Looking for a new church home can feel overwhelming. With so many options—and with the burden of such a weighty decision—we can sometimes struggle to know where to start.
If you’re currently looking for a new church home, perhaps start by asking a trusted previous pastor or searching a trusted church locator like the one on The Gospel Coalition’s website. As you select churches to visit, focus on churches close to your home so you can truly get involved in the congregation. Also, be sure to visit more than one time so a rough Sunday (or an exceptional Sunday) doesn’t determine your view of the church. When you do visit potential churches, come with these questions in mind.
1. Is God’s Word the main dish?
This might seem obvious, but it’s astounding how often the “obvious” gets assumed and therefore ignored. How do you know if a church takes Scripture seriously? You can look on the website’s statement of faith section, but often these can be similar to any other church’s website. Your best bet is to see what the “preaching diet” is like. Most churches have a sermon archive on their website (or YouTube channel) where you can watch a sampling of Sunday morning messages.
What you’re looking for is subtle but very significant: Does the church merely teach biblically themed messages or does the church teach the Bible?
The easiest way to determine this is by reviewing the last three to six months of its preaching calendar (i.e., the preaching series). Is it filled with multiple series (normally 4–6 weeks in length) aimed at various topical issues (i.e., a fulfilling marriage, relationships, parenting, self-assurance messages, pop-culture trends, and the like?) or is the church taking time to simply teach John’s Gospel, or Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, or a series on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount?
To be clear, you can teach the Bible in 4–6 week topical chunks. The point isn’t necessarily how the meal is presented but whether the Bible is the main dish (as opposed to a side dish or appetizer for another main dish thought to be more enticing).
2. Is the church more like a nightclub or a home?
When you observe the corporate gathering on a Sunday morning, is the church being intentional to build a community of people for God’s glory, or is the church promoting spiritual experiences for the individual? Scripture is clear that a church is a communal gathering of God’s people, not simply a consumer experience for like-minded individuals.
A church is a communal gathering of the people of God, not simply a consumer experience for like-minded individuals.
How to discern this? First, ask yourself: Does the church’s overall environment more closely resemble a nightclub or your living room? Are people there to have an enjoyable experience for themselves or to be connected with their family?
Second, observe the elements that constitute the gathering: prayers prayed, sermon application points, the way (or whether) communion is served, and so forth. Do these things point you to community, or is it all about the individual?
Consider the popular trend of blacking out ceilings and darkening the sanctuary (or “auditorium”) with bright lights only on the stage. This theatrical lighting moves the emphasis away from the gathered congregation—where knowing one another is as important as knowing what’s happening onstage—to a few people up front. It signals an emphasis on performance rather than participation in worship. Even subtle stylistic choices have theological implications.
3. Are the church’s leaders shepherds or professionals?
Does the leadership structure resemble a team of shepherds or a board of trustees? Do the people in pews do the ministry, or do they pay professionals to do the work? Does the leadership resemble the structure of the New Testament—a plurality of men, equal in authority and responsibility to shepherd God’s people? Or does the leadership structure more closely resemble that of a modern business, with a CEO and org charts of middle managers and implementers who carry out the CEO’s vision?
When a church seeks to equip and utilize all of its members, this affirms the priesthood of the believers and signals trust in the gifting of the Holy Spirit. When church leaders insist on doing everything or look to one individual to set the church’s priorities, this can be a sign of pride or insecurity (sometimes both) and indicates a lack of biblical ecclesiology.
4. Is the congregation made up of accountable members or unaccountable consumers?
Does the church call its people to sacrificial and submissive living through covenant-like church membership, or does the church allow people to remain autonomous and unaccountable—mostly wanting them to be pleased by what they get from the church?
A church is not like a fitness club or Costco, where you join to receive access to goods or services. You join a church to submit yourself to a people who are called to a greater purpose than individual self-actualization (1 Pet. 2:9; Heb 13:7,17). Sometimes in the name of relevance, cultural accommodation, or simple pastoral negligence, churches abandon their most powerful witness: to be a people who intentionally, sacrificially commit themselves and submit themselves to Christ for his glory and the good of the whole body.
You join a church to submit yourself to a people who are called to a greater purpose than individual self-actualization.
The details of membership can vary from church to church, but it’s important to ask: does the church have a mechanism in place to support, hold accountable, encourage, and apply the many implications of the gospel in the lives of their people?
One practical way to discern whether the people in a church make up a meaningful community is to show up early and stay late when you visit. Watch how the people interact. Is it more like the interactions of a family or the interactions of fans at a concert?
5. Are you willing to extend as well as receive God’s grace in your search for a church?
This point actually has more to do with you than the church you’re considering. At some point, you’ll have to commit. Give yourself fully and truly to the church. Lock arms with its people, love them, and let them love you. Pray for, support, and follow the leadership (Heb. 13:17). Get involved, make commitments, be accountable, take on responsibility for the gospel work in, at, and through that church.
When you do, it will require humility and taking on a posture of service. Especially in a consumer society where humility and service are not foregrounded, we’ll need God’s grace operative if we’re to love the church the way we should. No church will ever be perfect, even if it checks all your boxes. Every church will inevitably be uncomfortable and even painful, for one simple reason: it’s full of people like you and me—redeemed sinners in need of grace.