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Checklist for Choosing a Church
By Gary F. Zeolla
One of the more common requests I have received over the years is for help in choosing which church to attend. I have tried to answer such requests as best as I could. However, this is not an easy question to answer are there are many issues to consider. So in this two-part article I will try to outline many of these issues.
It should be noted, that this is usually only an issue for Protestants as Catholics generally just attend the Catholic church that is closest to them. So my comments will not include Catholic churches. But hopefully, this will article be of help to those struggling with this issue. But before getting to the checklist itself, an important qualifier needs to be considered.
No Such Thing as a Perfect Church
When looking for a church, it needs to be remembered that there is no "perfect" church. By this I mean you will never find a church in which you agree with every doctrine taught and everything practiced at the church and that meets every other criterion you set for what your perfect church would be like. Simply put, you will have to compromise on one or more issues. But this is where the idea of "non-negotiables" versus "negotiables" come in.
By non-negotiables is meant items which you feel the church must have. These are items in which you will not compromise on. Conversely, negotiables are items which are important to you, but ones in which you would be willing to compromise on.
Needless to say, the more "non-negotiables" you have the harder it would be to find a church. And only you can decide which items are "non- negotiables" and which are negotiables. But I will try to give my opinion as warranted.
The Authority of the Bible
How a church views the authority of the Bible is the great separating point between conservative versus liberal churches. For the purposes of this article, a conservative church is one which believes the Bible is the infallible, inerrant (without error), absolutely reliable, God-breathed Word of God. As such, the Bible is looked to as the final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.
Conversely, a liberal church is one which believes the Bible, to one degree or another, is less than the above description. In other words, a liberal church believes that the Bible is not 100% reliable, that to some degree, there are "errors" in the Bible. As such, the Bible is not looked upon as the final authority.
This is the great watershed issue, as Francis Schaefer would refer to it. From this difference many other differences will flow.
So I would say that for the Bible-believing, conservative Christian, this should be a non-negotiable issue. If you believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God, you will never "fit in" in a church that believes less than this. So when looking for a church, this is the first issue on which you should inquire. Does the church accept the full inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Bible?
Moreover, as with all other doctrines, actions speak louder than words. It is one thing for a church to claim they believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God, but does the church act as if it does? A way to answer this question is to ask a few more.
Are the sermons based on the Scriptures? Are the Scriptures read and referred to in the service? Do you need a Bible during the service? Do people bring Bibles to the church and/ or are they provided in the pews? The answers to these questions will show how much respect the church really has for the Bible.
Other Essential Doctrines
In the article Essentials of the Faith I discuss the distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines of the Christian faith. And a list of the essential doctrines are included in Darkness to Light's Confession of Faith. And my Scripture Workbook presents the Biblical support for these doctrines. So I will not repeat these discussions here. But I would encourage the reader to familiarize yourself with these doctrines.
That said, if you are a conservative Christian who agrees with these doctrines, then again, you would only "fit in" at a church that also believes these doctrines.
So, for instance, if you believe that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, you would not fit in at a church that teaches salvation comes through "good works." This is something that you could not and should not compromise on.
But how do you find out what a church teaches on such doctrines? The place to start would be to ask for a confession of faith. A church that is concerned about doctrine should have some kind of confession available. This could be a confession that the church has put together itself or the church could say that it ascribes to one of the major historic confession of faiths, like the Westminster Confession.
But either way, a quality church should be "up front" about what it believes. If a church were to give me the runaround in this regard, then I would look elsewhere.
But again, it is one thing for a church to say it believes certain doctrines but another to act as if it does. So if a church says it believes in salvation by grace through faith, do the sermons reflect this? Do the sermons proclaim the saving the grace of God in salvation? Is there some kind of evangelistic effort being made by church?
I am not saying that every sermon has to include a gospel presentation. But if you attend a church for several weeks and never hear the Gospel proclaimed and if the church shows no concern for the salvation of non-believers, something is wrong.
Similar things could be said in regards to other essential doctrines. Is Jesus Christ worshipped as God? Is the Holy Spirit viewed as a Person whom can comfort and empower the believer? Is the reality of heaven, of hell, and of the Second Coming of Christ proclaimed?
For the conservative Christian, all of these and the rest of the essential doctrines should be a part of the church's doctrine and life.
The above is actually the easy part in finding a church. For the conservative Christian, there is no compromise on these issues. The essentials of the faith are non-negotiables. By definition, these doctrines are essential to a quality church. But now things get more difficult.
Important but non-Essential Doctrines
Beyond the essentials of the faith, there is a long list of doctrines in which conservative Christians and disagree upon. And it is here that I cannot give specific recommendations. The reader will need to decide for yourself which of these doctrines are negotiable and which are non-negotiable. But I will try to present a list of the doctrines most likely to be of concern and in some cases give my opinion as to their importance and how to handle differences.
Infant baptism versus believer's baptism:
Whenever a church holds a baptismal ceremony, it will be very obvious if they ascribe to infant or believer's baptism. And this is an important difference and needs to be considered by the person looking for a church.
A person who believes in infant baptism could be offended if their request for their newborn infant to be baptized is denied. And the person who believes in believer's baptism could be uncomfortable sitting through an infant baptism ceremony.
However, there are parallels between churches that practice infant baptism and ones that practice believer's baptism that might mitigate the person's uncomfortableness in attending a church with an opposite belief than their own.
Most churches that baptize infants also practice some kind of "confirmation" when the child is older. And the idea behind the confirmation is that this should be done after the child has expressed his/ her personal faith in Jesus Christ. So this would parallel the believer's baptism church in waiting until for personal confession of faith to baptize someone.
Similarly, most churches that practice believer's baptism also hold infant dedications. The idea here is that the child is being dedicated to God and the parents are dedicating themselves to raise up the in a Christian fashion and to encourage the child when he/she is older to place their faith in Christ. And this attitude towards infant dedication is similar to the reason often given for infant baptism.
So in both types of churches, there is the belief that "something" should be done for an infant and his/her parents. And both types of churches recognize that this infant ceremony is not sufficient, that the child needs to make a personal commitment to Christ at a later time.
Also it should be said that all of these ceremonies are subject to degrading into meaningless rituals. Parents might bring their infant to be baptized or dedicated simply because it is "the thing to do" without any serious commitment to raising them in a Christian fashion. And the later ceremony can become "automatic" in that all the children in the church are confirmed or baptized when they reach a certain age without any real commitment to Christ on their part.
All of that said, I personally believe infant dedication and believer's baptism is the most Biblical pattern. I present my reasons for believing in believer's baptism in my Scripture Workbook. And I would prefer to attend a church that follows these practices. However, I would have no problems attending a church that utilizes infant baptism and confirmation, with a couple of conditions.
First, during the infant baptism ceremony, the church would need to make it clear that it does not believe the infant is saved by the baptism, that he/she will need to make a personal commitment to Christ at some later time. Moreover, the church should not automatically confirm all children at a certain age and then assume they are all now saved. There should be an emphasis on the need for each and every child to make a personal commitment to Christ.
However, that is me. Only the reader can decide if your uncomfortableness in attending a church with practices opposite to your beliefs is great enough to make this a non-negotiable issue.
Mode of Baptism:
Related to the above is the mode of baptism. Some churches utilize pouring, some sprinkling, and some full body immersion. For the most part churches that practice infant baptism utilized pouring or sprinkling while believer's baptisms are usually via immersion. But there are some believer's baptism churches that practice pouring (e.g. the Mennonite Church).
There is claimed Biblical support for each of these three modes which I will not go into here. But I will say that I agree most with immersion.
However, to me, this is a relatively unimportant issue. I simply don't believe that God really cares that much about how much water is used. It is the point and purpose of the baptism that is most important. So the mode of baptism would not factor into my decision on choosing church. But if the reader feels strongly in this regard, then maybe this will be a point you'll need to consider.
Calvinism vs. Arminianism:
The doctrines in question here concern issues related to predestination and the security of the believer (i.e. whether believers can lose their salvation). These issues are best summarized in the five points of Calvinism. These five points are presented with supporting verses thereof in my Scripture Workbook. So again, I won't take time to define these points or get into Biblical arguments here.
But the question to be addressed here is whether a Calvinist would be comfortable attending a church that teaches Arminian doctrines. And conversely, whether an Arminian would be comfortable attending a Calvinistic church.
I would say the degree of uncomfortableness would depend on how much the respective doctrines are promoted. If an Arminian church is constantly harping on the importance of "free-will" in salvation and the danger of believers losing their salvation, then a Calvinist most likely would not be happy in such a church. And conversely, an Arminian would not be happy in a church that is constantly emphasizing God's sovereignty in election and the security of the believer.
But it is possible that either person would be okay with a church that believes the opposite but in which the doctrines are simply hardly every discussed.
However, if someone very strongly believes in one or the other of these doctrines, then that person might not like this "neutral" stance. They would probably be happiest in a church that does strongly promote the beliefs that they agreed with.
It also needs to be said that there are a lot of Christians and churches that are inconsistent in this regard. By that is meant that many might accept one or more of the five points but not all five. Most common is for someone to believe in eternal security but not the other four points or to agree with four of the five points, limited atonement being the one rejected. So exactly which points are agreed upon would factor into one's choice of a church.
All that said, how to handle this situation? First, you need to decide for yourself where you stand on these issues, and my Scripture Workbook could be an aid in this regard. And once you decide for yourself, then you need to decide just how important they are to you. Is this a major issue for you or just a minor one?
Then you need to find out where the church stands on these issues. Again, the place to start would be a confession of faith. If one or the other set of doctrines, or individual elements thereof, are included in the confession, then this would let you know not just where the church stands but how much of an emphasis these doctrines might get. In other words, if the confession mentions nothing in this regard, then chances are you won't here much about it in church. But if the confession specifically expresses say a belief in eternal security, then you will probably be hearing about it in sermons.
The next step would be to talk with the pastor and/ or other leaders in the church to see where they stand and how strongly they hold to these beliefs. A church might not officially state a belief in say Calvinism, but if the pastor is a strong Calvinist you'll probably be hearing about it in the sermons.
And finally, simply attend a few services. After hearing a few sermons you should have an idea where the church stands and how strongly the doctrines are promoted.
As for myself, I agree with the Calvinist viewpoint. But, as I have tried to make clear many times, these are non-essential doctrines. As such, I do not believe they should have a central focus in the preaching or teaching of a church. So I actually would not be comfortable in church that was so strongly Calvinistic that is was constantly harping on these doctrines.
On the other hand, I definitely would not be comfortable in a church that was so strongly Arminian that Arminians doctrines were constantly being discussed and promoted. I would especially be uncomfortable with a church that strongly promoted the idea that believers can lose their salvation.
So for me, the ideal church would a Calvinist church, but one in which these doctrines are only occasionally referred to. But otherwise, I would be okay with a "neutral" church. But I doubt I would be comfortable with a church with stated Arminian doctrines even if they were not discussed that much.
Charismatic vs. non-Charismatic:
By "charismatic" I am referring to churches that practice speaking in tongues and prophesying in the church. Charismatic churches believe that these "gifts" are for today while non-charismatic churches do not. And this is an issue in which the church's stance should be rather obvious.
If you go into a church and someone stands up and shouts out in a strange language, or if everyone is speaking at once in non-intelligible speech, then you're in a charismatic church. Similarly, if someone stands up from the congregation and begins shouting out, usually starting with something like "Thus says the Lord," then you are in a charismatic church. If such activities do not occur through the course of a service, you are probably not in a charismatic church. The confession of faith of a charismatic church will also usually indicate its belief in speaking in tongues and prophesying being "for today."
If you're not charismatic, you'll almost certainly be uncomfortable attending a charismatic church. You also can be assured that you will be encouraged to pray for "the gift for tongues." And if you do not receive this gift, you will probably become increasingly uncomfortable. And if you definitely believe that tongues and prophesy are not "for today" then you will not be comfortable in a charismatic church.
On the other hand, if you are charismatic, you will probably feel very "restricted" attending a non-charismatic church. You will not like having to "stifle the Spirit" if you feel "led" to speak out in tongues or to prophesy but are not allowed to do so.
So even though this is a non-essential issue, it really is one that is hard to compromise on.
As for myself, I have attended charismatic churches in the past, but I was never really comfortable in any of them. And I now disagree with charismatic doctrines, so I will probably never attend a charismatic church again.
This article is continued at Checklist for Choosing a Church - Part Two.
Checklist for Choosing a Church. Copyright © 2003 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
For Personal Bible Study and Teaching the Bible
By Gary F. Zeolla
The above article first appeared in the Free Darkness to Light
It was posted on this site October 21, 2003.
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