church were better served by meeting with one of the associate pastors, with whom they could get an appointment in just a few days. So, if you're considering a large church, my advice would be: Meet with one of the pastors. (Photo: Lloyd Ogilvie and me at my installation as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church)

It may seem like I'm giving the pastor or pastors too much of a role in the church-choosing business. After all, isn't the church far more than its pastor? Yes, indeed. But, in my experience, pastors are usually able to represent accurately the church they shepherd. Plus, it's important to know what the chief preacher(s) and teacher(s) believe.

Before my family joined St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, I did indeed meet with Pastor John Watson. Over lunch at the Boerne Grill we became acquainted. It was more of a "get-to-know-you" meeting than an theological examination. I was especially interested in the kind of person he was. One of the things that matters most to be about a church is the integrity of the pastor. I need to know that my pastor is truly seeking to honor Christ, not only in ministry, but also in daily discipleship. After my meeting with John, I knew I'd be glad to be one of his flock.

Recommendation #5: Choose a church that proclaims and embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ

Part 8 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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It is often said that the Holy Spirit gives birth to the church. I've said such a thing on Pentecost Sunday, and there's a large measure of truth in this statement. But it could also be said that the gospel of Jesus Christ gives birth to the church. On the first Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out upon the disciples, and this drew lots of curious onlookers. But what got these folks to put their faith in Jesus and thus be joined to the church? The preaching of the good news by Peter.

Without the gospel of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no church. Oh, to be sure, there are some so-called churches that don't believe or communicate this message (Unitarian "churches" for example). But, from a biblical point of view, the church comes as a response to and an outgrowth of the gospel. This is true, not only of "the church" of Jesus Christ, but also of individual churches. How did the Pauline churches get started, for example? Paul went to a certain city and began speaking about what God had done in Jesus. People who accepted this good news not only "got saved" and "became Christians" (our language, not Paul's), but also were joined to the church of Jesus Christ, broadly speaking, as well as to the specific church that met in their city.

One of the primary callings of the church is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ so that those who believe it already might be encouraged and so that those who don't believe might have a chance to do so. Every single Christian church should preach the gospel regularly and faithfully. Many, perhaps most churches do. But others seem to assume the gospel and proclaim many other things instead. These other things can be good things, like how to live obediently or how to seek justice in the world. But these activities find their true goodness only as a response to and reflection of the gospel. (Photo: A sanctuary of an Anglican church in London at dusk. Churches need to shine outward with God's light as well.)

There are actually some churches, ones we'd usually call "liberal" though they might prefer the label "progressive," that do not preach the good news of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus because they don't actually believe this. They have replaced this gospel with another, perhaps "God loves and accepts everyone, period" or something like that. Such churches ought to consider something Paul said about the gospel when writing to the Galatians:

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. (Galatians 1:8-9)

There are other churches that preach the good news of Jesus, yet don't live it. Remember, I've already said that there are no perfect churches. This means that no church lives the gospel without lots of mistakes. Nevertheless, churches should both preach and live the gospel. So, for example, if a church preaches the good news of Jesus, but then uses legalism to get people to shape up, this church falls short of the standard. Or if a church proclaims the gospel but then treats certain sorts of people with contempt (gays, liberals, etc.), this church is missing the boat big time.

One of the guiding documents of my denomination (the Book of Order of the PCUSA) includes a statement of "The Great Ends of the Church." These are:

The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

Notice that the first great end is "the proclamation of the gospel of the salvation of humankind." This is consistent with what I'm saying about finding a church that proclaims the gospel. The last great end, "the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world" refers to living out the gospel, though using different language.

How can you tell if a church "proclaims and embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ"? The proclaim part is relatively easy. Listen to what is said in worship, especially in preaching. Soon you'll know. I don't believe that every single sermon needs to be specifically evangelistic, complete with an altar call, though this would surely be the proclamation of the gospel. But every church should regularly speak of the good news of Christ's death and resurrection as well as its implications, both for this world and the next.

Whether a church embodies the gospel may be harder to determine. You can look for evidence of outreach and mission. Is the church making a major effort to help others hear and respond to the good news? But you'll also want to sense the way people relate to each other. Does grace abound in this church? When people wrong each other, do they reconcile and forgive? It will take time for you to know whether a church that proclaims the good news also walks the talk.

Again, I'd encourage you not to look for perfection. You won't find it. But you'll be well served by a church that regularly speaks of what God has done through Christ and seeks to embody this message in the way they live, both with each other and in the world.

Recommendation #6: Choose a church that encourages you in your worship.

Part 9 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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This recommendation might seem so obvious as to be almost not worth mentioning. What is a church, if not a place to worship? But finding a place where you can worship, truly worship, is not quite as simple as it sounds.

For one thing, worship isn't just sitting through a so-called "worship service." It's not listening to a sermon. It's not evening singing songs and reading Bible passages. Worship, at its core, is intimate communication with God. It's responding to God's nature and activity by offering to God praise, thanks, honor, love, and, most of all, yourself. (I've had much to say about worship over the years, most of all in my series, The Soul of Worship.)

So, when you're searching for a church home, look for a place where you can worship, where what happens in the service facilitates your offering to God. The main point isn't the excellence of the sermon or the music. It isn't even whether you like the worship services or not. Rather, the main point is whether a church helps you to offer yourself to God in the weekly gathering, and, by extension, in the rest of your life.

What helps people to truly worship God varies widely. I have dear friends who, though once in low-church, evangelical congregations, have found deep inspiration for their worship in Eastern Orthodox worship settings, with its elaborate liturgy and pageantry. I have other friends who grew up in very formal churches, but who have been set free to worship in free-flowing, band-led services full of praise songs and other contemporary expressions. And then there's everything in between. (Photo: The Festival of Carols at Irvine Presbyterian Church, one of my favorite worship experiences.)

I don't mean to imply that a worship service can be anything you want it to be. A true worship experience is focused on God, God's grace, God's nature, God's activity, God's love. It regularly holds up the good news of the gospel, in word, in song, in prayer, and in deed. It includes the reading and preaching of Scripture. The sacraments of communion and baptism and regularly shared. But these various elements of worship, which are common to all true Christian worship, can be experienced in a wide variety of genres and styles. I don't care whether you go to a church that uses a choir and hymns or a band and praise songs or some combination. I do care that you find a church in which you are let to the throne of grace, where you might experience mercy and find grace afresh, and where you might offer yourself to God on a regular basis.

I must qualify what I've just said, however, if you're something other than a single person. If you're a member of a family, then you're facing a potentially more complicated issue, because you need to find a church that facilitates the worship of your family, and not just yourself. This may be easy, but probably won't be. These days, it's quite possible that your spouse is moved to worship through a different style from the one you prefer. And if you have teenage children, as I do, it's almost certain that their preferences won't be the same as yours. So you may very well be looking for a church that offers a variety of worship experiences.

I'm not interested in debating in this post whether it's good or not for a church to have diverse worship services. I'll save this for another time. But, given what I've said above, you can probably surmise that I'm less concerned about the style(s) of worship in a church than I am about the understanding of worship and the way it is facilitated. A church with a right theology of worship and wise worship leaders will be leading people to offer themselves to God in their traditional service, their contemporary service, their blended service, their vanilla service, their chocolate-chip service, and who knows what else.

These days, many churches have developed theological statements in which they discuss their understanding and practice of worship. If the church you're considering has such a statement, it might help you discover whether this church is right for you. You can find an example of such a statement on the website of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I served as pastor for many years. The leaders of this church and I developed this statement primarily as a guide for our own worship. But it also helped potential new members learn what we believed and practiced.

In the end, however, statements will only take you so far. You will only know if you (and your family) can truly worship in a given church by regularly joining the congregation in their worship.

Recommendation #7: Choose a church where you can experience genuine Christian fellowship.

Part 10 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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From a biblical point of view, when a person enters into a relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, that person also becomes a member of the body of Christ, the interconnected network of all believers in Jesus. Each member of the Christ's body is expected to invest deeply in the lives of others, both receiving and giving care, prayer, and love.

Many churches provide contexts in which you can experience this sort of thing in reality. Unfortunately, many churches do not. They have bought into the non-biblical vision of the church as a provider of services. Consumers (read "church members") come to church for what they need: inspiration, hope, teaching, etc. They may choose to chip in to help pay for these provisions, or they may not. But, at any rate, when they're done getting their needs met, they leave and go about their business until another need for the church arises.

This vision of church life is often embodied in many of a church's core realities. Consider, for example, the design of the classic church sanctuary. Whether we're talking about a giant cathedral or a small country chapel, this classic design includes a stage on which the action occurs (called a chancel or altar). There are seats for the audience (called pews for the congregation), so they can see what's happening on the stage. The seats are designed to facilitate face-forward observation and little else. The main door into the sanctuary opens onto the street, so people can come from the world into the sanctuary, observe and receive, and then go back out into the world with minimal interaction with others. This is not only thought to be okay, it is encouraged by the very architecture of thousands of church buildings. (Photo: On the contrary, when we designed our sanctuary at Irvine Presbyterian Church, we intentionally made the entrance contiguous to the patio. One could not enter or exit the church without passing through the folks on the patio.)

Of course you can find churches with sanctuary doors opening to the interior of the church campus where genuine fellowship is hard to find. And you can find churches with traditional architecture in which you'll quickly be folded into genuine fellowship. The main point isn't the architecture, but rather the reality of genuine fellowship and the existence of many points of entry for new people. Some churches do pretty well with the members-caring-for-each other idea, but they make it difficult for new people to join the relational network. You need a church in which genuine fellowship is present and you can join in.

In small churches, you may be able to become an active part of the community simply by showing up at all-church events (worship services, potlucks, mission projects, etc.). In most churches, however, and especially in large churches, genuine Christian fellowship necessarily happens in smaller groups (classes, covenant groups, prayer groups, mission groups, etc.).

Let me emphasize that genuine Christian fellowship isn't just friendly handshakes and greetings on the patio after church. It necessarily involves a much deeper sharing of life. It requires a context in which "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it" (1 Cor 12:26). This sort of thing requires intimacy, longevity, and mutual commitment.

So, when you're looking for a church, I'd encourage you to examine online and printed information for evidence of ample contexts for genuine fellowship. Are there Bible studies? Men's groups? Women's groups? Prayer groups? Sunday classes? Midweek gatherings? etc. etc. etc. If so, then you may have found a church where you can become involved in true fellowship. Try out some of these groups to see if you might fit there. Your experience of the people in the church will help you discern whether they are welcoming of new people, and therefore will be eager to include you in their fellowship.

Recommendation #8: Choose a church where you will be equipped and encouraged to live out your life as a minister of Christ.

Part 11 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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You might expect the Senior Director of Laity Lodge to say something like this. After all, I'm part of an organization committed to the ministry of the laity, the non-ordained people of God, if you will. But the idea that every Christian is called into the ministry of Christ didn't originate with Howard Butt, Jr., the founder of Laity Lodge. Rather, it flows from the pages of Scripture.

You can find the ministry of all of God's people throughout the New Testament. It's found in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the earliest believers in Jesus, an action that Peter interprets in light of the prophecy of Joel in the Old Testament:

"In the last days," God says,
     "I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
   Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
     Your young men will see visions,
     and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
     even on my servants—men and women alike—
     and they will prophesy." (Acts 2:17-18 // Joel 2:28-29)

If the Spirit will now be poured out on all people, then all people will be empowered for ministry.

The ministry of all of God's people is found often in the letters of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, for example, Paul explains that the Holy Spirit empowers every Christian with special gifts, which are to be used for building up the church. We find no hint in this passage of professional clergy who do ministry and non-professional laity who receive it. Rather, all believers are to be actively involved in the ministry of Christ.

Paul's letter to the Ephesians contains one of the clearest and most compelling biblical descriptions of the ministry of all of God's people:

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. (Eph 4:11-16)

Notice that all of God's people are "to do his work and build up the church" (v. 12). More literally, this sentence says that the saints (hagioi in Greek, meaning all believers, not just special ones) are to be equipped "for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." Ministry is what all Christians do, and all are necessary for the church to be what God intends it to be. This is especially clear in verse 16, which underscores the necessary participation of each member in the body.

So if every Christian is called into ministry, what do those we sometimes call "ministers" do? What is the role of pastors, priests, and preachers? Verse 11-12 show that these people have the responsibility of equipping the people of God for their ministry. The clergy are not to do all the ministry themselves. Rather, their particular ministry involves preparing the people in the church for their own ministry in the church and the world.

Given what Scripture teaches about ministry, it follows that you should look for a church that believes this and does it. So, Recommendation #8 reads: Choose a church where you will be equipped and encouraged to live out your life as a minister of Christ. I realize, of course, that I'm swimming upstream here. Ordinarily, people look for churches that provide the ministries they value. They want "ministers" who do "ministry" well, preaching, praying, caring for the people, etc. And churches generally play into this vision of church as well, enticing potential new members with lists of need-meeting ministries and one or more professional ministers. I don't think it's wrong for churches to have need-meeting ministries or professional ministers. But at the top of the list of ministries offered by churches should be equipping ordinary Christians for their ministries. And at the top of the job description of every pastor it should read: Equip members for ministry.

You might expect that megachurches are especially vulnerable to falling into the "we provide great ministries and ministers" trap. But, in my experience, megachurches often do a fine job teaching their members that they are to be ministries and then equipping them for ministry. This is one reason why churches become megachurches, actually. It's often the smaller, more traditional churches that feature a traditional "pastor as minister and members as ministry receivers" model. This is one reason why such churches are not growing, and may well be struggling to stay alive. However, there are megachurches that are almost entirely based on the charisma and celebrity of the preacher, and there are smaller, traditional churches that are committed to equipping members for ministry. So don't let the size or style of the church get in the way of an honest evaluation of the church's commitment to the ministry of God's people. (Photo: Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, where Rick Warren is pastor. This megachurch, with over 15,000 members, does an excellent job equipping and encouraging people for their ministries in the church and in the world.)

How can you know if a church will equip and encourage you to live out your life as a minister of Christ? First, look for evidence of a biblical understanding of church and ministry on church websites and in other printed material. Do they talk about equipping people for ministry? Do they feature the ministries of God's people?

Second, listen to what you hear in worship services. Churches that value the ministry of God's people will feature the ministry of God's people in their corporate gatherings through lay witnesses, lay worship leaders, etc.

Third, see if the church you're interested in offers any classes for training people in ministry. Some churches have intentional programs that train folks to find and do their ministries.

Fourth, ask questions of church members, such as: Does this church encourage you to live as a minister of Christ in your daily life? If people can answer this question positively, chances are that you've found a church that truly values the ministry of God's people.

Recommendation #9: Choose a church where you will grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Part 12 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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Many Christians see life in this world mostly as waiting around until the train arrives to take us to heaven. They don't realize that this world in a place were we are supposed to serve and honor God by joining in his work of cosmic transformation. And they don't recognize that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, they are supposed to be growing into greater maturity. By the end of our lives on this earth, each one of us should be well-developed disciples, ready to take the next step as we follow Jesus into the future.

Our word "disciple" comes from the Greek word mathetes, which literally means "learner." The disciple learns, not by sitting in a classroom and hearing lectures, but by entering into a relationship with a master teacher. A mathetes is what we might call an apprentice or an intern. (Photo: Detail from a painting by Tintoretto, "Christ Washing His Disciples' Feet," AD 1547. A fantastic portrait of relational discipleship.)

Jesus' first disciples had the extraordinary privilege of learning in relationship with him. We see this throughout the Gospels, especially in Mark 3:14: "And [Jesus] appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message." Yet before they were able to fulfill their apostolic calling, the apostles were first disciples of Jesus who were called "to be with him." Here is the relational essence of discipleship.

We, of course, don't have the opportunity this side of the world to come to be with Jesus in the flesh. So how can we be "with Jesus" in order to grow as his disciples? First, when we put our faith in Christ, we receive his very Spirit, who teaches us his truths and molds our hearts to be like the heart of Jesus. We are with Jesus in that we are with his Spirit.

Second, we can be "with Jesus" when we are with his people. Christian discipleship this side of the Ascension happens as more mature Christians come into relationship with less mature believers, helping them to grow as disciples. This discipleship relationship can be one-on-one, or it can happen in a small group. Large group instruction contributes to discipleship, but can never replace personal, relational discipleship.

Thus, as you look for a church, I'd urge you to find one that gets the fact that all Christians are disciples, and that discipleship is an intentional process of growth in the context of intimate relationship. If the church you're considering has lots of Bible and ministry classes, this is a fantastic start. But I'd encourage you to look for a church that facilitates relationship-based discipleship as well. This can take different forms: spiritual direction, one-on-one discipleship, small group fellowship, ministry teams, mission trips, etc. etc.

Discipleship isn't simply a matter of accumulating lots of right doctrine. Some churches have replaced biblical discipleship with an educational model that emphasizes the learning of lots of truth. Now I'm the first one to value learning lots of truth. But merely internalizing truth isn't full discipleship, though it's a crucial step. Full discipleship requires both relationship and the living out of truth in daily life.

Discipleship isn't simply a matter of being in intimate relationships with other Christians, however. As important as relationship is to discipleship, it isn't the whole story. You can have lots of intimate relationships with other Christians without growing as a disciple of Jesus. So you need at least one relationship that is both intimate and intentionally devoted to your growth in Christ.

Discipleship isn't simply a matter of doing the works of Jesus, no matter how important this may be. Jesus himself said,

"On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'"(Matthew 7:22-23)

Knowing Jesus, truly and personally, is essential to following him as his disciple.

How can you know if a church will help you grow as a disciple? You might start by looking at what a church says about its core vision and mission. Does discipleship (or growth in Christ) show up? Then you might look at the kinds of programs for Christian growth that a church sponsors. Lecture-type classes are good. More intimate contexts for discipleship are even better. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, look at the kind of disciples your potential church is producing. Are they living as active disciples of Christ in every part of life? At home? At work? At church? On the soccer field? In the PTA? With colleagues? With friends? etc. etc. If you see people in a church living out their discipleship on a regular basis, then you can be fairly sure that their church will help you to do the same.

Recommendation #10: Choose a church that sees itself and seeks to live as an outpost of the mission of God in the world.

Part 13 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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Today I'll suggest Recommendation #10: Choose a church that sees itself and seeks to live as an outpost of the mission of God in the world.

I could have just said "Choose a missional church," but many of my readers wouldn't quite know what this means. Some might thing I'm referring to a church that has an extensive "missions" program: sponsoring overseas missionaries, being involved in local mission, etc. But this wouldn't get the precise nuance of "missional."

A missional church sees itself and seeks to live as an outpost of the mission of God in the world. Traditionally, Christian churches though of new church developments or missionary churches as outposts of God's mission. They weren't the outposts, but the home bases. Their job was to care for the Christians in their congregation and support the missionary efforts of others. (Photo: The sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church. During my years as pastor there, we worked hard to see ourselves and to live as a missional church. My hope and prayer is that the next pastor will be able to move this fine church even further along the missional path.)

There is much good in this traditional model of church. It has helped spread the good news of Jesus throughout the world. And it has contributed to the planting of thousands of churches in the U.S. But the traditional view that sees the home church as the sending church, rather than the sent church, misses an absolutely central dimension of God's plan for the church.

If you go back to the Great Commission, where Jesus sent his disciples into the world to make more disciples, it's clear that these disciples were sent. No question about it. Now their task was to make more disciples of Jesus who would do just as Jesus had commanded his first disciples. So the Great Commission would provide the marching orders, not just for the earliest disciples, but also for all who follow Jesus. Of course, in time, disciples of Jesus wouldn't need to literally go somewhere to make disciples. They'd already be in the place where God had "sent" them, so to speak. They'd have found their place in the mission (from the Latin word missio, meaning "sending") of God.

Every single church throughout the world has been, in a sense, sent by God to do the work of the kingdom in that place. In this sense, every church should be a missional church, a church committed to reaching out to make more disciples of Jesus and to living out the reality of the kingdom in its location. Unfortunately, many churches do not see themselves in these terms. They're stuck in the traditional model of church, rather than in the biblical model.

You can tell if a church is missional by paying attention to its vision and, indeed, statement of mission. Does this church exist not just for itself, but for the sake of others? Does it see itself as called by God to share the good news of Christ in its community and to live out this good news? A church doesn't have to use the word "missional" to be missional. But it does have to demonstrate a pervasive commitment to the mission of God in the world.

Some churches might have a missional mission statement, but a traditional modus operandi. A church might say, "We exist to reach others" but, in its actions, show that it actually exists primarily for itself. So when you're choosing a church, you'll want to see if that church is actually reaching out to the community in tangible ways. Of course the precise nature of this outreach will vary according to the nature of the community.

It's quite likely that a missional church will also be involved in the wider mission of God throughout the world. That's great. It will support missionaries, sponsor mission trips, etc.

As a newcomer to a church, chances are that you'll be able to evaluate the missional character of the church fairly easily, perhaps even more easily than many of the members. You'll sense whether the church exists for outsiders, because you are an outsider. You'll know whether you have been welcomed by many. You'll see whether core members are looking for new folks to greet, or whether they're caught up with their own friends.

Recommendation #11: Choose a church that values the Bible as God's uniquely inspired and authoritative Word.

Part 14 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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If I had been approaching this series on choosing a church more systematically, as if I were writing a book rather than a series of blog posts, odds are this recommendation would have appeared much higher on the list. In a sense, it is presupposed in most of my other recommendations. If you find a church that is essentially orthodox, that proclaims and embodies the gospel, that encourages you in your worship, where you experience genuine fellowship, where you'll be equipped as a minister, where you'll grow as a disciple, and that is a missional church, it's almost guaranteed that this church will also have high regard for Scripture.

You'll notice that I did not use words often associated with biblical authority, words such as "inerrancy" and "infallibility." I realize many people would find one or both of these words essential, and that's fine with me. But, for the sake of this series on choosing a church, I'm not so concerned with the wording that a church uses for the authority of Scripture. What is highly recommended, from my point of view, is that a church value the Bible as uniquely inspired and authoritative.

God's inspiration touches many things and many people. I believe that God inspires artists and musicians, poets and preachers. I also think God inspires great paintings and symphonies, great novels and sermons. But the Bible stands in a different category as a uniquely inspired document. At least this is what most Christians have believed for centuries and continue to believe around the world today. I stand firmly in this congregation.

The Bible is, therefore, uniquely authoritative. Its truth trumps everything else. In church life, this means that the Bible should be the authoritative source for preaching and teaching. It should guide the decisions of church leaders in a way unparalleled by any other authority. (Photo: St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas. One of the main things that drew me to this church was its commitment to biblical authority.)

What authorities compete with that of Scripture? Historically, one such authority has been church tradition. Some Christians believe that church tradition stands on par with the Bible when it comes to authority in the church. As one who stands in the Protestant tradition, I believe that church tradition has much to offer, but that the Bible gets the majority vote. Of course in many, many cases Scripture and tradition agree. But if there is a difference, then Scripture should prevail.

Another potentially competing authority is that of church leaders. Yes, of course you find this in the Roman Catholic church, where the authority of the church, as expressed through the Pope, can establish doctrine on par with that based on Scripture, even if there is little or no biblical evidence for that doctrine. Now when the Pope is himself a biblically-centered leader, as in the case of Benedict XVI, that which he teaches will often be consistent with Scripture. But, once again, I'd encourage you to look for a church that prizes biblical truth above all.

I should add, by the way, that there are Roman Catholic churches in which the Bible is taught as an absolute authority. I used to attend such a church sometimes when I was in graduate school. Moreover, there are many Protestant churches that profess the ultimate authority of Scripture, but in fact give that authority to their pastor. The pastor, much like the Pope, is the ultimate and inerrant interpreter of Scripture, and therefore has de facto ultimate and inerrant authority in church matters.

Perhaps the most common competitor to biblical authority these days, at least in the United States, isn't tradition or church leadership. Rather, it's one's personal experiences and feelings. I have heard apparently committed Christians say things like, "Well, I know the Bible says that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but I believe it's okay for some people because their experience guides them. They feel like they're doing what's right. Who am I to judge their experiences and feelings?" It's becoming increasingly rare for a Christian to say, "Well, my feelings tell me my behavior is just fine. But Scripture teaches otherwise, so my feelings must be wrong."

Sometimes Christians talk about their feelings and experiences with spiritual language, seeking to baptize their subjectivity. They'll say something like: "The Holy Spirit has led me to believe that premarital sex is okay," or "I'm responding to new revelations from the Spirit." These folks might believe what they're saying, but in fact it's simply another way to talk about their personal feelings. And I would not recommend a church that places feelings above biblical truth.

I realize full well that what I've said about the priority of biblical authority steps on lots of toes. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will feel the press of my shoes. So will my liberal/progressive readers. So will those who give priority to what they consider to be the leading of the Spirit. Surely, if these folks were to write a blog series on choosing a church, they'd have different recommendations. But, for me and my house, it's essential that a church values the unique inspiration of Scripture and is guided by the unique authority of Scripture. So, if you're looking for a church, I'd urge you to seek the same.

Practically speaking, you can usually find out what a church believes about Scripture from its website or other materials for visitors. This is certainly a question you might want to ask the pastor. But, even without consulting what a church says about the Bible, you can often tell where it stands by what you observe in a worship service, especially in the sermon. If the preacher regularly bases the sermon upon Scripture, speaking as if the text of the day is fully true, then the church probably has a high view of biblical authority. If, on the other hand, the preacher disagrees with Scripture or corrects it, then you know that other authorities take precedence in the church. If the sermon has little to do with Scripture, chances are that the church doesn't place a high priority of biblical truth. But this is something you should check out through additional investigation.

Recommendation #12: If you have children, choose a church that will help them to know Christ and to grow as his disciples.

Part 15 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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Obviously, if you don't have children, then this recommendation isn't relevant to you. But many who are in the process of looking for a church do have children. In some cases, they are church shopping precisely because they have children, or one child, at least.

During my tenure as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I noted how often parents with a new baby came to check us out. In many cases these parents grew up with some sort of religious background, maybe even with a strong faith in Christ. But somewhere along the way in their college and young adult years they stopped going to church, even though they continued to believe in God and think that God mattered (mostly for later in life). They were too wrapped up in their educations, their careers, or their young marriages to have time for church. But then, all of a sudden, they were blessed with a baby, and their values began to change. They wanted a place for their child to have moral and religious education, as they often put it. Some would even be more specific about wanting their child to know Christ. But most of the new parents who visited our church had only a vague sense that it was important for their child to have a church experience.

I believe that parents are given primary responsibility to help their children know Christ and grow as his disciples. This isn't something that should be delegate to the Sunday School and youth ministry of a church, even though it often turns out this way. But raising a child as a Christian isn't something parents are meant to do alone. And in today's culture which is so hostile to Christian faith and practice, parents desperately need the support and help provided by a strong church.

For many parents, finding a solid children's program or youth group for their kids is a top priority, trumping many of their own preferences. When friends of mine moved from Irvine to the Chicago area, they hoped to plug in to a Presbyterian church in their community. The church in their town was beautiful, and the worship services were moving to my friends, but the youth ministry was pathetic. They visited Presbyterian churches in neighboring communities, but still couldn't find a church with a strong, Christ-centered, discipleship-oriented youth ministry. So, after weeks of frustration, they finally visited Willow Creek Community Church, which was a reasonable drive from their home. My friends did not appreciate the Sunday morning worship experience there, which was largely intended for "seekers" rather than mature believers. They liked the preaching, but that was about it. And they did not like the size or the non-denominational ethos of Willow Creek. But their kids loved the youth ministry. My friends checked it out, and soon discovered that it was outstanding both in program and in its discipleship of young believers.

My friends called me for advice. They so much wanted to be in a Presbyterian setting. Yet they wanted what was best for their children. So what should they do? My answer was unequivocal: Join Willow Creek! I explained that if, when their children were grown, they wanted to look for another church, that would be fine. But for many years they needed to be in a place that would help their children know and follow Christ. As it turns out, my friends became deeply involved in the ministry of Willow Creek. Soon they had major leadership positions in the church, and were deeply appreciative of its ministry to them.

VBS worship kidsWhat will a church that helps children to be disciples of Christ look like? The forms can vary widely. Some churches will have extensive ministries for children and youth. Others, house churches, will include children in many adult activities, seeing discipleship more as a matter of family participation. At the core, however, a church that offers what children and youth need will be very clear about the priority of introducing them to Christ as Lord and Savior, and helping them grow as his active disciples. (Photo: Vacation Bible School [VBS] at Irvine Presbyterian Church. One sign of a healthy children's ministry is an active VBS like that at Irvine Pres.)

If you are looking for a church and you have children, I'd encourage you to talk with those who are responsible for ministries with children and youth. In many cases these will be directors or pastors. In other situations you'll be talking with elders or other non-staff leaders. Ask those in charge about their ministries. Be specific in asking about their core purposes. Do they see themselves mainly as entertainment or babysitting? Or are they in the business of making disciples of young people. Go with the church that has a discipleship emphasis.

Choosing a Church: Final Comments

Part 16 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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This will be my final post in this series on choosing a church. Of course I could always say more about this subject, but I think I've said what needs to be said, more or less.

Here, in summary, are my eleven specific recommendations if you're in the process of looking for a new church:

Recommendation #1: Clarify what you value most in a church, though with an open mind and heart.

Recommendation #2: Look for a church that is essentially orthodox, unless . . . .

Recommendation #3: Use the Internet.

Recommendation #4: Meet with the Pastor.

Recommendation #5: Choose a church that proclaims and embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ

Recommendation #6: Choose a church that encourages you in your worship.

Recommendation #7: Choose a church where you can experience genuine Christian fellowship.

Recommendation #8: Choose a church where you will be equipped and encouraged to live out your life as a minister of Christ.

Recommendation #9: Choose a church where you will grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Recommendation #10: Choose a church that sees itself and seeks to live as an outpost of the mission of God in the world.

Recommendation #11: Choose a church that values the Bible as God's uniquely inspired and authoritative Word.

Recommendation #12: If you have children, choose a church that will help them to know Christ and to grow as his disciples.

bodie churchBefore I finish, I want to remind you of a couple things I said at the beginning of this series. One is that there is no perfect church. Not in this age, at least. Every church has strengths and every church has weaknesses. So when you're looking for a church, don't expect perfection that can't be found. (Photo: The church in Bodie, California, a ghost town. No, this is not a perfect church, though there are no disagreements or problems in this church, since there are no people.)

Moreover, I want to emphasize again that the most important issue when you're looking for a church is recognizing that the question before is really: What church has God chosen for me? When you put it this way, you realize that choosing a church isn't simply a matter of figuring out what you value and looking for it. Rather, choosing a church is greatly a matter of prayer in which you seek the Lord's guidance. He might lead you to a church that fits your expectations quite nicely. Or God might have different things in mind for you. In the end, you'll want to know that you're in the church God has chosen for you. This will be especially important when you run into the inevitable discouragements all Christian experience with their church. Knowing that God has led you where you are will help you to stay put and work things through in a way that will help both you and your church to grow into greater maturity.