I hate the phrase “church shopping,” because it suggests the process of choosing a church is a consumeristic way to satisfy your personal desires. But the “shopping” metaphor can be useful if we think about choosing a church like we approach buying a house: You pick from what’s already available, and that usually means making compromises. Most of the time, you have to decide what options are necessary and which ones are just nice to have. Maybe your ideal home is an adorable 1920s bungalow, but your budget and location constraints mean you buy a kinda boring 1970s rambler instead.
Choosing a church is similar. You almost certainly won’t find a community that checks off every item on your list. In fact, there’s no such thing as a perfect local church. Even if you started a new church, it would still develop features you dislike, because a church is a community, and communities are full of different people who have different opinions and skills. Looking for a “perfect” church is a sure route to an endless cycle of Sunday-morning visits that never ends in a real commitment to one congregation.
That’s no good, because our faith is inherently a group project, and discipleship, the process of growing as followers of Jesus, is something that happens in the context of community. It is better to settle down in that rambler than it is to be spiritually homeless. We all go through seasons of isolation, yes, but it can’t be our default. And though picking a church can feel scary, but praying and thinking through five considerations—community, theology, service, structure, and style—can help.
First, community. What does the church you’re considering do together? Is it just a once-a-week social club, or are there real demands of membership? Do you get the sense that being part of this congregation is central to the lives of those involved? Will committing to this community change the shape of your weekly or even daily life in a meaningful way? Following Jesus is not a casual hobby, and you’ll want to find a church with a robust culture of honesty, accountability, and mutual support.
A huge—but too often ignored—aspect of community is geography, which is to say: Is this church close to where you live? Is it close enough that participating in community life is realistic for you? (Be honest with yourself here.) Do most of the members also live nearby? Your church community can’t be integral to your life if it isn’t physically accessible to you.
Congregation size is crucial, too. I prefer smaller churches—say, two hundred members or fewer—where I know everyone and they know me. Maybe a bigger group is more your speed, but remember, the larger the church, the more important it is to be intentional about connecting with a smaller community within the congregation. Whatever it looks like, community life must involve more than Sunday morning.
Your next question is about theology: What do the churches you’re considering believe? Do they have a solid foundation in basic Christian dogma, and where do they land lesser doctrinal issues?
The teaching method of a typical Sunday meeting is part of this question. Is it appropriate to your learning style and stage of spiritual growth? Great theology won’t do you much good if you can’t understand it, and your community’s teaching should both challenge and foster the intellectual side of your faith.
Now, while it’s good and reasonable to look for a church with convictions you believe are true, remember you probably won’t find a perfect match—and that’s okay. Theology matters, but it isn’t all that matters.
Here’s what I mean. The first church I attended as an adult was a good fit theologically, but a decade later I can’t even remember the main pastor’s name. I had an incredibly shallow relationship to that church because theology was the only reason I went there. The second church I attended as an adult was not such a great theological fit, but I decided to stay—and thrive—in that church because I lived in a small town with limited options. Though far from perfect from my perspective, this community got a lot right and was comfortable housing different views under one steeple. It was close to my home and much smaller than that first church, so I couldn’t silently shrink into a nameless crowd. Despite disagreements, I count the two years I spent there as my real introduction to what it means to be a contributing member of a community following Jesus.
The third consideration is service, because finding a church is only partially about you. We go to church to be discipled and live in community, true, but also to serve our neighborhoods, cities, and the world.
“What good is it,” the epistle of James asks, “if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” His answer is a hard no. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food,” James continues. “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:14–17).
So this guideline is straightforward: Does the church you’re considering serve? Is it putting faith to work, following Jesus in service to those in need? Does this congregation do what it can to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, heal the sick and visit the imprisoned—and is there a way you can help?
Next up is church structure and governance, which I realize may sound incredibly dull but can tell you a lot about a church’s values. I always think of a news report I read years ago about a church that wanted to install air-conditioning so they wouldn’t have to sweat through summer services. This congregation saved tens of thousands of dollars for building improvements only to have a member introduce a plan for an orphanage in Namibia. The church decided to rob its building fund to pay for the orphanage, a decision that speaks volumes about that community’s priorities.
Structure questions ask how decisions like that are made. How is money spent? How are leadership roles filled, and who’s eligible to fill them? What’s the process for joining or leaving the community? Is the congregation part of a larger denomination, and how much does that determine what happens at the local level?
The last consideration is style, a category typically dominated here in America by building aesthetics and the great-hymns-versus-praise-choruses debate of the 1990s and early 2000s. I would expand it to include questions like whether the worship service is liturgical, how much of the service is devoted to the sermon, whether children are included in the main service, and whether there is space for congregational participation, like a community prayer request time or passing of the peace.
Style is important, but after being a part of no fewer than fifteen churches—my family moved around a lot—I can confidently say we can learn to worship in any habit. It’s developing the habit that’s key. C. S. Lewis explains this point well in a little book called Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. Many churches seem to believe they’ll attract new people with “incessant brightenings, lightenings, length- enings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service,” he writes, and such changes may do a little good. But novelty is usually a distraction. The style of a church service best enables us to worship God “when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. The “perfect church service,” he says, “would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”
The church you choose may have the style of that 1970s rambler more than the adorable bungalow, but Lewis’s sage advice is to settle in and make it home (which may eventually include some remodeling). Those avocado-green counters may not be your favorite, but they’ll become familiar, friendly, and functional. You’ll learn to use them without thinking, and that’s how you come to focus on the cooking, not the kitchen.
This article is adapted from the book, A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, by Bonnie Kristian. Copyright (c) Bonnie Kristian by Faithwords. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Bonnie Kristian (@bonniekristian) is the author of the forthcoming book Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community. She is a columnist at Christianity Today and a fellow at Defense Priorities, and her work has appeared at outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, Politico, and Reason.