It seems like every week we get emailed this question: How do I find a good local church? And we finally address the question today, in the form of an email from an anonymous woman. “Dear Pastor John, here’s my situation: I moved to a new city and there are (wonderfully!) a number of doctrinally faithful churches in my area of town. It’s a great problem to have, I know. If you were in my situation, how would you narrow down these good options? I don’t want to make a decision based merely on my preferences. But what role do preferences make in a church decision like mine?”
Let’s take that last question first. In general, I would say preferences — by which I assume she means tastes that don’t have any direct biblical mandate behind them — can be a legitimate part of your decision to the degree that they are shaped and formed by the word of God, even if not mandated, and to the degree that they don’t take precedence over more important things. And by such preferences, I mean things like a small church versus big, meditative versus exuberant, formal versus casual, traditional versus contemporary, organ versus guitar, pews versus chairs, ten o’clock service versus eleven, evening service versus no evening service, and on and on and on.
We all have our preferences on such things, and if they’re shaped by the word of God and they’re subordinate to more important biblical things, then it would be okay, I think, for them to guide you as part of your decision-making process.
So, let me go away to the more important things and mention nine steps that you might take in searching for a home church. This is not just your situation; I’m thinking maybe more broadly, but I think it will apply to your situation as well.
1. Go to God.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long. . . .
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way. (Psalm 25:4–5, 8–9)
So, the Lord loves you and would delight in your being in a healthy church with all your gifts to use. You have good reason to believe he’ll answer this prayer of Psalm 25.
2. Clarify your convictions.
Maybe take this season of searching and hit refresh on your own biblical grasp of what a healthy church is, just to make sure your picture is wholly biblical. And I’d recommend Mark Dever’s book What Is a Healthy Church? to clarify afresh what you’re looking for.
3. Ask around.
Talk to people you know in the city or who know the city. Personal recommendations are probably the most reliable source of information, if the people are reliable. This is more trustworthy, I think, than quick impressions from a one-Sunday visit at the church.
4. Search the web.
We have huge advantages today over previous generations because of the Internet. Explore the Internet for churches, and study their websites. Don’t base it on how glitzy their website is. The best churches may have a lousy website, but you want information, not impressions. I typed into Google just yesterday, “churches in the Twin Cities that believe the doctrines of grace.” I typed that right into Google. Number two on the list was Cities Church, which is a church plant from Bethlehem, where I ministered, and number four was Bethlehem. Now, I would recommend both of those churches to anybody in the Twin Cities.
Of course, that kind of search is not enough. Don’t base your choice on a search like that. You can get some real wacko results on Google. It’s just a start, and that kind of search is liable to serious error. Far better would be to go to The Gospel Coalition website and look for connected churches. That would be a good starting place, maybe better than just typing something into Google, but that can still be helpful.
5. Evaluate the leadership.
Look for a church with a certain kind of leadership, and a good place to start is 1 Peter 5:2–4:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you . . .
Look for joyful shepherds who love to serve others.
Not for shameful gain, but eagerly . . .
Look for shepherds who don’t love money, whose lives are simple, and who manifestly are eager to do the work, and they’d do it without pay if they could.
Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
Look for shepherds who are humble. They don’t feed on power. They follow Jesus’s words — if you want to lead really great, you’ve got to be the servant of everybody (Mark 9:35) — and they motivate by example and are not coercive and demanding.
6. Look for love.
Look for a church with a certain kind of people. First John 3:14 says,
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.
So, a membership should be born again. How do you recognize people who are born again? John says they love other believers. Do you smell any kind of exclusiveness that pushes away believers of different races, believers of different economic levels, believers of different education? Do you smell a kind of exclusionary attitude that’s foreign to born-again love?
After describing the kind of leaders a church should have in 1 Peter 5, Peter goes on to describe the people:
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another. . . . Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God . . . casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5–7)
So, look for a church who are loving, and look for a church who are humble and who roll their anxieties onto God.
7. Test the teaching.
Then turn your attention to the teaching. Look for a church that is not ashamed of any teaching in the Bible. Don’t go to a church that is fearful of displeasing people who are more shaped by the culture than the Scripture. One of the ways to test this is usually on the matters of manhood and womanhood — matters of sexuality — because that’s such a hot, controverted issue in our day.
What do they teach? How do they teach on matters of the roles of men and women and sexuality? Do they teach the whole counsel of God, all of Scripture, as God’s infallible word unashamedly?
8. Seek to serve.
Then ask, Could you serve in this church? Do they think in terms of people being ministers and the pastors equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12)? You don’t want to be a mere pew-sitter.
9. Search for serious joy.
I would ask, Is the tone or the spirit of the life of this church one of serious joy? Are they people who have learned to suffer by the grace of God, and not become embittered or oblivious or naïve? Do they know how to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10)? Are they real with their problems and with their suffering?
Those are the steps I would take. They certainly don’t have to happen in that order. I would end where I began. Don’t just begin with prayer; saturate every step with prayer, and God will guide you.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way. (Psalm 25:9)