I’ve moved quite a lot in my life (4 countries, 3 continents, 10 cities and counting), and moving in my adult life as a Christian, one of the first things I would do is to look for a church community. When I was younger, typically I would just look for the local Chinese Church because it’s what I was used to growing up, and usually there’d only be one.
However, before moving to the States, I received some solid advice on how to choose a new church. I took this advice, and by the grace of God it led me to my previous church family that I loved so deeply I almost didn’t want to leave, and is the criteria I would consider if I ever had to move again.
There are only 3 things I look for now. If I write it down so that I don’t forget, perhaps it could help you too.
1. The Word of God is faithfully preached.
This should come as no surprise to you. If the preaching does not faithfully follow the teachings of the Word of God, it’s probably not the best place for you to grow. You won’t be spiritually fed, and false doctrine would be misleading at best and fatal at worst.
Most churches will have a website and upload their sermon recordings these days. I will typically Google a bunch of local churches, read their doctrinal beliefs page, take a quick look at their elders/pastoral list, and listen to 2-3 sermons from each (1 is usually not enough to gauge, though at times, even 1 minute is enough), before deciding which one(s) to visit.
Besides ensuring that, at a very minimum, there are no heresies in their beliefs, I listen to the sermons to check that that the gospel is preached and Jesus is venerated. I also see if I’m challenged positively by the message and I learn something new about the passage(s). It’s not a dealbreaker if that doesn’t happen, but it’s definitely welcome if it does.
At the same time, I also want to check that the preacher’s interpretation is in line with scripture. Once I heard a sermon where the preacher asserted that David, in one of the Psalms (I forget which), was prophesying about radios and microwaves, and that his metaphorical description of *I forget what* within the Psalm was to do with sound frequencies and electromagnetic waves of radio towers (doesn’t matter which Psalm he was talking about — this interpretation works with none of them). He had been a guest preacher, but I still questioned how this message had been approved by the church elders.
Sometimes the minister will even explicitly address the importance of reading God’s Word for what it is, and encourage you to think critically about whether or not what he’s saying is truly what the Bible says, to go speak to him if you believe his interpretation is wrong, and yet be open to conviction if it truly is the Word of God. This is usually a sign that this church takes its teaching seriously, and is a great sign because, most of the time, the accompanying message is also legit.
I’ve typically found that just this alone has been enough to narrow my shortlist to 1-2 churches to visit.
2. The love of Christ is shown, and God is glorified.
Unfortunately, sometimes great teaching merely breeds great pride. Other times, you can actually see the church body come together in humility and submission to such teaching, bearing fruits of the Spirit, bearing with one another and sharing the love of Christ among them. And in all of this, God is glorified.
When I visit, do I see people greeting one another, sharing good gifts with one another? Can I see their generosity? Do they welcome the widow, the homeless, and me — a complete stranger? Do I see forgiveness among them, humility among them? Do they worship God and glorify Him, at the very minimum with their lips? How many fellowships do they have? Which ones do they suggest for me to join? How many times a month do they meet for prayer? Do they break bread together? What types of missions do they do?
Something else I look for is the behaviour of the church leaders. Do they seem haughty or boastful, unwilling to interact with their flock much less newcomers, or are they truly leading me before the throne of God in humility, open to being wrong and corrected, and even make an effort to personally greet their congregation and welcome newcomers during greeting time? Often times, the conduct of the leaders sets the tone for its congregation.
I won’t necessarily have the answer to all of these questions on my first visit, but as long as there are no red flags, it should encourage me to return to continue observing while trying my best to integrate as much as possible. I’ve been told you shouldn’t give up on a church until you’ve attended at least 3 services.
Points 1 & 2 together is what makes a true Church. After all, the church are the Saints within it, not the building itself.
3. You are able to serve.
We all have a responsibility to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ — be it cleaning up after service, or being an usher or a part of the welcoming committee, or helping out with children or youth ministry, or music ministry, or women’s or mens… the list goes on.
Typically this part is not much of a problem. I’ve honestly yet to find a church that said, “Nope, sorry, we have enough people serving here. We don’t need you do anything but attend, thanks!”
However, if God has really put it on your heart to serve Him in a particular area, and it just so happens that that is not going to be possible at that church — ever — then it’s worth praying about to see if this is really the right church for you. For example, you feel desperately called to missions in South America, but this church has expressed that they do not have that sort of ministry and neither would they support any of their members in it, then perhaps it’s not for you.
That said, it may be possible for you to go with another organisation and remain at that church all the same, so even then, only God can advise you if it truly is a dealbreaker. (At the same time, if you are only looking for a church to serve you in supporting you on missions… unless you are a missionary, we probably need to have a talk haha.)
Personally I’ve always felt called to music and children’s ministry, but most churches would require that you attend regularly for a period of time before becoming involved in certain ministries like these — this is a good thing (especially if you want to be teaching or preaching, it would be a red flag if they didn’t have that requirement).
So I would usually inquire as to what ministry opportunities are available, or what needs the church may have, and see how else I can serve in the interim. If you don’t feel God calling you to a specific ministry, then perhaps you simply offer to meet the needs that the church has.
In my previous church I did eventually become involved in both music and children’s ministry, but I also helped with welcoming, ushering, youth ministry, and possibly more that I can’t recall right now.
Now that I’ve moved to NorCal, I think Jacky and I will be committing to the church that we’re already in. I haven’t been able to serve yet, but I just moved up and we’re all quarantined. I’ve recently joined a women’s group and I’m loving it though! The ladies are so kind, they’ve given me the opportunity to facilitate a discussion already :)
The most important thing in following all 3 criteria is that it led me to a body of believers who worshipped Jesus, built one another up in Christ, and served and loved Christ by serving and loving one another to the best of their ability.
It was there that I learned to speak the truth in love. We challenged one another, convicted one another, grew together in spiritual maturity, shared one another’s burdens but also fellowshipped together, laughed together, celebrated with one another, and, in all of this, I do believe God glorified Himself through us. I am so thankful to God that I was able to be a member there.
I am still settling in to my church up here, but I know God has put us here for a reason, and I don’t doubt that He will continue to be my guide.
Before you go on your church hunt, pray. During your church hunt, pray. After you visit the church(es), pray. Pray, pray, pray. And then pray again. God will guide — it’s His church, and you are His after all.