My boyfriend and I are two strong Christians in our mid/late-20s, and since meeting through an online Christian dating site, we have been dating almost nine months. We are in a serious relationship that we and the family and friends around us see leading to marriage in the near future. The question weighing heavily on our minds is: "Where should we attend church together long-term?"
We grew up about 30 minutes apart, attending two churches of the same denomination in the area. We've both attended our churches 20-plus years, and they are both great churches that the other could see themselves attending long-term if that is the church the Lord led us to together. Both biological and church family members are starting to independently ask us, "What are you going to do about a church?"
The biggest difference between the churches is size. His has 2,500 attendees; mine has 100. Location is also a factor as his church is 15 minutes from where we hope to live, mine 35. His has a more suburban demographic, mine more urban. We are both actively attending, serving (leading and/or participating in ministries) and tithing to these churches. In addition, we both have family that attends as well.
In this season of dating, we've felt that we should stay constant with the churches we are already involved with, but eventually we want to attend one church together. We already feel like it would be wonderful as a couple to attend a small group Bible study at the church we plan to attend long-term. We sometimes attend a church young adults' group together, and since his church has multiple services, I am often able to go there on Saturdays in addition to Sundays at my church. (His involvement with the worship team often has him there both days.) However, in the long-term, we are against "church hopping" and really want to establish ourselves and attend and serve at one church together.
How do we decide which church to serve at, or should we go looking for a third "new" church to start fresh at together? At what point in our relationship would it be best to make this transition — after marriage or beforehand? Thanks in advance for any insight you can provide.
Thanks for this really interesting question — actually, series of questions! As your question implies, choosing a church is not quite like choosing where the kids will go to school or what job to take, because a church decision more fundamentally affects the way you will participate in ministry with God's people. So it's an important question.
First, let me offer a bottom-line assessment that I hope will be somewhat freeing for you both: This is not an issue of hard theological doctrine that dictates a single right answer — as a biblical matter (assuming both current churches are basically biblically sound) you have the freedom to pursue any of the options you mentioned in your question. That's not to say, however, that all three options (your church, his church, or a new third church) are equally wise. Here are some principles/factors to consider as you weigh the three options.
Use biblical criteria and personal wisdom to make your decision. This is really more of an aside, but methodology is always important in big life decisions. I would encourage you and your boyfriend to make the decision about which church to attend by employing the means God normally uses to instruct His people: His Word, the counsel of other believers, and practical wisdom.
If the two churches in play are sound, biblical churches, then both are options, and the Lord likely will not mystically "lead" you to either one. That's not at all to say a gut feel for which is better is useless to your decision; just realize that as a theological matter, your "gut" is not authoritative revelation from God.
Which church is more biblically sound? You said both churches are great, so fair enough. That said, as you think your decision through, see how the churches compare on some of the following: Is the preaching expositional (is the point of the passage the point of the sermon)? Do both churches have a biblical view of conversion? Of membership? Of corporate worship? Do the churches practice biblical church discipline?
A great book to read to help evaluate whether any particular church is sound biblically is Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. It may be that the two churches are so close on these things that this principle won't be a factor in your decision. But to the extent one church is biblically healthier than the other, choose that one.
Which option would best fit the biblical model for marriage? Another question to evaluate is whether one option or another gels better with what the two of you believe about the fundamental roles of husbands and wives within marriage. The two basic views of marriage within evangelicalism are "complementarianism" and "egalitarianism." Essentially, complementarianism is the theological position that God created men and women equal in worth, value, dignity and the extent to which they reflect God's image (Genesis 1:26-27), and then, within that equality, assigned and equipped them for different roles in the church and family, such that they "complement" one another to God's glory.
The opposing position to complementarianism is called egalitarianism. Egalitarianism accepts that men and women are created by God with equal value and worth, but rejects any notion that God assigned and equipped men and women for differing roles within the family and church, such that every role in both contexts (for instance, "head" or "leader" in the family context and "elder" or "pastor" in the church context) is equally open to either men or women.
These competing views arrive at some pretty different visions of what priorities in marriage look like practically. Complementarians believe that in the biblical model for marriage, the husband's work and ministry is primary, and the wife's work and ministry is to be oriented toward her husband as his helper or "helpmate" (see, for example, Genesis 2:15-23; Proverbs 31:11-12; Ephesians 5:22-33). This is not at all to say that a wife cannot have her own independent pursuits and ministry (see Proverbs 31; Titus 2:3-5), but that she should understand her first priority to be that of "helper" to her husband and all that entails regarding both family and ministry. In an egalitarian marriage, on the other hand, there is no theological basis for prioritizing the husband's career or ministry over the wife's.
How might these ideas affect your church decision? Well, all other things being equal, a complementarian couple would lean in the direction of attending the husband's church if he has a well-established, fruitful, existing ministry/leadership role in that church, rather than prioritizing the wife's ministry at her church and requiring the husband to start from scratch at a new place. An egalitarian couple would have no such leanings.
As I've written many times, I believe the complementarian view to be the biblical one, which, in the abstract and not knowing details beyond what you've written, would seem to weigh in favor of your boyfriend's church. All that said, it may be that you decide together that there are many new ways your boyfriend could serve at your church, or maybe you both believe that your church is more biblically sound, such that he or both of you think it's the right thing for him to switch. I don't mention this principle to dictate a result, just as part of what you should think through.
Location can be significant. All other things being equal, it's better to live closer to church if you can. You mentioned that your boyfriend's church is less than half the distance yours is from where you plan to live. Don't underestimate that. To be sure, the convenience of location is not the most important factor here. I certainly would not encourage you to attend a bad (or significantly "less good") church just because it's closer. If two churches are basically comparable, however, closer is better. You can evangelize in the community that is close to your church and more easily invite people to a church that is relatively nearby. And once you figure in traffic, kids, a busy non-church schedule and an active ministry that requires multiple trips to church every weekend or week, living relatively close to church can be a big help.
Pursuing a "fresh start" for its own sake as regards to church is usually not the best option. It sounds as if you have both found churches where you are happy to serve and able to grow spiritually. It also seems that both of you have established, fruitful ministries at your respective churches. That place is difficult to find for many people, and that both of you have found it is a gift from God. Unless there's a particular reason to leave both churches, I would not encourage both of you to abandon such ministries just to get a "fresh start" on theoretically equal but less fruitful footing. Time is short. Embrace one of the fruitful ministries you already have and grow it together! It will already be quite the "fresh start" to begin serving at one place or the other as a married couple.
Finally, once the decision about which church is made, the decision of when to move is really a matter of the details. Once you're engaged, I could see the advantage of getting started at the new church right away, but also see advantages to "starting" life at the new church as a wife or husband. For the moment I would encourage both of you to stay put unless engagement is pretty much assured and happening very soon.
Hope all that helps. I will pray that the Lord would give you both wisdom about your relationship and this decision.
Copyright 2015 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.