|Photo Credit: keeva999 (Creative Common)|
I'm a pastor currently without a church. So, I have to find one.
It's important for me and my wife to find a church community sooner than later, both for our sake and for our kids. We want to be in community, to worship and follow Jesus with others, to build friendships and experience God's healing and grace through the church. But it's a new experience for us--we are free to pick whatever church we want! We are the visitors parking in the newcomer parking spot. We are the people who don't know how to check our kids in, who aren't sure where to sit, who haven't met people before.
What's the criteria for finding a church? How can you tell if a church is the right fit based on one or two visits? I'm realizing that finding a great church is like discerning compatibility within a romantic relationship--there needs to be an alignment of values and ethos, a sense of mutual benefit and joy, a movement in the same direction in life, and a healthy dose of the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We need to be able to do this following Jesus thing together, as partners in the gospel.
This church shopping thing feels a little bit like dating. It can be awkward and nervous for both parties, and you want to make a good impression and not be too judgmental, but you also want to be careful and not waste your time. As a pastor, I'm also learning a great deal about what I'd want to be aware of when leading a church in the future--I'm taking notes about what it feels like to be the newcomer and visitor!
As our family explores various churches in the Portland and Vancouver are, here are 12 things we think matter as we search for a great church.
1. The website. If your church website is confusing, annoying, or won't load, then you've lost me. If your church website is creative, simple, and clearly communicates information in an easy-to-navigate way, you have my attention. Out-of-date calendars, broken links, no "about us" page, no way to give financially online--these show signs of a lack of hospitality and an understanding of culture. A website is like the church's foyer for the millennial generation--it's a first impression, so make it count.
2. The signage. Great churches have clear signs. I'm new, so I don't know where to go. Where do I park? Where do I take my kids? Where should I sit? How can I find out more information? Who can I talk to about small groups or youth ministry or membership classes? Big, clear signs in aesthetically pleasing fonts are very helpful.
3. The language. Using clear inclusive language is so critical for new people. Explain terms, unpack basic ideas, and don't just using Christian-y language. Churches can quickly begin to use "insider" language for stuff, which is confusing (at best) and excluding (at worst). You say your church has "Life Groups." But my last church did too, and the church I visited last week had "missional communities." What's the difference? That sign next to that door says "Lambs' Club." What does that even mean? Is it for children? Adults? Sheepherders? Use simple, clear, gracious language.
4. Hospitality. The best greeters at the front door of a church building are those who are friendly and available without being clingy or creepy. No plastic smiles or awkwardness; just a simple "welcome here" and a proactive willingness to help those who seem a bit lost. In cold and flu season, I'm actually thankful for the greeters and congregant who don't offer a handshake. I'm also grateful for church buildings that have enough space to gather and have a conversation, moving beyond the small talk and really getting to know people better. Great coffee, clean bathrooms, and lack of clutter also makes a good impression. (The signage, website, and language are all evidence of good hospitality too!)
5. The worship. The language of the songs, the style of the music, the attitude and guidance of the pastor or worship leader, the quality of the sound, the response and participation of the church community. I won't go into too much detail here, as I hope the "worship wars" of the 1990s and 2000s are (mostly) over. Regardless of style or instruments, does the worship center on God and invite the community into giving Him glory? Does it allow for both joy and lament, excitement and contemplation, all without feeling like an emotional roller-coaster? Does worship promote justice and righteousness and a love of God and neighbor? Genuine worship is in spirit and in truth; it's more than just singing.
6. The preaching. Authenticity, clarity, a sense of preparation, winsome, humor, and a focus on the Scriptures and the Gospel are all good signs of healthy preaching. Preachers come in all shapes and sizes, with various styles and postures. What matters most is that they're able to keep me intellectually and emotionally engaged, making me examine my own life in light of the Gospel, inviting me to wrestle with the biblical text, and it all stems from a genuine pastoral heart. Here are 5 questions I ask before I preach; I ask the same ones after each sermon I hear.
7. Theology. I'll be honest--a church's theological position is usually not what I'm evaluating on my first visit. But if my own particular theological convictions don't find enough alignment with the pastors and leadership of the church, there may be a lack of compatibility. And that's okay. My theology is a work in progress. But I don't want to center myself and my family in a church community where we'll be continually bumping up against each other, as our theology informs our practices.
8. Potential friendship. I'm asking myself, could I be friends with these people? Are there people in this church community who are kindred spirits? I'm realizing more and more that a healthy church has people in it I would never choose to hang out with apart from our common love of Jesus. If my church has people in it who are all like me, there's something wrong. Even in the midst of diversity, are there friends and mentors for myself, my wife, and my children? It's hard to tell in one visit, as friendships are built on time and trust and shared experiences. But there is a mysterious chemistry and camaraderie that can occur very quickly between people, especially those God brings together for particular seasons.
9. Potential ministry opportunities. I'm in a season of vocational discernment, exploring what God has for me next as a pastor. I want to find a church where my family and I can serve in tangible ways that go beyond just helping run a program. Discipleship, serving the city, local and global justice initiatives--we want to give ourselves and use our gifts for the sake of others. I'm sure we could find a place to serve no matter where we end up, but there are some churches with more emphasis on serving and ministry than others.
10. Location. Even if the church is awesome, I'm probably not willing to drive more than 20 minutes to get there. Beyond 20 minutes, I'm unable to invite our neighbors to the church without it feeling like a hassle or inconvenience. We greatly value loving the city and neighborhood where God has planted us, so finding a church home nearby is vital. Those potential friendships will mature better in proximity, not if we're driving 45 minutes to hang out with new friends or join a small group.
11. My children. If my kids love the children's ministry and are stoked about following Jesus and being part of His church, I am willing to put aside my own desires and preferences for their benefit. Similarly, if everything about a church is awesome, but their children's ministry is confusing, has untrained staff, causes me or my wife anxiety, or my kids just can't stand it, we probably won't stay around very long. Churches with great systems and a fun culture in their children's ministry are very attractive for young families like ours. It makes a difference when a church has childcare for events and invites kids into the main service as a blessing and not an inconvenience.
12. The Gospel. If I can go through an entire service and not hear the good news about who Jesus is, what He's done for us on the cross, and the beautiful story of redemption, then it's not the church for me. I'm of the opinion that we need to preach Jesus in every sermon. One of my ministry values is the Gospel is everything. It all comes back to Jesus. If it doesn't, then it's not the church for me.
I'm in the process of church shopping, but I don't want to adopt a posture of consumerism. I want to be guided by the Holy Spirit, listening for his voice as we visit and evaluate and pray and visit again.
What would you add to the list? Share your own stories of church visits in the comments!