After moving to a new community just over fifteen months ago, my family and I had to go through the always challenging process of choosing a church to attend. Having gone through this process several times during our adult lives, we are familiar—perhaps too familiar—with the considerations which accompany the task of choosing a part of the body of Christ with which to unite for teaching, service, prayer, fellowship, edification, and discipline. In this post and in next month’s “Christianity-related” post, I will list and discuss some of these considerations.
1. Being part of a local church is commanded of Christians.
Before discussing the process of choosing a church, it behooves us to first show why doing so at all is both necessary and important. Ours is a day of the “lone ranger” Christian. For various reasons ranging from faulty theology to plain laziness, some folks seem to think that a Christian self-identification is credible even in the absence of any real involvement in a local church. This is contrary to Scripture as well as to the teachings of theologians throughout the history of Christianity. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258) famously wrote, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not he Church for his mother.” In addition to exhortations throughout the Bible to set aside one day in seven for worship and rest, we read in Hebrews “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:23-25). We are to gather for worship, mutual encouragement, and, when needed, discipline. The Bible knows nothing of a Christianity that lacks this corporate dimension.
2. Know what you believe.
By listing this consideration, I do not mean to espouse the kind of relativism that says “you can believe what you want and that’s okay, as long as you’re sincere.” I hope that my musings on religious topics here have communicated the belief that the Bible says what it says, and one’s beliefs are either right or they are wrong. Nevertheless, within Christianity there are certain “basic essentials” of the faith upon which all genuine believers will agree (the ecumenical creeds are a good place to start when looking for these), as well as a number of secondary doctrines about which there is some disagreement among Christians. It is from these that we get our various denominations, and sometimes even subgroups within denominations. Knowing—and being able to articulate and defend—your position on these secondary matters will help you to narrow down your choices as you determine which churches to visit and then which one to join in a new community. If you subscribe to a confessional standard such as the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity, looking for a church that confesses the same can go a long way toward helping you make your decision.
3. You won’t find a church that perfectly reflects your beliefs and preferences.
Deep down, most of us tend to define our own beliefs and opinions as “orthodox,” and can be guilty of drawing the boundaries of that orthodoxy so narrowly that no church is found to be satisfactory. If followed to its logical conclusion, the end result of this thinking is a sort of “self-excommunication,” in which a person in pride and smugness places himself outside of the fellowship of God’s people, declaring no church to be “good enough.” While there might be instances (extraordinarily rarely in our part of the world) where no satisfactory church can be found, according to the Hebrews passage quoted above, such separating from the church is under normal circumstances a sinful behavior, really no better than that of the person that rationalizes his lack of church attendance by saying “I can worship God just as well in the deer stand or on the golf course as I can in the church.”
We as Christians need each other, and we even need those whose beliefs and practices we judge to be in some respects deficient. Not only did Paul exhort us to behave with charity toward those with whom we disagree on minor matters (cf. Romans 14), but we often find that people who we believe to be weak or in error on some minor point also have particular strengths in areas where we ourselves lack. Extending this thinking to whole churches, we should choose the church that we believe to be most in keeping with our own beliefs and practices while charitably overlooking those areas that we find to be wanting. While one might–over time and always with humility and submission to fellow believers and particularly church officers—endeavor to effect change in some respect (particularly is some belief or practice is demonstrably in error according to Scripture and/or confession), one should never join a church with a view toward changing or “fixing” it. Likewise, one should never join a church without being willing to be challenged and changed himself. We gather, in part, for mutual edification, and we all need the correction and “sharpening” (cf. Proverbs 27:17) that inevitably results from the gathering of God’s people.
4. You won’t find a church that is not full of hypocrites and all sorts of other sinners.
The numbers are legion of those that have left a particular church—or abandoned all churches entirely—because of hypocrisy or other sins (whether real or perceived) on the part of fellow church members. One can’t help but wonder what those leaving the church expected. After all, if Jesus Christ came to save sinners (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15), then those are the people with which His churches will be filled! Of course, Christians are called to strive to increase in holiness (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:1, Hebrews 12:1-2), but in this life sin will always persist. Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote that the Christian is simul justus et peccator, or “righteous and at the same time a sinner.” While we look forward to the eternal state in which sin will be done away with, for the present that sin remains, and it does at times rear its ugly head even within the church. One should, of course, avoid those churches in which members persist in open and known sin without repercussions, but those looking for a church totally free from hypocrisy and other sins will find themselves “in the same boat” as those seeking total conformity to their personal doctrinal preferences. Don’t look for the church full of people that pretend they have no sin. Look for the one full of people that know they are sinners and are constantly warring against that sin!
5. Proximity is important.
My final consideration for today has to do with proximity. In our area there are two conservative Presbyterian (PCA) churches. One is an old church north of Oxford, whose existence predates even the University of Mississippi. The other is a church less than twenty years old, still worshiping in a rented space near downtown, about half the distance from our home as the first church, and less than five minutes’ drive from my workplace. We spent a couple of months visiting both churches when we first arrived here, and while we preferred the music and liturgy of the older church, we found the preaching in the newer church to be preferable. As we became more familiar with both churches, we had equally long lists of “pros and cons” for each. After prayerfully considering which church we should join, we ultimately decided upon the church that was closest to us, as this best facilitates our involvement in the activities and ministries of the church. In addition to having a shorter drive on Sunday mornings, my wife and son are more easily able to participate to midweek activities for women and children, and since the church is so close to my office, participating in Bible studies and prayer groups for men held during breakfast and lunch hours is usually feasible for me.
Having a short drive to church is, sadly, not always possible. In the American South it is not uncommon for those with Reformed convictions to drive an hour each way to attend services in a congregation sharing their doctrinal commitments; this may be even worse for Lutherans! In my “former life” as a Southern Baptist I remember the difficulty of finding a suitable church when my wife and I briefly lived in the Midwest (there were plenty of Lutheran churches, though), and the joy and relief of finally finding a place to worship. Still, remember that our commitment to and involvement in the local church should not be just a “Sunday morning thing.” Join the closest suitable church you can find!
To be continued, God willing, on Friday, October 25.