If you’re reading this because you don’t like your church and you want to know how to shop for a better church and you thought, based on the title of this post, that you might get some good ideas for how to find a better church… prepare to be disappointed. That’s not what this article is about.
Instead, I’d like to share some insights about how to choose a church when the right time comes. I’m basing these insights on some of the experiences our family has had in choosing a church following long-distance moves. After several moves, and several not-so-good choices over the past few years, I found our most recent church choice to be different – and much better. My hope is that anyone who is facing the decision of which church to join will find help and encouragement. So here are 7 commandments for choosing a church.
1) Stay where you are. Okay, I know I kind of already said this, but I do not want to encourage church hopping. If you don’t like the church where you are, the problem is probably you (or at least partially you… but probably mostly you). Now I know there are cases of abuse, heresy, off-the-rails weird stuff, times when a church disbands, and other legitimate reasons to leave a church. But most people do not leave a church for any such reasons; most of the time it’s because the church is not meeting their needs, expectations, or preferences – and these are lousy reasons for leaving one church for another. And lousy reason number 1 is that you’re leaving for the sake of your kids in order to join a church with a better children or youth program (more on this in commandment #2). Leaving your church in hopes of getting your needs and wants satisfied will keep you hopping perpetually from one church to another.
2) Don’t focus on what the church has to offer. Not only should you not hop from one church to another, you should also refuse to “shop” for a church. I detest the term “church shopping” and I think the sentiment of the term is cancerous for Christians. Shopping is a consumer activity – we compare features and benefits of one product or service against those of others in order to make a wise purchase. When a person talks of a church offering a great children’s program or lots of missions opportunities, they reveal a consumer-driven approach to church. The problem is that church is neither a product, nor a service. And while consumerism should not influence your choice to leave one church for another, it should also not play a role in your decision making process for selecting a church when you move or have another legitimate reason to find a church.
Resisting consumerism is not easy when it comes to choosing a church. Several years ago, after our family moved to a new town, I made a list of what I was looking for in a church in order to help us make a good church choice. Then I went online and started looking at church websites hoping to find a church that met as many of the list items as possible. Eventually, I prioritized the list and then had to shorten the list since no church fit the list perfectly. These were the worst things I could have done. These are activities suited for car shopping, not joining a local Christian fellowship. Honestly, the entire three years we lived in that town, I was never settled about where we attended church and we never officially joined a church. I think the reason for our unsettledness had everything to do with the fact that I used a consumer-driven process for making what should have been a Christ-centered decision. Having a list of what you’re looking for in a car or an appliance or a washing detergent might be a good idea, but focusing on what a church “has to offer” is a bad idea.
3) Find the line that separates shopping from discernment. If you’re not going to shop for a church, what should your decision-making process look like? I suggest being clear where the line is between shopping and discerning. Shopping is about having your own wants and preferences met by a church; discernment is about ensuring the church is expressing God’s expectations and commands. I wouldn’t suggest choosing a church that is clearly outside of God’s expectations – such a choice would reflect a total lack of discernment. However, don’t confuse your own pet theological point or worship practice preference with God’s clear command.
Let me give an example. I happen to believe strongly that no church should display a national flag anywhere on its campus, let alone in the sanctuary. However, if I let this belief balloon out of proportion, it could easily become a kind of litmus test that I imposed on every church – I would measure them and they would come up short. That would be shopping, in my opinion. On the other hand, if a church engages in a practice that is severely unbiblical and indicates a pervasive disregard for the authority of scripture, I would be wise to avoid such a church; such would be discernment.
I’d suggest that many, many issues are far more about our own preferences than we might think. The list would include: worship style, denomination, leadership and decision-making structures, and whether a church has Sunday school or small groups. My point here is that your list of “discernment issues” should probably be shorter than you think.
4) Embrace imperfection. Social media sharing platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest reinforce a perfectionist tendency among many of us and drive a narrative that makes a lot of people think they don’t measure up. Seeing one more post-n-pic of someone’s seemingly perfect kids or new car or awesome vacation can make you think that (your) life should be perfect. That’s a really unhealthy attitude, and one that should definitely not affect your decision about where to attend church, otherwise you will be on the hunt for a church that measures up to the airbrushed and edited versions of church you see sprawled across the media.
The temptation to look for a perfect church is not new. I recall a conversation over 20 years ago when a pastor told me that once Charles Stanley started coming on TV every Sunday morning his congregation slowly stopped thinking he (the pastor) was a very good preacher. Their expectations had been shifted by their regular exposure to Stanley (and a lot of other radio and TV preachers). Nowadays, when worship services that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to “produce” are streamed online and celebrity preachers have their own YouTube stations, it’s easy to expect a church down the street to offer a similar experience. It won’t, so give up on that expectation and embrace the imperfection of the churches in your area. The church you join will have all kinds of problems and pains and imperfections, which makes it a great fit for someone like you.
5) Resist the pull of the trending church. Most towns and cities have one or two churches that are “hot.” These are the churches that seem to have caught fire and are attracting a lot of new members. It’s tempting to jump on a bandwagon, especially when it seems like a church in your area has finally “gotten it right.”
The problem with following the trend and jumping on the bandwagon is twofold. First, trusting the trend diminishes your own discernment process in favor of opting for the herd mentality. Whether a church is the church where God wants you and your family has zero to do with how many other people are choosing to attend/join. All those new church members may be self-centered consumers or pet-theology practitioners who are choosing the church based on ungodly reasons, so why follow the crowd? Second, trending churches can suck the life out of other churches, making for a weaker overall Christian witness. Too many church members consider only their own needs and not the needs of the larger community when choosing a church.
Why not choose a church in order to give instead of to get? Instead of hopping on the hot church bandwagon, consider a church that might not be so hot where you can serve, contribute, and boost the church’s witness. By the way, don’t misinterpret this commandment to mean you should find a church that is so desperate they will let you be in charge or one that needs your awesome wisdom, insights, or opinions. Choosing a church where you can consume or choosing a church where you can be in control are both ungodly and unwise choices.
6) Use the search process to promote your own sanctification. When you resist making a decision based on getting your own needs and wants met, you open yourself up to new awareness about your growth points. I know God has used the church search process to identify and rub away some of the rough edges of my own character. When I sit in a church service and think, “I don’t really like this” (whether “this” might be a song, or sermon point, or flag standing in the corner, or anything else), I feel God pinch me and I hear Him say, “Life is not a story about you and being part of a church is not about having your way.”
I have found that by willingly submitting myself to be part of a church that is not a “perfect fit” for me, I am far better able to worship God and put Him first. The truth is that I need to be uncomfortable, have my preferences go unmet, and be part of a church family that is not “all that” in order to constantly reinforce my humility and to remind me that life is not a story about me. Shifting attention away from your wants and preferences will result in far different (and better) after-church conversations; gone will be the “How did you like the service today?” questions and in their place will be deeper conversations about God’s glory and goodness.
7) Pray. So put away your list of preferences and focus on what really matters. The way to focus on what really matters is to pray. Specifically, I’d encourage you to pray that God would shift your mindset away from considering the criteria for what is an ideal church toward considering that practically any church can be a great church – a church where you make much of God and are formed into an imitator of Christ. And when you pray about which church to join, be open to the surprising responses God might just give.