When I was a child, you could tell where people lived by the churches they went to: everyone went to the church that was closest to them. Except in rural areas and small towns, that season of ecclesiastical life is all but over. Now people look around for a church that fits them. Families are willing to drive to the other side of town—or even to a neighboring city—in order to find a church.
But there is a challenge in this freedom: how do you find a church? What process should you go through to discern whether a particular congregation is right for you?
Maybe you’re getting married and you and your spouse need to find a church that fits both of you. Or maybe you just graduated from college and want to attend a church where you aren’t known as “Dirk and Susan’s kid.” Or maybe you want to find a church that’s a little smaller than the one you are in now. Or a bit bigger.
The first thing to know is that it may take a while before you find a church that feels just right. And, as we’ll see, finding a church that feels just right might not be the right choice at all.
Immersion Better Than a Sprinkle
If you’re looking for a new church, take the process seriously. Don’t drop in here and there from time to time. Make a list of churches you want to visit, and visit each one for four consecutive weeks. That may seem excessive, but I’ve found that a month-long immersion lets you see things that one visit does not.
Over four Sundays, for example, you can get a good flavor of the worship style of the congregation. Was the liturgical dance only for Advent? Is the preacher working through a series? Do they blend musical styles every week, or only when they have communion? How often do they have communion? How are baptisms celebrated?
Speaking as a preacher, I would rather have my preaching evaluated over four weeks than one. This allows the hearer to see if the preacher’s style is the same week in and week out or if she varies the form of the sermon on occasion. Does he preach specifically for this congregation, or do his sermons have a more generic bent? How does she engage Scripture? Do I learn from this person’s preaching? Am I inspired by it? Convicted? Does it apply to everyday life? These things can best be learned over the course of a few weeks. (Remember, too, that while the pastor is an integral part of a church, he or she is not the whole of the church experience. Pastors come and go, but the values and passions of a congregation can last for decades.)
If you make the commitment to a four-week immersion in the church, really take the plunge: go to the coffee hour after worship and make yourself accessible, attend church school, sing in the choir. How are you greeted and by whom? Do people assume you know your way through the warren of hallways in the basement, or do they lead you to the classrooms or coffee? Do you feel welcomed? Do church members take time to get to know you? When you come back the second week does anyone recognize you?
You may also choose to observe how three groups of people in the church are cared for: children, the elderly, and any members with special needs. Usually churches that do well in caring for members of these groups do well in caring for the whole. So look for these things: Are the children involved in worship? Do teenagers read Scripture or play instruments? Are the senior members honored? Do others bring them their coffee so they can sit during the fellowship time? And how are worshipers with special needs accommodated? Large-print bulletins, Loop systems for hearing aids, spaces for wheelchairs, and people who assist those with needs are all examples of caring congregations.
If yours is a family with children, you’ll want to tour the nursery and classroom facilities. Arrive early to watch the nursery staff in action. How do they greet the children and their parents? What safety precautions are taken? How do they welcome visitors?
Some families choose to try out a congregation because of the reputation of the church’s youth group. If you’re one of these families, be sure you learn the history of the program. Has it thrived due to one leader? If so, how long has that person been there? Is he or she going to stay? Youth groups can also rise and fall based on the students in the church—some students naturally draw others from outside the church into the group. That’s a gift, but parents and students need to remember that the vibrancy of the group may wane when those students graduate. Learn as much as you can about the reasons for this congregation’s success with youths before you join. That way you’ll know if the program is sustainable.
I also encourage you to read all that you can. Pick up copies of the church newsletter, scan the bulletin boards, and explore the church’s website. Based on your reading, what do you see as the values of this congregation? What things are important to them, and how can you tell? If a church’s website has a whole section on social justice and says little about worship, for example, you can gain some insight into how this church sees itself. I’ve also found that if the website is current and allows you to learn about staff members, vision, budget, and the worship and preaching schedule, it’s much easier to understand elements of worship, such as the congregational prayer or how the offering gets distributed.
A Good Fit Not Always Best
You may discover, however, that what you really need is not a church that fits you, but a church that stretches you. Maybe the Holy Spirit has been nudging you to find a smaller church that really needs your gifts, a church in which you’ll not be allowed to merely sit in the pew. Or maybe you’ve developed a passion for the Friendship Ministries program. Or you want to work with refugees or teach English as a Second Language. Sometimes our passions draw us to a particular church, and we’re able to absorb the other realities of that congregation for the sake of those passions.
Choosing a church is, in many ways, like choosing a family. And few of us ever get the chance to do that (except maybe in the case of in-laws, but even they come as part of the package). Churches are as varied as families too, with different traditions and passions and inside jokes. Some are large and boisterous; others, smaller and quieter.
As you consider choosing a church, remember that having options for church involvement is a unique gift at this time and place in church history. Many of our brothers and sisters in the global church community have only one local expression of the body of Christ, and they are
grateful for it. Whatever spats and feuds or revivals and victories, that church is their church, no matter what. There is much to be learned from this.
If, when it comes down to it, you can’t make a choice, use this two-step process recommended to me by a friend who learned I was writing this article: (1) Find the church closest to you. (2) Love whomever you find there.