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How Can You Find the Right Church?

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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.

The first question to ask is, Should we attend church at all?

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 read our two free Bible study aid 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 Hebrews 10:24-25 24 And let us consider one another to provoke to love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as you see the day approaching.
American King James Version×
).

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 Leviticus 23:3Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; you shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings.
American King James Version×
; 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 read  Sunset to Sunset: God’s Sabbath Rest  .)

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 Revelation 12:17And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×
).

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 Matthew 7:13Enter you in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
American King James Version×
). Those who really want eternal life are pictured as living God’s way (Matthew 7:14 Matthew 7:14Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it.
American King James Version×
).

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 1 Corinthians 12:12For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
American King James Version×
, 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 Romans 16:5Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my well-beloved Epaenetus, who is the first fruits of Achaia to Christ.
American King James Version×
; 1 Corinthians 1:19 1 Corinthians 1:19For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
American King James Version×
), 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 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 12 For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? 18 But now has God set the members every one of them in the body, as it has pleased him. 19 And if they were all one member, where were the body? 20 But now are they many members, yet but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. 22 No, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: 23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. 24 For our comely parts have no need: but God has tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacked. 25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
American King James Version×
). 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” (1 Corinthians 12:13 1 Corinthians 12:13For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
American King James Version×
). 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 1 Corinthians 12:25That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.
American King James Version×
). 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 1 John 1:3That which we have seen and heard declare we to you, that you also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×
; 1 John 1:7 1 John 1:7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleans us from all sin.
American King James Version×
).

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 1 John 4:20If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?
American King James Version×
).

The Ten Commandments embody a basic spiritual law. If you break one, spiritually speaking you have broken them all (James 2:10 James 2:10For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
American King James Version×
). We express the love of God by keeping every one of the Ten Commandments (1 John 5:3 1 John 5:3For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
American King James Version×
).

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 Matthew 16:18And I say also to you, That you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
American King James Version×
), did say, “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, that you have love one for another” (John 13:35 John 13:35By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.
American King James Version×
). 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 Acts 2:42And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
American King James Version×
).

In his preaching each elder must be “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 2 Timothy 2:15Study to show yourself approved to God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
American King James Version×
). 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 Galatians 1:6-7 6 I marvel that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ to another gospel: 7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
American King James Version×
; 2 Corinthians 11:4 2 Corinthians 11:4For if he that comes preaches another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if you receive another spirit, which you have not received, or another gospel, which you have not accepted, you might well bear with him.
American King James Version×
; Matthew 24:4-5 Matthew 24:4-5 4 And Jesus answered and said to them, Take heed that no man deceive you. 5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
American King James Version×
). 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.”

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 Acts 6:4But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
American King James Version×
).

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 2 Timothy 4:2-3 2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
American King James Version×
, 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 Matthew 24:14And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then shall the end come.
American King James Version×
; Matthew 28:18-20 Matthew 28:18-20 18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you: and, see, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. Amen.
American King James Version×
). Any church that is not dedicated to performing this task is seriously falling down on the job. Jesus Christ said, “You shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20 Matthew 7:20Why by their fruits you shall know them.
American King James Version×
).

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 Good News article. That is why the United Church of God has published an extensively researched Bible study booklet simply titled The Church Jesus Built . This is one of the most important booklets we have ever published.

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.