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 for the mere reason that it is near to your house. Rather go to a church that is nearest 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 and architecture or even has your kind of teachers, stylistically speaking. The Bible says that some people accumulate to themselves teachers suited to their own passions. We can decide to go to a church because it just suits our sense of style and aesthetics. Just is because if fits your style and tastes 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.” Most often than not, “my kind” of people are those of my race, ethnicity, class, or age. The is wrong headed. Rather the kind of people you want to see in a church is Bible believing and Christ exalting people. Fourth, one should not you look for a church that one that allows me 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.
However, if one’s motives for looking for a church are sound, then what kind of church should one look for? The Protestant Reformers taught that there are three marks of a true church.
First a true church preaches the gospel correctly.
This requirement is the main mark of a true church. It refers to how a church regards the Bible. 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.
Second a true church properly administrates the sacraments.
Jesus instituted two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. The sacraments are signs and seals of God’s covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11). The 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.
A church must practice church discipline.
Jesus called for the church to discipline it members in Mathew 18. If a church member is living in sin, and stubbornly refuses to repent of it, then he or she is to undergo discipline in order that come to his senses and turn back to God. The ultimate form of church discipline is excommunication. The purpose of church discipline is not to punish the offending person but to wake that person up so that he 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.
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, but it is biblical. This is implied when Peter writes to the elders: 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 members 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 steep in biblical doctrine, so that he is no longer susceptible to false teaching (Eph. 4:14). In the Reformed church these statements of belief are called Confessions. They are not brief, but quite deep 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 he 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 congregation. However, a word of caution. There is no perfect church this side of heaven. Be willing to live with 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 it’s life and fellowship.