Finding a new church used to be so easy. You move to a new city and look for the steeple or listen for the bells. Voila, you had yourself a new church. Congratulations!
Years later, it wasn’t that much harder, you just open the yellow pages to the appropriate section on “churches” and your choices were all laid before you on a single page; you simply have to answer one all-important question: are you a Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Presbyterian?
But then it began to get more complicated because there wasn’t only one Baptist or Methodist church. So you began to ask, “is it called First Baptist because the original is best or is Second new and improved?”
So you actually had to attend a service or talk to a pastor to discern the differences. And today things are even more complex. There are churches without first or second or a denominational marker in their names (blasphemy, I know) and churches that meet in schools and homes and churches on every corner and even some “virtual” churches. Besides, the yellow pages no longer exist (or maybe they do, but I don’t know).
Honestly, the choice can be overwhelming. Where do you even begin? When a short stretch on a single street might house 25 churches, do you just roll the dice and attend the first church you see or the one who paid for Google to be promoted or the one with the prettiest building? Beyond personally attending every church, how do you know where you will actually fit?
How can you know which churches are Calvinistic or Arminian, paedobaptist or credobaptist, egalitarian or complementarian (and what version)? And how do you know how strongly they hold those aforementioned convictions? How do you know what they believe about race and social justice? How does theology affect their practice? Do they do expositional preaching? What do they think about missions and evangelism and outreach?
Finding a church in many cities across America today is often a challenging process. Rather than making it easier, Google simply gives us more choices to overwhelm us. Finding a needle dropped on the ground is hard enough, but finding one among the haystack seems impossible.
How do we even begin? Well, we should always begin by identifying what is most important. In fact, we probably need to begin by making sure we are speaking the same language. We need to make sure we first know what a church is.
What is a Church?
So, what is a church? Historically, the Church has defined a church by three main criteria: the right preaching of the word, the practice of the sacraments (communion and baptism), and the practice of church membership and discipline. Where those are lacking, the church is lacking. A parachurch ministry that teaches Scripture might have great preaching of the word, but without baptism, communion, and formal mechanisms of church membership and discipline, it isn’t a church. A Mormon tabernacle might do baptism and church discipline, but it doesn’t have the correct preaching of the word so it is a cult rather than a church. A church by definition should have all three elements.
So that’s helpful to know. If you think, I’ll just join a BSF or Campus Outreach or CRU or the FCA and that will count as my church, you aren’t thinking biblically about the nature of a church. As a philosopher once said, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
What is a Healthy Church?
So a church is anywhere that the gospel is preached, the sacraments are practiced, and there is some element of membership and discipline.
But that just gets us to the lowest common denominator of a church. That doesn’t tell us much about whether or not it is a very “healthy” church. What are the “marks” of a healthy church? Mark Dever helpfully answered that very question decades ago in his popular “9 Marks of a Healthy Church.” We would generally agree his sentiments.
However, and no offense to Dr. Dever intended, we would perhaps offer our own distinct nuance as follows. Since 7 is a much more biblical number than 9 (kidding), here are our own 7 marks of a healthy church. In most of the contexts where those who read our blogs are likely to live these seven criteria would be non-negotiable. We say ‘in most contexts,’ because there would obviously be an exception if you lived in a city or country where there were only one or two churches. Maybe your options are unfortunately limited. In that case, it is probably best to join a church even if it doesn’t fit all of these criteria rather than just not join any church at all.
7 non-negotiable criteria in choosing a local church
- Expositional preaching. You need to find a church that doesn’t just preach from Scripture, but a church that actually preaches Scripture. This is generally best accomplished by preaching verse-by-verse and book-by-book. This means you will have the greatest chance to hear the “full counsel of God.” Regardless of whether or not the church preaches straight through books of the Bible, the essential aspect of expository preaching is that the points of the sermon match the points of the text rather than simply using the text as a platform to say what you really want to say anyway.
- Commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture: in other words, what do they say about certain topics that the world around has long since moved past? Where do they land on divorce and remarriage (are they willing to allow for divorce beyond what Scripture says?), or gender roles or human sexuality or race and social justice? Are they ashamed or embarrassed about what Scripture says on those topics? Do they simply parrot the surrounding culture?
- A shared understanding of theology: do they approach Scripture with the proper grid? Do they even have a stance or are they somewhat non or atheological? Given our theological convictions, we would recommend a church that was historically orthodox, Reformed in its soteriology (Calvinistic), baptistic in its understanding of baptism and church polity, thoroughly and unashamedly complementarian, and not simply riding the currents of culture when it comes to things like race and social justice.
- Desire for discipleship and not just conversion: have they structured the church, staff, elders, etc. in such a way as to make disciples or do they cultivate a culture where people are allowed or even encouraged to remain on the fringes? Is discipleship something that is accomplished primarily through formal ministries or through personal relationships?
- Emphasis on faithfulness and not necessarily numbers: are they approaching every area with the question, “what is most faithful to Scripture?” or are they more pragmatic (“what works?” or “what’s relevant?”)?
- Availability of the elders/staff: this doesn’t necessarily entail that every pastor needs to know every member, but there should be availability and accessibility and elders should be proactively engaging the sheep. For example, at Reformation, during each meeting our elders pray through our membership roster and ask who we can encourage, pray for, reach out to, check in on, etc. A shepherd knows his sheep and a sheep knows its shepherds so we want to cultivate that.
- Theologically rich worship. Are they simply singing the latest songs being pumped out by Hillsong and Bethel? Are they devoted to only singing hymns (even if some of them aren’t theologically accurate)? Do they demonstrate a desire for their worship to reflect their comment to theological conviction?
So, in general, those are the criteria that we would recommend. Notice what is not on the list: a really engaging preacher, a bunch of people like me (age, marital status, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, etc.), a convenient distance from my house, a dynamic worship leader, a comfortable and contemporary building with the best coffee, an inconvenience-free experience in parking, a fun and exciting place for my kids, etc.
Are all of those things bad? Not necessarily. Are they completely irrelevant? Not at all. But should any of those things be primary? Absolutely not! Those things are icing on the ecclesiological cake, but the actual ingredients of the cake are what really matter. The substance of the cake is found in their theological and philosophical commitments.
So that’s what a healthy church looks like. Now, how would you go about finding such a church? Randomly drive around and see where the Spirit leads, search Google for “best ranked church near me,” open your Bible to a random page and find a word that is in the title of a church near you (harvest, fellowship, community, etc.)?
How to Find a Church
Here is where the internet can be your friend. Below are a few church searches that should get you started.
While not all of the churches on these sites would necessarily fit the criteria above, they will all be at least generally Reformed and complementarian. If nothing else, utilizing these searches will whittle down the quest from a few hundred (in many cities), to a much more palatable list. Once the options are whittled down to a handful, we would recommend the following (generally in this order):
- Read carefully their statement of faith (if they don’t have one listed on their website, that is probably a bad sign).
- Listen to a handful of their sermons and other resources available on their website.
- Attend a couple of Sunday services.
- Speak to a staff member and/or elder (if they don’t have elders, that is also a bad sign) to ask questions about their theology, philosophy and actual practice of ministry (if they balk at questions or don’t have time to meet, that’s another bad sign).
- Attend any sort of informational or membership class.
- Assuming you are sufficiently convinced that this is a healthy (though not perfect) church, sign on the dotted line and voila, you’ve found yourself a new church. Congratulations!