Bargain Hunting for a Church By David Smith

Photo: Stephen Mcsweeny
“Get to Heaven on a Harley!” A church, desperate to attract new members, hit on the idea of raffling off a brand new motorcycle. Week by week, anyone who came through the doors got a free ticket entering them in an end-of-year drawing. The more times you visited God’s house, the better the odds. Attendance soared; soon even the balcony was overflowing with leather-jacketed wannabes. On December 31, as promised, one lucky convert did indeed thunder out of the parking lot on a gleaming new chopper.

Another worship committee, with an anxious eye on its slipping numbers, polled the community and decided that less was more. People were looking for less commitment, less obligation, less in a sermon, less in everything but parking lot spaces. Tongue-in-cheek, they began advertising themselves as the “New and Improved Church Lite” of their community. Services would run just 35 minutes, with a quick sermonette only taking up seven of those minutes. In their streamlined Bibles, there would only be three Gospels. Better yet, they had trimmed what Moses brought down from Sinai, and worshipers had to only deal with Six Commandments – your choice! Offerings would only be collected every other week, with all major credit cards accepted, of course. And in those hard-hitting seven-minute sermons, the pastor would be sure to describe the joys of the upcoming 800-year millennium. Yes, this truly promised a “low-Cal” (as in “Calvinist”) worship experience.

If you’re new in town – or new to the faith because you just came down the aisle in an interfaith Billy Graham stadium meeting – how do you proceed to then pick a church?

I grew up in a very indoctrinated missionary family, where everyone for four generations had faithfully stayed within one faith community. So church-shopping – or “hopping” – was never much of an option for me. I went where my parents went; later my kids went where I drove them. But here in Southern California, with the wide-open freeways on weekends, even within one denomination, parishioners can scan the Yellow Pages or go online and find the church that promises contemporary worship or extended child care hours or an early-morning service for those who don’t want to miss the Super Bowl. I have seen many people change churches just so they could get onto a better softball team.

Jacuzzis and door prizes aside, what are the meaningful criteria a person should weigh when surfing for a sanctuary? First of all, it is important to find a church and go! Don’t fall into the familiar trap of trying to be a Christian just in a lawn chair in your own backyard. Hebrews 10:24, 25 tells us: "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the day approaching."

We are all looking for well-kept restrooms and vibrant PowerPoint slides when we pick a church, but again, what are the major considerations? Here are three that I believe should be foremost.

1. Is this community healthy? - I watched from the sidelines in recent years as one church destroyed leader after leader with divisive bickering, grudges, sinister campaigns, factionalism. Prickly issues hung over the congregation like a cloud of poison, and there was no corporate commitment to resolving the problems. A healthy church may be large or small, but it will be marked by godly preaching, by warmth and love, an accepting attitude, a desire to grow, by the studying of spiritual disciplines and Bible knowledge. In his book, The Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren proposes that “the key issue for churches in the 21st century will be church health, not church growth.” 

2. Is this place committed to Bible truth? - A strong and nurturing church will be pledged to biblical fidelity: “What God says, we will do. Where He sends, we will go.” Go to their website and read through the congregation’s “Statement of Beliefs.” Do they emphasize the key points of Christian doctrine that you have come to believe? Through the years, I have been part of many parachurch organizations that weren’t connected to my own denomination. But it has always given me confidence to read that we were in full harmony on the six or seven great themes of Scripture that they chose to articulate.

In even a few visits, you will be able to tell if Bible truth is important to a church. Are the sermons punctuated with Scripture references . . . or just stories, anecdotes, and psychobabble “fluff”? Do members seem to be carrying Bibles and using them? Is there a Bible study hour or class where people gather as students and, with an organized curriculum, explore the important themes of Christian truth? 

3. Do they care about you? - Perhaps not surprisingly, some churches really are not interested in having someone new join their ranks; they are very comfortable with the existing “Club Membership Roster.” A vibrant church that is right for your family will be genuinely interested in you. They will welcome you, take pains to get to know you. After your first visit, you will get a card, phone call, or e-mail from the pastor.  Members will purposefully seek to draw you graciously into their circles of friends. They will include you in activities and extracurricular events. You will soon feel like you have truly found a home there. 

In the preface to C. S. Lewis’ masterpiece, Mere Christianity, he writes a little bit about churches and how to pick one. This classic book, of course, is a defense of “mere” Christianity; it doesn’t delve into the nuances of various church doctrines – as a local church obviously must. And he has a very apt illustration, where the entire worldwide Christian Church is indeed like a home, actually a great house. And a person who has joined himself to Christ, but not yet found a local church, is like someone still standing in the hall or the foyer.

We thank God they have entered the house . . . but a hall is not a place to live! No, there are many rooms branching off from that great hallway, and it is in the rooms “that there are fires and chairs and meals,” he writes. It is important to move as quickly as possible to one of the rooms, to join a family, to be a part of a growing and happy community.

“Above all,” Lewis writes, “you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you the best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me toward this?’”

The good news is that God is interested in your search! He wants your family to find His full truth, to embrace all that the Christian faith can provide, to be strengthened by “community” and by the power that valid Scriptural teaching can give you. All of heaven is eager to help you find your way home.

David Smith Pastors the Upper Room Fellowship in Temple City, CA. All rights reserved © 2012 Click here for content usage information