Many thousands of people search out a new church each year. They often research congregations in their area, ask around, and then personally visit the short list in a month of Sundays.
Let’s consider some common criteria.
“I’m looking for a church that is not so dogmatic.”
A caustic, callous, censorious approach does not draw men to Jesus—it repels them. A Savior lifted up on the cross is heaven’s magnet (John 12:32). The church must present its message in love (Ephesians 4:15). It has no permission from a loving God to be hateful to the people He created (1 Peter 1:22; 2:17). No one wants to sit in a cold church—but warm and cozy is hard to leave.
Does this mean that a church should not stand strong for truth? No. Doctrine is important (John 8:24; 2 John 1:9–11). The church must teach all the counsel of God (Acts 20:27) whether it is popular or unpopular (2 Timothy 4:1–5). It is to defend the gospel (Philippians 1:17; Jude 1:3), not compromise it (Galatians 1:8).
Paul was both tolerant and dogmatic, loving and convicted. On the one hand, he refused to cave to Jewish teachers who wanted to bind outdated laws. He “gave place, no, not for an hour” (Galatians 2:5). He was also gentle (1 Thessalonians 2:7), tearful (Acts 20:31), loving (Philemon 1:9), and willing to “spend and be spent” for others (2 Corinthians 12:15).
God desires His church to “comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” but also to “warn them that are unruly” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
So look for a church that speaks the truth—all of it—in love (Ephesians 4:15).
“I’m looking for a church that is not so Judgmental.”
Some grew up in homes with hard fathers and fault-finding mothers. Others are in dysfunctional, abusive relationships. Some have been judged unfairly by peers or society for so long that they long for a place where they can just be themselves. The last thing they are looking for is more of the same at church. Most just long to be loved—and none of us like to be criticized.
The church is composed of humble, kind people who know their imperfections. Like John (Revelation 21:1–3), all faithful Christians have a hopeful future, but many, like Paul, also have a regrettable past (Philippians 3:13). They have made their share of mistakes, dabbled in more sins than they care to remember, and battled addictions that haven’t gone down easily. Since “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), Christians understand, accept, encourage, and help each other.
Christians know that pointing a finger at others leaves three fingers pointing back at themselves. They long ago memorized Jesus’ admonition, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).
On the other hand, all of us should make judgments. The same Lord who said, “Judge not,” also said, “Judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Is this a contradiction? No, He doesn’t forbid judging, but He does forbid unfair, hypocritical judging (Matthew 7:2–5).
The church announces the righteousness of God (Romans 1:16–17; 3:22–25; Hebrews 1:8). It trumpets holiness, values purity, and endorses clear ethical standards. It urges sowing to the Spirit, and discourages sowing to the flesh (Galatians 6:7–8). Therefore, some sermons will encourage us; others will convict us (Acts 2:36–38). We benefit from both.
So look for a church where you feel welcomed and loved—and challenged to grow spiritually (1 Peter 2:21–22; 2 Peter 3:18).
“I’m looking for a church that doesn’t have too many rules.”
Surely a church has missed the mark if it does not teach and practice that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). Majoring in minors—meat and drink—can cause people to miss majors—rightness with God, peace with others, and joy in the heart. The weightier matters of the law—judgment, mercy, faith—can be missed while tithing spices (Matthew 23:23).
None bothered Jesus more than the Pharisees who made up rules for God and bound them on His people (Matthew 23:4, 13). They were classic legalists who thought conformity to law alone saved. Paul wrote of them: “Being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:3). Salvation is not of works of merit that men should boast (Ephesians 2:9). More than lip service must be given to the “spirit” of the law (2 Corinthians 3:6–11).
On the other hand, while rules are not an end in themselves, they are necessary. Commands give structure; rules lead to freedom. Anarchy is the child of lawlessness. No one wants to be part of an institution or society without rules.
God gave His Word to be loved, learned, understood, and obeyed—not ignored (James 1:21–25). The whole duty of man is to fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13; John 14:15; 15:10).
Obedience isn’t legalism. Rather, obedience shows that we understand the spirit of the law (Psalm 111:10; 1 John 5:1–3). Christians are set free in Christ (Romans 14:1, 4), but ironically the way God gives liberty is through obeying the truth (John 8:24; 12:48–50; Romans 6:13–17). Submission is key to accessing God’s spiritual treasures (Hebrews 5:8–9; Ephesians 2:8–9). The result (liberty) follows the cause (obedience). John wrote, “Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him” (1 John 2:3–5).
So look for a church that practices both the spirit and the letter.
“I’m looking for a church that is not so old-fashioned.”
Americans love their gadgets; none of us want to return to rotary telephones or typewriters. We are connected; we don’t want to go back to waiting for a letter to arrive in the mail. We are mobile; horses might be a fun weekend, but no one wants to ride one to work every day.
Why, then, would we want to go to a church that feels like we are stepping back in time? Why read from a Book that our grandmothers read, sing a hundred-year-old song, or take up a religion that’s been around for two thousand years?
Good questions, all. For those who haven’t been in a while, we might point out that songs are still being written and that technology has arrived in most congregations. Members follow sermons on their tablets, view PowerPoints in Bible classes, find verses on smartphones, and listen to sermons on iPods.
At the same time, some things are always in fashion. Fulfilling man’s basic needs does not go out of style. Every generation seeks out healthy vegetables, comfortable clothing, affordable lodging, and pure drinking water. Laughter, working, security, friends, learning, and relationships never go out of style.
So it is with the church. It meets the perennial human needs of soul food and salvation. It addresses the inner man that longs to understand the big picture and find meaning in life (Ecclesiastes 1; John 10:10). It builds character, helps with relationships, and prepares one for the afterlife (2 Peter 1:5–8; Ephesians 5:25–33; Matthew 25:31–46).
The original church has no successor; it needs none. Some things are more valuable with age. Antiques that originally sold for a few dollars may fetch thousands now. Land an ancestor purchased for a couple thousand may bring six figures. Established blue chip companies often make better investment sense than a start-up.
Perhaps the discussion is more nuanced than expected . . . the pool a little deeper than it looks on the surface. If this is the kind of church you are looking for, may we invite you to visit the church of Christ?
Be our guest on Sunday.