Ask Me: How Do I Choose A New Church?

new church

I’ve received two letters from readers in the past month asking for advice about finding a new church. Here are excerpts from each:

We were part of a church plant for a couple years: a wonderful experience of everyone being on the same page, but it has now disbanded. Now that we’re on our own looking for a new church, I feel totally lost. I realize we have to compromise… but there doesn’t seem to be a church that has everything in line with what we want.  I have no idea what’s dire to have and what’s okay to forgo. Is community more important than the teaching? What about the worship? Their beliefs on mission? Geographical proximity? Multiethnicity, women in leadership, discipleship, etc etc… I understand this question is TOTALLY personal. I just wonder if you have any suggestions on choosing the right church.

and,

After more than twenty years of working weekends, I have relocated and wanted to join a church to find a church home and make friends.  The church I was raised in was a Presbyterian church & seeing an older established Presbyterian church nearby, I gravitated there to the comfort, familiarity, music, friendliness I remembered of years gone by.  I realized recently that this church has taken a position on some issues (same sex weddings and creation) that I believe are against the Bible.  I feel the church I knew has left me. I am sad. I have made friends here, but feel I have to find another church.  How do I find a church that doesn’t turn the Bible’s words into something that suits man, rather than guides man, as God intended?

Your advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

Longing For A Church Home

Dear LFACH (x2),

Changing churches is always an emotionally laden transition. I understand the longing to be part of a faithful community, but it’s hard to do when you may be feeling disconnected, grieving for what you’ve lost, and also needing to muster courage for a new search.

I only know of one way to find a new church, and that is to visit a number in your area. You may already know of a few to visit: places where friends go, perhaps. Depending on the city, there might be some kind of local wiki which lists the churches near you and you could scout your options out online to make a list of three or four to visit. Those visits will be hard, but ask questions when you go too: ask people what they like about this church, how long they’ve been there, how they came to be there and why they’ve stayed. Of course, this assumes that someone talks to you while you are there…. if they don’t, it will take extra courage to make a second trip.
Of course you know there are no perfect churches, but I think there are a great many HEALTHY ones, and often talking to some of the people in the pews will give you a better idea of the health of the community than reading a manifesto. Finding a community who love God, love the Bible and love people seems like a short and simple list, but finding those three things really is gold, no matter what the worship style is. I also think for people visiting a church, it’s entirely appropriate to call the minister or someone on staff and ask them if they’d mind talking to you about their church. Tell them a 60 second version of your background and some of the things you are looking for, and what they say in response could be really illuminating!
My personal thoughts on things that are essential in church communities is that we would do well to stick to Acts 2, and seek out communities that devote themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship and to prayer. By apostle’s teaching, I understand that to mean a faithful commitment to understanding and applying the teaching of Scripture. We are people of the Book, and so the way the community handles the Book matters tremendously. It should be read, relied on, and the worship and prayer (whatever format that takes), should reflect the priorities and passions of Scripture. I believe this is one of those things where we can ask the Holy Spirit for His specific guidance as we visit: He is the one who is able to lead us into all truth. (I have some thoughts on different church cultures here, if you’re curious.)
When it comes to “deal breaker doctrines”, that’s a matter for bible study and personal conscience: if you have strong convictions about the earth’s origins, or the Scriptures teaching on the place of women in leadership etc – you need to figure out whether this is something you can extend fellowship to others who may disagree in the spirit of Romans 14 (which you would have had to do if you were a Roman Christian… there weren’t exactly a plethora of churches to “shop around” at), or if conscience is leading you to find a place where you can serve and submit to church leadership with a clear conscience. Certainly, finding a place where we could serve with a clear conscience was a big factor for us the last time our family found ourselves looking for a church.
Acts 2 also mentions something about communities devoting themselves to fellowship, which I think has a bearing on the geographical location of the church. My wise friend Kevin once told me he had stopped going to church in a neighboring town because “you can’t commute to community”. There is something to be said for attending church where there are small groups that meet within your area, so that it becomes workable to actually live some of your LIVES together: to see one another in the grocery store, to organize a dinner, or serve together on a project. Proximity greases the wheels of community-building.
As such, this probably means that a local church should reflect the demographics of the community you actually live in. If you live in a multi-ethnic and multi-generational area, but the church is only reaching a fraction of those, that may be cause for concern. If, however, you live in a place with a fairly homogenous population (a college town of highly educated people), then it’s a bit of a stretch to look at the church and say “why are there only students and academics here? where are the homeless people and African-Americans?” Because, in truth, those populations are vastly outnumbered in our area.)
Finally: a church that devotes itself to prayer. This might be a difficult thing to assess on a Sunday visit, but it is something that will be reflected in the way people talk about challenges they are facing, or approach problem solving in the church. I think many of our evangelical churches are great in programming and poor in prayer. I wish it were different.
All that being said: there IS a church community there that God has for you, and where YOU are currently being missed as a vital part of Christ’s body. I pray you will be able to find a place to connect and thrive soon.
Best,
Bronwyn
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