Ten minute read.
Three years ago, my family and I moved back to the Niagara Region in Ontario. Among other things, this means that I was able to go back to good coffee shops, 24-hour grocery stores, and decent pubs. It also meant my wife and I had a chance to do something that we don't get to do a lot of: Church Shop.
In general, I'm not a fan of church shopping. After all, churches are not buildings or even organizations, churches are local gatherings of people. Churches are people. And so because churches are people, leaving a church simply because "my needs aren't being met" or "I'm just not being fed anymore" can be devastating, both to the community you're leaving behind AND to your own spirit. The longer you've been a part of a church, the deeper those roots run, and the more intertwined with other people you are. Ripping that those roots up does damage.
I've always said that for the vast majority of cases, there are two good reasons to leave a church: Theology and Geography.
Leaving a church over theological differences makes a certain amount of sense. Now, of course, I'm not talking about minor issues of theology, little things that don't make a lot of difference in our day to day lives. I'm talking about the big things, infant baptism or adult baptism; complementarianism or egalitarianism; how much authority does Scripture have? If you are attending a church that doesn't line up with your core convictions, or if your core convictions change, it's important to find a church you agree with. Even if a church changes its core beliefs. That could be a good reason to church shop. I say "could" because you also need to check your own motives here. Why have your core convictions changed? Is it only a whim or have you been convinced by scripture? (Some of my own convictions are showing here.) The point is, this is a big deal. Are you giving it the consideration it deserves? Decisions like these need to be bathed in prayer and wise counsel. from people you trust and respect.
This one's pretty obvious, and far more common. If you move away from your church family because of work, or any other reason really, you'll want to find a church close to your new home. This is the category I found myself in.
Church Shopping 101
The most important thing to realize when shopping for a new church is that it's not about you. It really isn't. When you're visiting a church, think about JFK and "Ask not what this church can do for you, ask what you can do for this church." Churches rise and fall on the gifting of their members. Maybe you're asking: "What can I do to serve a church? I have no Biblical training. I can't speak, lead or teach. I hate being around kids, and besides, I've only been a Christian since last Thursday!"
I'll say this as clearly as I can: there is a place for you. God has gifted you to be a productive member of a local church. Finding your place may take time, but if you pray, meet with your pastor and be intentional about finding it, you'll find it. (And if you know anything about web design or online community management, start there; unless you're attending a mega church, the online life of your church needs the help, I guarantee it.) Look for a place to serve, to produce, don't just consume, that'll only lead to feeling "unfulfilled here too" eventually.
The second most important thing to realize when shopping for a new church is that we truly have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to churches. The first church I pastored was in a town of thirteen hundred; there were seven other churches in town. Seven! Be aware that when looking for a new church (or a first church) you have options, lots of them.
So here are some quick guidelines if you're looking for a church in an area where there are many churches and you want to narrow down the field.
Find a church that you agree with theologically. If you've been a Christian for a while, you know what to look for. If you're new, look for words like: missional, reformed, reforming, Christ (or Gospel) centred. I admit I'm biased, that's what I look for. If you're new to church, keep going to the church you're at (because chances are a friend brought you to it to begin with) until you figure out where you land theologically, and then re-evaluate if necessary. Keep in mind that unless you start your own (That's called 'church planting') you won't find a church that agrees with EVERYTHING you believe, but look for a good fit, agree on the big things, be generous on the little things.
Find a church that is nearby. Within walking distance is best, but that's uncommon and a great blessing when it happens. Ideally, the church you settle on will want to serve the neighbourhood it's in. If you live in that neighbourhood, you'll find it easier to join in on initiatives that serve the neighbours you see all the time, and you're less likely to skip church services if the weather is crummy or you sleep in.
Meet with the Pastor(s). Seriously. Don't just sit in the back row and leave before the closing song is over. Sit down with the pastor over coffee (They love that.) and ask them about themselves, ask them about the church, ask them where you might fit in. If they're any good at what they do, they'll know or they’ll know what questions to ask to find out.
Take your time. Choosing a church to join and belong to is an important decision and a big commitment if it's done like I suggest. Take your time doing it, don't rush. Come back to a church more than once or twice before ruling them out completely, much more than once or twice if you're thinking of committing. We moved back to the city we lived in before my wife and I got married. We eventually ended up back at our old church, but it wasn’t the default. We looked around. So take your time. Finding a church is an important decision. We test-drive cars before we buy them, if we take the time, our churches will last longer than our Subarus.
What about you? What do you look for in a church? Answer in the comments!
As a Biblical conservative, a cultural Liberal, a husband, a dad, and a pastor, I want to see the church act differently in the world. My big passion in ministry is to see how believers can bring the Gospel into the world around them while pursuing the lost art of winsomeness. It is what fuels me and drives me to write. Engaging culture with the truth of the Gospel in a way that is winsome, wise, and as Colossians 4:6 directs us: “seasoned with salt.” It’s my hope that what I say here helps you not only in your own faith, but helps you share it more effectively and fruitfully.
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