Joining a church is a big deal. By joining, I don't mean just going to a regular meeting once or twice a week. I don't even mean simply getting your name on the membership roll. I mean committing yourself to a covenantal relationship with a group of Christians who are your family and with whom you share life-in-Christ together. That's how big a deal it is. So if you've relocated and need to find a church, then make sure you ask the right questions before joining.
Though these questions aren't the only ones to ask, they are important. None of them stands alone, but together they create a crucial decision-making framework.
1. What do they believe?
The idea of becoming part of a church that doesn't love, preach, and teach the gospel is absurd. Far too much is at stake. But in order to make that judgment, we need to have some idea of what the gospel is. If the gospel is simply the message by which I'm saved from sin and hell, then you may find there are a lot of churches that enable you to tick that box.
But if the gospel is not merely the A-B-C into the Christian life but the A-to-Z of the Christian life, then the gospel changes everything. To see just how and why the good news is such good news requires us to see how it shapes and defines all of life. So make sure the gospel is preached, prayed, sung, celebrated, taught, applied, lived, and loved—week in, week out, day in, day out, 24/7.
2. How do they behave?
Inseparable from the first question is this one, which is essentially about the nature of church. If church is a building you enter, then in most places in the Western world you're going to have plenty of options. But it isn't a building! Or if the church is just a meeting you attend, then many of us again are going to be spoiled for choice. But it isn't merely a meeting. It's not less than that, but it's so much more.
Church is a covenant community created by the gospel and for the gospel. It's an outpost of heaven, a light through which Christ shines and brings life. Church is the people of God, as they perpetually gather and scatter, for the purpose of making Christ known through their corporate witness of both word and life. Church is the means of both discipleship and mission. So when you're looking for a church, make sure this expansive vision of what it means to be the people of God energizes and shapes both the structures and activities of the particular expression of church you're considering.
3. What should I do?
You should join a church. In saving you, the gospel incorporates you into God's people and enlists you into God's mission. To disassociate yourself from, or only loosely affiliate yourself to, the people of God is a denial of the gospel. Discipleship requires community, and community is normative for mission.
As you ask and answer these three questions, consider these four additional points as you actually join a church near your new home.
1. Don't ignore your existing church.
Discuss the move with the church to which you already belong. Get their input. Talk through what it means for them to send you. After all, as a believer you are already a missionary, so see it as a gospel opportunity.
2. Look at churches before you decide to move.
If there are no gospel churches in the area of your new job, don't move there. (Unless, of course, you're going to plant one.)
3. Determine the area you'll live in by the church you'll join.
Accept the job offer by all means, but put church before neighborhood, schooling, or housing. Only the church will stretch into eternity.
4. Focus on the essentials and be unconcerned about the incidentals.
Allow me to apply this point briefly to two controversial areas. First, style of music. Musical style has more to do with personal preference than with theological conviction. They may sing old hymns more than contemporary songs, but in light of eternity, that's incidental. Don't let music determine whether you join a church or not. Ask questions by all means, but do not allow it to become primary.
The second thing is kids' programs. Your kids are important, but an all-singing, all-dancing kids program isn't. In fact, lack of programs may be the best thing for your kids. It gives you a great opportunity to teach them the true nature of both gospel and church. What better chance to disillusion them of the notion that they are consumers and that church is all about them! You won’t get a better opportunity to teach them about the nature of the gospel, what the church is, and what it really means to follow Jesus.
So you’ve found the church. You’ve decided to join. Now what?
Get in among them, to love them and serve them and live in the world with them, for the glory of God and the fame of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.
Steve Timmis serves as executive director of Acts 29. You can follow him on Twitter.