When my wife and I moved to Chicagoland, we’d never chosen a church before. We’d been working at a small college our entire marriage, and we’d gone to the “college church.” So when we landed in the western suburbs, we faced the daunting task called “Choosing a Church.”
It’s harder than it sounds, especially if you come from as varied a denominational background as we do. We visited a dozen churches before landing at Church of the Great Shepherd, a charismatic Anglican fellowship in Wheaton, Illinois. But we learned a lot from the process, and maybe some of that will help you.
But first, a couple of caveats. For starters, I’ve tried to boil this process down to three steps, but that said, it’s anything but scientific. Opening the phone book to “Churches” and blindly pointing to one is not the answer—this is not the time for your fingers to do the walking—but neither is bouncing to a new church when something rubs you the wrong way. Our Western consumer mentality makes “church-hopping” easy. If you don’t like what you’ve got, try brand X. Avoid that kind of thinking like the plague.
I’m also assuming you’re prayerfully considering your options and asking God to guide you. He may lead you to a “less-than-suitable” church for any one of a hundred reasons. But if you’re asking for wisdom and listening for the answers, the following steps may make your choice a little easier. If not, there are worse ways to spend your time.
Evaluate Your Old Church
That may sound as cold and hard as the bricks it was built with, but that’s where you should begin. It may help to start with people and programs and finish with the intangibles.
What about the people? Were they welcoming or not? Did you feel at ease among them? And the ministry team: are they people you can trust? Do they seem to listen to God and obey his Word?
When you come to programs, think through all the major elements: the worship service, the music, the preaching, the teaching. Consider the ministries that were available: singles, couples, youth group, children’s, small groups. Did any of these things really make you feel at home? It’s also a good idea to think about ministry opportunities, opportunities for reaching out to your community. Are there enough? Too few? Too many?
Finally, consider the intangibles; that is, anything that won’t fit neatly into a category. For instance, one man who attended church with us at our old church was like a father to me, and my brother and his wife attended church with us as well. There may be other intangibles worth considering too.
Describe Your Ideal Church
Second, use your answers from step one to guide you toward your ideal church. Again, consider people, programs and intangibles. Maybe you want a church where you can be anonymous, where you can miss a Sunday and not come home to a mailbox full of postcards and a pile of smoking plastic where your answering machine used to be. On the other hand, you may like something more than junk mail and bills in your mailbox, and you bought the extra voice mail storage for a reason. These are questions that need answering.
A big question to answer is: Will I stick to my faith stream, or try something new? I grew up in an independent church, my wife in the Pentecostal Holiness church, both of which had a liberal view of structured services (though they had their own structure). We tried literally every possibility when we came to Chicago, from Baptist to Willow Creek. We landed in a liturgical church, where the Nicene Creed and communion are the spine of every service.
Do you want a place to serve? Or are you content to warm a pew (or chair)? This isn’t the place for arguing the right or wrong of these positions, so the answer must be your own. What ministries will you require? Some churches offer a menu full of choices: men’s/women’s; singles/couples; youth and children’s ministries (which will be more important as years go by); mentoring/discipleship; Sunday school. The list is endless. Others may have a Sunday morning service once a month and plenty of social activities to fill the time (no kidding).
When you’ve finished, you’re almost ready to start visiting. And how will you choose the churches? The Internet’s a wonderful tool. Even the smallest towns now have Web sites, and if not, call the chamber of commerce. The chamber usually has a list of area churches. Also, you can enter your destination town or city in one of the Web’s myriad search engines—Google, Yahoo!, AltaVista, Netscape, to name a few—to get a list of churches with Web sites.
If the church has a Web site, visit it first to get a general idea of what the church is like, keeping in mind your ideal church. If you need more information, call the church. Eliminate those churches that don’t fit your criteria.
Get Out of the House!
Now get out there! I think visiting consists of two stages: the initial visit and the extended visit. First, visit the churches on your list to get a general feel for them. Most churches have their biggest service on Sunday morning, so that’s generally the best time for the initial visit.
Use the same questions you used twice before: What are the people like? How do I like the music? Is the preaching effective, biblical, engaging? Do I feel welcome? And did you “meet” God? Is God alive in the church, or is the congregation going through the motions? Again, whittle down your list.
When you have a much shorter list, you’re ready for the extended visit. Attend the most promising churches for a couple of weeks each. Arrange to meet with the pastor or other staff to better understand the church.
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