Five things to consider when picking a church
Everyone, at least in the United States, is free to walk into a church to observe its service, which usually, but not always, takes place on Sunday. The purpose of this article is to help you feel comfortable visiting a church for the first time and to give you tips for assessing whether or not it’s a place you want to visit again.
I am primarily addressing those who have little experience in this area. Maybe all you know about church is what you’ve seen on TV and the movies, and you wonder if church is really that bad (it’s not). Maybe you attended a wedding in a beautiful chapel and would like to check it out. Maybe you just started a family and, with a newborn in your arms, you realize there’s more to life than you ever imagined. Maybe you recently moved to a new town and want to meet people. I will not judge your motivations here; I just want to help you assess what you find.
Before I continue, please know that churches today respect your privacy. While other organizations are getting increasingly intrusive, following you around with their targeted advertising, most churches will not contact you unless you ask them to. Even then, you may not be contacted—lots of churches are understaffed! So don’t worry about anyone expecting anything out of you at first; just relax and enjoy yourself.
One more point. The following tips are made with Christian denominations in mind, because these are the churches I know personally and can attest to their open doors. In my relatively long life, I have attended Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Quaker, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, Methodist and Covenant Churches. My background for writing this article is simply as a regular person who has taken the time to find a great church wherever I live. I hope to encourage others to do the same.
Five things to consider when picking a church:
1) MUSIC. This is not the most important aspect of a church, but it is usually the first thing noticed. Lots of singing, maybe a choir, a band, or some incredible guitar picking. Don’t expect to love all the music, but it’s a definite plus if you like most of it. Churches tend to lean toward traditional music (hymns) or contemporary (think drums and synthesizer), but many do a good job of presenting a variety, which is important if you’re looking for a church with a spouse or friend who has different tastes than you.
2) MISSION STATEMENT. Listen for the church’s core beliefs. If they do not become obvious during the church service, ask for a brochure or snoop around the church’s website. While the church’s beliefs are very important, it is possible for you to be a part of a church and have a different view. It doesn’t make you a hypocrite. You just want to make sure you can respect the church’s beliefs and are open to learning more about them.
3) OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE. Would involvement in the church provide you with opportunities to serve your neighborhood and beyond? Find out by listening to the announcements or by asking someone after the service. A healthy church gives to others in addition to nourishing its own.
4) THE SERMON. The sermon or message should provide something meaningful to contemplate. But for this to happen, you need to be mentally present. No daydreaming. Do your best to pay attention and ask yourself, “What part of this message is intended for my ears and what am I going to do about it?” When you ask yourself this question, most sermons will be worth your while.
Still, you may have a preference for a certain style of speaking. Some pastors, for example, are more intellectually challenging, while others are entertaining, using analogies, real-life stories, and media to support their teaching. Within one church, there could be a variety of styles, depending on the number of pastors or the nature of the content to be communicated. You may need to visit a church more than once to determine what suits you. As you do, be easy on the pastor—his/her role encompasses much more than public speaking—and don’t forget the part that you play in the process.
5) COMMUNITY AND CREATIVITY. When you show up for the first time at a church—no matter how welcoming the place is—you may feel like a stranger by the simple fact that you are one, so leave yourself out of it for now. Instead, watch how others interact. Do you see people connecting? Do you feel a sense of authenticity and camaraderie? In addition, do you see evidence of creativity? A church, after all, is made up of unique individuals and should thereby contain elements of unpredictability. Maybe a little kid reads the scripture; maybe the music director makes a curious joke that gets everyone laughing; maybe an odd-looking woman with an enormous red hat wanders down the aisle and sits right in front of you…who knows? Welcome the surprises; they are usually positive signs of a vibrant church.
Five things NOT to consider when picking a church:
1) SIZE. Don’t let the size of a church draw or deter you. You may go to a big church and feel lost, but keep in mind that most big churches offer smaller gatherings to foster relationships. Or, you may go to a small church and wonder why the place isn’t filled up, but keep in mind that everyone who is there may be involved and loving it. If the church appeals to you based on the points previously mentioned, don’t worry about numbers.
2) DIVERSITY. Churches would like to be diverse, but the truth is, people tend to go to a church where they find similar types of people. Also, it’s kind of hard for a church to be diverse if it’s in a neighborhood that isn’t diverse. So please don’t base your opinion of a church on this matter alone. That said, if you can add to a church’s diversity, great! You will contribute more than you know.
3) INSTANT FRIENDS. I’ve heard people say that they stopped going to a church because they went for months without meeting anyone. Well, to be honest, Sunday services are not that conducive to making friends. You’ve got to do a little more to get to know the people. The best way to make friends and really experience a church community is to get involved in a service project, class, or other event where relationships have a chance to gel.
4) THE BUILDING. As an art student, I’ve seen and studied beautiful churches all over the world. The windows move me most. I’ve gone to churches with expansive windows that open to the sky and churches with tall, arched windows of brilliant stained glass. Presently, I attend a church with no windows. We meet in an old movie theater. But that’s okay, because the people are more important. A building can set the stage for a spiritual experience, but along the same lines of not judging a book by its cover, try not to judge a church by its building.
5) PERFECTION. A church is made up of people, and since no person is perfect, no group of persons will be perfect. Far from it. Perfection does not exist on this side of heaven, so if a church has ample strengths, don’t worry about the little things you don’t like.
Despite imperfections, churches have much to offer, including, of course, support for growing closer to God. The tips above are suggestions only: you may walk into a church and know immediately that you belong, or your spouse may have a strong pick and you follow along. Since God is omniscient, in all seriousness, you can actually get to know Him anywhere. As the book of James says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” But I do hope you find a church where you want to get involved. It’s worth the effort.