A Christian is joined to a local church not because it is a service provider for a consumer or a club for a member. The church is a kingdom with a king, and the Christian belongs under this king’s rule. We are not primarily knit together by a common interest or common need but by this common kingdom that is not of this world (Jn. 18:36). God’s kingdom is over this world and informs our life in this world.
Jesus Christ is King, and as Christians, we are his people, or to use another biblical metaphor, we are his sheep and he is our shepherd (Ps. 23; Jn. 10). Jesus shepherds us through the local church, the primary place where we as God’s people begin to follow him.
So what exactly should we look for when choosing a church?
The most important thing to look for when choosing a church is whether it is true or false in its teaching. Notice that the most important thing is not musical style, what programs a church runs, the size or age of its building, whether it meets in a school, or the types of children’s activities it offers. (Those things are not unimportant, but they are not most important.)
In the ever-changing and growing religious landscape of America, many buildings have the name “church” on them and claim to have the truth. The difficulty is always in discerning truth from error, as error abounds these days. Religious cults are often passed off as “Christian,” even though they have no doctrine of the Trinity, hold to a different doctrine of Scripture, and to a different understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ—to name only a few differences.
So what is a person to do? How can we know where to find a faithful and true church?
There are two marks that you should look for when finding a church to call home. Is the Word of God rightly preached, and are the sacraments rightly administered?
A true church will clearly preach the whole Bible with the central focus being on the person and work of Jesus Christ. If a church rejects the gospel, it has committed apostasy and is no longer part of the visible church of Christ.
On this ground, if a church cannot confess the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ at the bare minimum, then it is not proclaiming the gospel.
A true church will also rightly administer the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (i.e. Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Table, etc.). The word “sacrament” may sound off-putting to some, but that’s just what my tradition calls it. To others, it may be more commonly known as an "ordinance." Either way, the word comes from an older Greek word meaning “mystery,” but let’s not get sidetracked by the word and miss the point.
The point is this: does a church faithfully practice these two things or not? If you find a church that meets these two criteria (of Word and Sacrament), then it’s worth sticking around. If not, look elsewhere.
Other Important Factors to Look For
- Church membership: Does the church take membership seriously? It’s interesting that repeatedly in the New Testament, elders are appointed to each local church and are given the charge to shepherd the flock of God. Church attenders are told to submit to their leaders (1 Pet. 5:1–2; Heb. 13:17). The important thing is that there is some measure of common agreement. In other words, this specific person is my pastor, these are my elders, and I belong to this particular local church in this local place. How can the elders shepherd, and how can the sheep submit without having something like “church membership” in place? If we are to heed these apostolic commands, then church membership (or whatever name you give it) is a biblical necessity.
- Church discipline: Does the church faithfully and lovingly practice church discipline (1 Cor. 5:1–13)? Jesus Christ introduced church discipline for the sake of his sheep (Matt. 18) so that they would be protected from wolves and truly loved and cared for by his appointed shepherds.
- Church officers: The Holy Spirit has gifted his church with the ordinary offices of ministers, elders, and deacons. Does the church view elders and deacons as essential for the ministry of the church? Furthermore, are qualified and godly men leading the church (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Tit. 1:5–11)? The biblical requirements for officers in the church stretch beyond mere ability.
- Church fellowship: In Acts, Paul tells us what the earliest Christians did when they met together as a church:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, emphasis mine)
From this early witness in the New Testament, it is clear that God's Word, the sacraments, and prayer are central elements of a church service. But it’s also true that real fellowship with the "communion of saints" is equally as important. Often this is one of those "marks" that is left out by neglect.
Fellowship, of course, begins as we are knit together by true faith in Jesus Christ from Sunday to Sunday, but it doesn’t stop there! True churches will experience true fellowship with one another, long after the official service is over.
These are the most important things to look for when you’re trying to find a regular place of worship for you or your family.
May the Lord bless you as you seek to worship him and be ruled by Jesus, the King of Kings.