I've been asked this question many times not just through my Practical Shepherding website, but even more recently in my own church by visitors. It is a common scenario. You move to a new area. You get find your new residence and job. You get the kids enrolled in school. Where you settle in a local church often becomes a longer, more drawn-out task.
After checking out all the churches you desire to visit, here are four questions to ask yourself as you narrow the search to make a decision.
1. Is this a church where my family will be regularly fed by God’s Word?
This is the first question that needs to be asked. Not just are they faithful to the Word of God, but will this church preach and teach in such a way that my soul and the souls of my family will be nourished? In other words, are they preaching expositionally through books of the Bible as the regular, steady diet of the congregation? This approach does not automatically answer this question, but it is a great place to start and evaluate.
2. Is this a church where I am convinced the care of my soul will be a priority?
Does this church have real pastors/elders who see their primary task to be the spiritual care and oversight of the souls of the members? In other words, just because they have powerful, biblical preaching does not mean your individual soul will be tended to on a regular basis. Ask the pastors. Ask other church members. It will not take much investigation on whether this work is a priority of the leadership of the church.
3. Is this a church where my family will experience meaningful Christian fellowship and accountability?
To know this, it will require a bit of a commitment to one church for a time to build relationships, attend some church fellowship events, and get to know some of the pastors and leadership. Yet you must have a realistic expectation as you are not yet a member, so do not expect to be treated as one.
4. Is this a church where I can serve God’s people and use my gifts for its benefit?
It will help to know where you are gifted and what some of the needs of the church are. Some needs can be filled by your simple presence and commitment. Also, do not assume you know what those areas of need are by your limited observations.
You should be able to know the answers to these questions within a few months of attending one church if you give yourself to the process. If you can answer in the affirmative to all four of these questions, it is a good possibility you have found your next church. At that point I would encourage you not to delay but to pursue membership.
Important Final Note
One final element is the key to persevering with the zeal required in this search. You and your family should feel a sense of persistent unease knowing that you are not in covenant fellowship with a local church and are not under the authority of undershepherds caring for your souls. The freedom and absence of accountability many experience in the search for a new church can cause a sinful complacency.
In other words, you do not ever want to become comfortable being one of God’s sheep who has wandered away from the fellowship of the flock and the accountability of shepherds to care for you, even if that journey at the time feels fun and exciting.