What to Look For in a Church
When searching for a church, one should put away selfish reasons for choosing a church. Of these we will mention only four, proximity, preferences, people, and sins.
First, don’t go to a church merely because it is close to your house but rather go to one close to the Bible. If there is a biblical church that is close to where you live, all to the good. But don’t trade biblical truth for convenience.
Second, do not look for a church that merely fits your preferences in musical style or architecture or even has your kind of teachers, stylistically speaking. A church might suit your sense of style and tastes but that doesn’t mean it fits the Bible.
Third, we shouldn’t choose a church because those attending it are like me. Some people choose a church because of the kind of people attending. “They are my kind of people.” More often than not, “my kind” of people are those of my race, ethnicity, class, or age. This is wrong headed. Rather, the kind of people you want to see in a church are Bible believing and Christ exalting people, who are loving one another for the sake of the gospel regardless of differences.
Fourth, don’t go to a church that allows you to continue in a sin. Many people leave their church because the pastor and elders have confronted their sins. Unwilling to submit, they flee to another church that will leave them alone. These are not biblical reasons for leaving one’s church. One should probably go back to the church you are leaving, if it is a Biblical church.
So assuming your motives are sound, what kind of church should you be looking for? The answer, simply put, is “a true church.” The Protestant Reformers taught that there are three marks (characteristics) of a true church.
First, a true church preaches the gospel correctly.
True preaching of the gospel is the main mark of a true church. The gospel is the good news of life and salvation through Jesus Christ. Many churches put forward as true a false gospel. Therefore a simple rule is to ask whether a church is a “Protestant Orthodox” church. Is should be protestant rather than Roman Catholic because the protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is biblical. And it should be orthodox as opposed to theologically liberal, which denies the authority of the Bible.
This mark also refers to how a church regards the Bible. What does the church believe about the Bible? What is the actual role of the Bible in the life of the congregation? If the Bible is not central in the worship and life of the congregation, then that church is not biblical. One should expect to find the scripture expounded and taught, and the gospel of Jesus accurately and frequently preached. Know the difference between a church that uses biblical language, but doesn’t really believe it.
Along this line, ask the leaders where the church stands on the controversial points of beliefs and ethics. Does the church hold to biblical sexuality? What is its position on the role of women in the church? Having said this be aware of legalism. Many churches swing in the opposite direction, emphasizing beliefs that go beyond what the text of Scripture says.
Second, a true church properly administrates the Sacraments.
Jesus instituted just two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. The sacraments are signs and seals of God’s covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11). They confirm and nourish the faith of the believer. The sacraments are very important and should be properly understood and properly administered. You should inquire as to how the pastor and elders of a church handle the sacraments.
Third, a church must practice church discipline.
Jesus called for the church to discipline it members (Mathew 18). A church member caught living in sin and stubbornly refusing to repent of it even after many efforts to admonish him or her should be disciplined by the church so that he or she might come to his or her senses and turn back to God (2 Tim. 2:25-26). The ultimate form of church discipline is excommunication. The purpose of church discipline is not to punish the offending person but to awaken his conscience to his plight before God so that he or she will not be punished on the final day. Moreover, church discipline serves to keep the church pure of sins that can spread to others in the congregation (1 Cor. 5).
While these are the main marks of a true church, there are additional practices that one should look for in a church.
A church should be ruled by elders.
Every Christian should know that God intends His people to be under a group of shepherds. In the Bible these shepherds are called elders (Acts 20; 1 Tim 3 & Titus 1). Note Paul’s statement to the elders of Ephesus: Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Not all churches have elders, and unfortunately many churches do not have good elders. You should ask, “Does this church have elders, and furthermore, do they care for your soul?” “Do they exercise oversight among the people?”
A church should require church membership.
This may seem strange, because many churches don’t teach it as they should. All Christ’s sheep should have under-shepherds of Christ over them: Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3). God requires that each of His people be in the charge of group of elders who will hold one accountable to His Word both in life and in doctrine. You should not be just an attender. Instead you should formally submit themselves to the elders.
You should ask if the church has a membership class.
A church should have a statement of defining beliefs.
A church should hold to sound doctrine, and these doctrines should be regularly taught. Indeed everyone in a congregation should be well grounded in biblical doctrine (Eph. 4:14). In the Reformed church these statements of belief are called Confessions. They are not brief, but quite deep, elaborate, and comprehensive. And they are regularly taught and referred to. They serve as secondary standards beneath the Word of God, which is the Bible.
You don’t have to wait until Sunday to see what a church is teaching. One can go online and listen to the sermons to see if what is being taught squares with the Bible, and with the confessions that that the church subscribes to. Sermons preached at Grace Reformed Church can be found here. Our confessions, called the Three Forms of Unity can be found here.
Is this church seeking to save the lost?
Jesus gave the church an appointed task which is to make disciples in all the nations. A church can be orthodox, but have little in its culture that reveals concern for the unsaved. So one will want to ask, “How is this church working to make the gospel known?”
These are some characteristics one should look for when searching for a new church. We at Grace Reformed Church do our are best to achieve these and other features of a biblical church. Feel free to ask the pastor or elders any of the questions we have suggested in this article (and others as well). However, a word of caution. There is no perfect church this side of heaven. Be willing to live with non-essential differences and unimportant flaws that you may find. Be discerning. Once you find such a church, commit yourself and your family to it and contribute to its life and fellowship.