As a kid going to church, I became accustomed to traditional wooden pew seating, and singing the first, second and last verses of 15th-century hymns. Later I moved into the non-denominational realm where contemporary worship songs and edgy sermon titles became the norm. But I mean no disrespect here; I enjoy both styles of churches and have grown significantly in them.
My girlfriend and I now find ourselves searching for a church we can call home, hopefully for a long time. I could go to her church or vice versa, but living an hour from each other hinders regular attendance. We were each seeking a church to call our own already, so I’m looking for something in between where we can meet and worship on a consistent basis.
Being tasked with that duty, I’ve spent many evenings perusing the websites of local churches: listening to messages, reading stances on theology and critiquing trendy staff photos. I feel over my head sometimes with the wording of beliefs and the sheer number of sermons. It’s also unfair, I know, to form an opinion of a church based on its website alone — hardly a representation of being there. So it’s best to just go. And when we do, I look for a healthy balance of two qualities:
Growth on the inside: I once heard a sermon entitled “Come as You Are, But Don’t Stay as You Are,” emphasizing the fact that these walls are not just a place to sip coffee, socialize and learn about a man who lived 2000 years ago. This congregation of less than 200 made no bones about the command for us as Christians to love God with all our hearts, and the title alone summed up personal standards for me in a way that had never registered.
In contrast, another church I attended encouraged people to write their fears and insecurities on a paper wall on either side of the auditorium with the provided crayons. Afterward, the paper would be ripped away and thrown in a trashcan on stage, thus “taking out the trash” in our lives. This was symbolic, no doubt, but impractical. Where was the daily application?
Service on the outside: While talking with a homeless shelter director in Chicago, she explained to me how theology is highly geographical. Churches in middle-class suburbia favor the personal Gospel, while those in impoverished communities focus on social justice and basic needs. Managing leisure time and achieving success in the workplace are simply not discussed in the poorest areas of Chicago. John 3:16 is widely quoted and very personal, but what of 1 John 3:16? “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (NIV). A church that calls its members to seek out and serve the least of these grabs my attention, especially one not located in the midst of extreme poverty itself.
One final note: Just last week while attending a new church for the first time, the pastor told us when leaving, “We hope you come back, but if you don’t feel this is a fit, I’d be happy to help you find one.” Offering to shepherd a couple even if they never set foot in your building again? That’s impressive. We’ll be back.
What do you look for in a church? And what do you love about your own that motivates you to grow and serve?