Whether to attend church, and which one, are among the most important decisions we can make. What are key factors we should consider?
The choice of churches and denominations of churches has never been greater. A dizzying supermarket of brands awaits the potential churchgoer, particularly in the United States.
To put the puzzling choices in secular terminology, supply and demand drives the religious marketplace. According to The Southern California Christian Times, "More than one out of seven adults change[s] their church each year, and another one out of six attends a carefully chosen handful of selected churches on a rotating basis rather than sticking with the same church week after week" (December 1998). Brand loyalty doesn't carry much weight.
If you were looking for a church, what would you look for? In America, where churchgoers are more fickle about their affiliation than in any other country, what do people look for in a place of worship?
Last year the George Barna research company surveyed American churchgoers about their preferences in a church. In the resulting report the top three factors were:
1. Beliefs and doctrines.
2. Mutual comfort and care among the members.
3. The quality of the sermons.
Mentioned first were beliefs and doctrines. That is a good place to begin. From a biblical standpoint, certainly few if any other points could be as important. But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. The first question to ask is, Should we attend church at all?
What the Bible says
Most of our readers presumably have a great deal of respect for the Scriptures or they wouldn't be reading this magazine. But, if you are not yet quite sure about the authority of the Bible over our individual and collective lives, we invite you to request our two free booklets Is the Bible True? and How to Understand the Bible .
The New Testament admonishes Christians to assemble together regularly. One epistle specifically tells us: "...Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews:10:24-25).
The Old Testament expresses the same thought in the form of a command: "Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation [or 'commanded assembly,' New International Version]. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings" (Leviticus:23:3; emphasis added throughout).
In terms of choosing a church based on fundamental beliefs, observing God's Sabbath is one of the most basic--so basic that it is enshrined as one of the Ten Commandments. (If you do not understand which day is the Christian Sabbath or are unclear on its purpose and intent, please request our free booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest. You can access this booklet at www.ucg.org/articles/sabbath.htm .)
To sum up the importance of beliefs and doctrines, the Bible makes it clear that God's Church keeps His law. It is described prophetically as a group of people "who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation:12:17).
Its members do not try to get around or do away with the requirements of the biblical way of life. They follow the difficult, narrow and often unpopular way mentioned by Jesus Christ, not the broad, easy path that eventually leads to destruction (Matthew:7:13). Those who really want eternal life are pictured as living God's way (verse 14).
What is the Church?
Early in our study we should understand what the Church is and is not. We must first understand that the church is not a building. The glossary of the Translator's New Testament plainly tells us: "'Church' in NT never means 'building.' It always represents either a group of committed Christians in any given locality [who] met to practice their religion, or the totality of these groups scattered throughout the world" (pp. 557-558).
The apostle Paul defines the Church as simply "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians:12:12, 27). It is a spiritual organism, not a physical edifice or organization. Members of the Church go to the building where they meet, or a congregation meets in someone's house if the numbers are small (Romans:16:5; 1 Corinthians:16:19), but the Church is still the spiritual Body of Christ.
By way of an analogy, Paul likens the Church to the parts of the human body (1 Corinthians:12:12-27). He shows how each part is dependent on the others. Yet "by one Spirit [the Holy Spirit] we were all baptized into one body... and have been made to drink into one Spirit" (verse 13). It doesn't make much sense for some of the membership to be separated from the rest of the Body, sitting alone at home while the rest of the Body worships together with other members of the Body.
The same care one for another
The apostle Paul urged the Corinthian members to "have the same care one for another" (1 Corinthians:12:25). This is the second point mentioned by the Barna survey: mutual comfort and care.
This mutual care for one another is biblical. But it should always be remembered that our relationships with other members of the Church begin and end in our fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ (1 John:1:3, 7).
We have fellowship with each other only in and through our spiritual relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. The first four of the Ten Commandments express our love for God, the last six our love for humankind. The apostle John points out the folly of trying to have one without the other (1 John:4:20).
The Ten Commandments embody a basic spiritual law. If you break one, spiritually speaking you have broken them all (James:2:10). We express the love of God by keeping every one of the Ten Commandments (1 John:5:3).
Expressing proper love for the membership of the Church is an awesome responsibility on the shoulders of each member. After all, Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian Church (Matthew:16:18), did say, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John:13:35). It is of utmost importance that we extend warmth and friendliness to other members of the spiritual Body that is the Church, especially to visitors and new members.
Quality of the sermons
The quality of the sermons is mentioned as the third most-looked-for quality in the George Barna survey. In the broadest sense this is also a supremely important point. The membership of the Church has a right to expect certain fundamental qualities from the elders' leadership. First and foremost is loyalty to the Bible and to the teachings and practices of Jesus that He taught the apostles--"the apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts:2:42).
In his preaching each elder must be "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy:2:15). Most other versions say "rightly handling" or "rightly explaining," which is a better rendering, but perhaps the Revised English Bible has best grasped the basic sense of this passage when it expresses the need to "keep strictly to the true gospel."
The world's teachers expound many false gospels (Galatians:1:6-7; 2 Corinthians:11:4; Matthew:24:4-5). A British novelist made this comment about many 20th-century clerics: "The modern clergyman has acquired in his study of the science which I believe is called exegesis an astonishing facility for explaining things away."
Which way to turn?
Explaining things away is not a part of the preaching of a true servant of God. The ministry of the Word and prayer are his true priorities (Acts:6:4).
The apostle Paul urged Timothy: "Preach the Word;... correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction." Why? "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Timothy:4:2-3, New International Version).
A faithful pastor will preach the truth of God's Word, not his own ideas. A true servant of God and His people "has a boundary set for him," explained one long-time teacher. "When he enters the pulpit, he is not an entirely free man... He is not at liberty to invent or choose his message: it has been committed to him, and it is for him to declare, expound and commend it to his hearers."
The importance of faithfulness to the Word of God cannot be overemphasized. Much less important is the preacher's particular style of speaking or even his basic ability as an orator or teacher. Most who have received a genuine call to the ministry strive to improve their effectiveness as the years go by.
Yet another important factor
One more factor is simply the ability of one's church to make a difference. Said George Barna: "They want substance from their church; they want to make a difference in the world through their church."
Broadly speaking, this is another way of saying the Church is commissioned to take the good news of the Kingdom of God to the world and faithfully teach others God's way of life as Jesus commanded (Matthew:24:14; 28:18-20). Any church that is not dedicated to performing this task is seriously falling down on the job. Jesus Christ said, "Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (Matthew:7:20).
According to Mr. Barna, the sad truth is that "the Christian Church has stagnated, largely due to its comfort with routines and rituals that are neither challenging nor relevant for millions of people."
Many prospective churchgoers do desire to do a work in the world. They would like to find a church actively fulfilling Christ's command to spread the gospel in our age. But they may need some vital background knowledge to rightly evaluate which groups and organizations are obediently following Christ's command.
Of course, there is a great deal more to the overall story. The Church is a big subject well worth studying in much greater detail than can be done in any single article. That is why the United Church of God has published an extensively researched booklet simply titled The Church Jesus Built . This is one of the most important booklets we have ever published. Our booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom gives understanding of the message Jesus taught, and which He commanded His Church to proclaim.
How to find the right church will entail some serious Bible study on your part. It is not a decision you should make quickly or lightly. You should search out a church that fits the true biblical model.