Church Criteria: How Should We Choose the Congregation We Attend?
When a Christian moves into a new town or city, typically one of the first things one does is look for a church. This situation commonly requires attending a number of different churches on Sunday mornings to see if the particular church fits in some way with predetermined criteria for how a church ought to be. Does the preaching proclaim the gospel? How is the music? How friendly are the people? What are the demographics of the church? How is the church involved in the community? What is the history of the denomination or non-denomination?
Given that I am moving to a new city later this year and will have to go through this process of finding a different church home, and given that I am not tied to a particular denomination at this point in time, I thought that I would use this space to examine the criteria of choosing a church. As an upfront admission, this article will read less like a well-thought-out thesis, and more like less-than-coherent question asking. As I’ve explained before in other articles, my experience here at Conciliar Post has probably been more disorienting than orienting, an experience best explained by the old adage, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
First, for the person who isn’t tied to a denomination whatsoever, an impulse that seems increasingly prevalent among American Christians these days, is it problematic to use the criteria mentioned above to choose a church? Certainly, it seems like churches should encourage teaching that is grounded in scripture, music/liturgy that is both worshipful and artistic, and friendly interactions between church members. It seems to make sense that when visiting a church for potential membership that one ought to see these markers as important. After all, every Sunday for the next number of years will be spent hearing these sermons, worshiping with this style of music, and gathering with these sorts of people. Though, there is certainly the danger that consumerism seeps into our church shopping, creating the need for a perfect product or never deciding on a product at all, rather than binding ourselves to an imperfect and sinful body. On the flipside, it seems equally dangerous to have no criteria whatsoever.
Second, for those that are denominationally focused, though not absolutely committed to a particular denomination (a camp I would place myself in), how much weight should be placed in sticking with that particular denomination one has historically focused on? As someone who has spent his college years bound to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), what does that mean for myself weighing the possibilities of attending other Reformed bodies, or of going “high-church” to Anglicanism? It seems that this adds more criteria and specificities to the base-line of word and sacrament mentioned above. Questions that I will wrestle with such as, How liturgical is the Church? How did the denomination historically distinguish itself from other Christians, and are the reasons for which the church split from other churches intellectually satisfying?
Third, for those that are comfortable binding themselves to a particular Christian tradition (perhaps the majority of writers on this website), these sorts of questions of word, sacrament, and community are still pertinent. Certainly, when multiple churches of a particular denomination or tradition exist within the area, one will have to choose which church body is the best fit. Though, when only a single church of that denomination exists in the area, it seems that these questions are still pertinent. What if one has chosen that a particular denomination is the true one (I’m thinking particularly of the Catholics and Orthodox of this blog), and yet the congregation in one’s area cares little for the gospel, the poor, or evangelism. What if the “ancient church” exists in a building within the city limits, the true sacraments are administered, and yet that church does not have a heart, mind, strength, and soul for the Lord? Recent Pew Research data show Catholics and Orthodox to be among the least involved Christians in their local churches, much lower than evangelical Protestants (and, to our collective shame, even lower than Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses). I point this out not to disparage these two traditions, certainly this point could apply to any congregation, but to ask whether this consideration overrides others. Might there be pragmatic criteria for one’s spiritual well-being that override the intellectual, Conciliar Post-y questions of historical rootedness, sacramental and liturgical fidelity, and scriptural corroboration?
These questions I certainly am not sure of the answers to, and would love to hear your feedback in the comment section.
View Sources 1. Aleksandra Sandstrom and Becka A. Alper, “Church involvement varies widely among U.S. Christians,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/16/church-involvement-varies-widely-among-u-s-christians/
1. Aleksandra Sandstrom and Becka A. Alper, “Church involvement varies widely among U.S. Christians,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/16/church-involvement-varies-widely-among-u-s-christians/