If I were trying to find a church in which to invest myself I would be a very careful shopper.
Sure, I would pay some attention to the name on the sign (Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, etc.), but not too much. Those labels represent a heritage and a way of “doing church” you will want to know before joining, but they don’t mean as much today as they did in your grandparents’ era.
Nor would I let my choice be driven by music. I’d be more interested in the words being sung than with the beat or if the keyboard were on a pipe organ or an electronic synthesizer.
Finally, as interested as I am in being welcomed, I wouldn’t let a church’s friendliness be my major criterion. Some grand churches run on a cool track when it comes to greeting visitors. That is sad but true. (Were you to join them, maybe this is something you could help change.)
I’ve listed seven questions below. They represent the core questions I would be asking as I visited around. They represent the big issues I think are hallmarks of a church that blesses and nourishes individuals and families.
- Do they worship a big God? There are 200 billion visible galaxies known to us, and the next nearest major galaxy to ours is 2 million light years away. Depending on whose calculation you use, the Grand Canyon took somewhere between 5 to 70 million years to reach today’s splendor. The human body is composed of 30 trillion cells, and 2 to 3 million of them are red blood cells being cranked out every second (that is about 200 billion every day). A church worthy of your loyalty should honor the mystery and immensity of such a Creator and respect the science that reveals such astonishing facets of God’s work in nature.
- Do they worship a Jesus-like God? According to Christian teaching, the God creating all this is love and the picture of that love is visible in the person and work of Jesus. Although the Bible says some scary things about God, the Christian teaching is that God is like Jesus. A church worthy of your loyalty should magnify the grace and goodness of God — as Jesus did — not the angry, gotcha tyrant sometimes portrayed by finger-waving zealots who sound so little like Jesus.
- Do they respect you and your intelligence? The Bible says all humans are made “in the image of God” and therefore women as well as men, Black or brown or yellow or white, thin or short or obese or tall, rich or poor, gay or straight, married or single should all be respected as the walking images of God. The Bible also teaches us to love God with our mind as well as with our hearts; therefore we are responsible to use our brains in religious matters as in all other matters. A church worthy of your loyalty will respect who you are and will encourage you to ask and to seek, not expecting anyone else to feed you.
- Do they honor and teach the Scriptures? The Bible has so much to teach us — for it contains the wisdom of ages, often hard-won from heartbreak and loss, but always bearing the gravitas and gleam of God’s inspiration. The Bible is not God and mustn’t be treated as such, but its witness is the church’s ultimate textbook. A church worthy of your loyalty will, without making an idol of the Bible or their interpretation of it, reverence its words and seek its guidance in their sermons and teaching.
- Do they teach you to love others and to seek justice for all? Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourself. This provides a good yardstick for a church’s obedience of Jesus: How do they speak of and treat strangers, aliens, opponents and those with whom they disagree? A church worthy of your loyalty will model the Golden Rule, treating others precisely the way they themselves would want to be treated.
- Do they invite you and others to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? It is good to join a church; it is much better to learn enough about Jesus that you feel drawn to talk with him and to follow him. Church membership, as helpful as it is, is lacking unless it is wed to a personal relationship with Jesus, the founder and Lord of the church. In Christ you will discover a forever companion and spiritual resources for living a purposeful life and for dying a hopeful death. A church worthy of your loyalty will encourage and invite you to a personal relationship with Jesus.
- Do they challenge you to reconsider or reframe how you think about life and values? Some folk seek only a church that reinforces what they already believe. A wiser search is to seek a church that is trying to develop in you the mind of Christ — to think and behave as he did. A church ought to bruise and goad you sometimes; that’s how Christians grow into the counter-cultural Jesus-people we are meant to be. A church worthy of your loyalty will sometimes upset you because it calls you to repent, to change your mind.
These are my crucial “big seven.” That’s three less than the Ten Commandments and thus leaves you room to add some essentials of your own.
Although I have been part of the Baptist family all my life (and sometimes been embarrassed by my family), I trust my list is basic enough that it may be useful wherever you shop. These are the matters that, after a lifetime of involvement in the church, seem most vital to me.
I pray your search will result in the discovery of a church that will be a blessing to you in more ways than you can now imagine.
Daniel Day is emeritus pastor of First Baptist Church (Salisbury St.) of Raleigh, N.C., and former senior professor of preaching and Christian worship at Campbell University Divinity School. His latest book is Lively Hope: A Taste of God’s Tomorrow.