How to Find the Right Church

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    Many prospective churchgoers really do desire to do a work in the world. They would like to find a Church that is actively fulfilling Christ's command to spread the true gospel in this modern age. But they may need some vital background knowledge in order to rightly evaluate which groups and organizations are obediently following Christ's command. What are some key factors one should consider?

The choice of churches and denominations has never been greater. A virtual supermarket of dizzying "brands" awaits the potential churchgoer, particularly in America.

To put the puzzling choices in secular terminology, people's present actions reflect the market. According to The Southern California Christian Times, "More than one out of seven adults change 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" simply does not carry the weight as in former times. Yet surprisingly many churchgoers do base their choices on some fairly fundamental points.

Last year the George Barna research group surveyed American churchgoers about the qualities they looked for in a church. The top three factors were:

    * Beliefs and doctrines
    * Mutual care and concern among the members
    * The quality of the sermons

Mentioned first were beliefs and doctrines. That is a very 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 thing to establish 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 probably 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.

Actually the New Testament teaching strongly advises regular church attendance. The letter to Hebrew Christians specifically says: "And 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, emphasis added).

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], you shall do no work on it, it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings" (Leviticus 23:3).

In terms of choosing a church based on fundamental beliefs, observing the 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 write for our free booklet Sunset to Sunset--God's Sabbath Rest.)

To sum up the importance of beliefs and doctrines, we simply say God's Church keeps God's 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 straight, 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? From early on 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" (pages 557-558).

The apostle Paul simply defines the Church as "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27). Clearly it is a spiritual organism, not a physical edifice or organization. The Church goes to the building where it meets, not the other way around. Or the congregation meets in someone's house in the case of small numbers, but it is still the spiritual body of Christ.

By way of an analogy, Paul likens the Church to the various physical members of the human body (verses 12-27 inclusive). He shows how each member is dependent on all 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). So it doesn't make much sense for portions of the membership to be separated from the rest of the body, sitting alone at home while the rest of the body worships together.

"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 both begin and end in our fellowship with God the Father and His son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3).

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 are a cohesive body of 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 16:28), did say: "By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, that you have love one for another." It is important that we extend warmth and friendliness to other members of that 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 it is also a supremely important point. The membership of the Church has a right to expect certain fundamental qualities from the ministerial leadership. First and foremost is loyalty to the Bible and to the teachings and practices of Jesus which He taught the apostles--"the apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts 2:42).

In his preaching each minister is "to rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Most other versions say "rightly handling" which is a better rendering, but perhaps the Revised English Bible has best grasped the basic sense of this passage with "keep strictly to the true gospel."

Many false gospels are taught in the world (Galatians 1:6-7; 2 Corinthians 11:4; Matthew 24:4-5). One famous British novelist had this comment concerning much of the 20th-century ministry. "The modern clergyman has acquired in his study of the science which I believe is called exegesis an astonishing facility for explaining things away."

That is not a part of the preaching of a true minister 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 minister will preach the truth of God's Word, not his own ideas. A true minister "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."

Faithfulness to the Word of God cannot be over emphasized. Much less important is the minister's particular style of preaching or even his basic ability as a speaker. 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 to faithfully teach others God's way of life as Jesus commanded (Matthew 24:24; 28:18-20). 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).

According to George 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 really do desire to do a work in the world. They would like to find a Church that is actively fulfilling Christ's command to spread the true gospel in this modern age. But they may need some vital background knowledge in order 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 Virtual Christian Magazine article. That is why the United Church of God has published an extensively researched booklet simply titled, The Church Jesus Built.

To understand the message Jesus taught, and which He commanded His Church to proclaim, please request your free copy of The Gospel of the Kingdom. Both booklets are available free of charge by contacting our office nearest you.

How to find the right Church will entail some serious Bible study on your part. You should search out a church that really fits the true biblical model. This is not a decision either to be taken lightly or too quickly.