My wife and I have been searching for a new church home for the past couple of months. It is both exciting and daunting. It is exciting because of the opportunity to visit churches that we do not normally get the chance to experience. While not every worship service we have attended has been one that I would want a steady diet of, it has been a good experience.
The search has also been daunting because I am looking for a body that I can be involved in and committed to. The worship experience that we have on Sunday morning is only a small part of being an active part of a church. How do I determine my ability to get connected and involved from a visit on Sunday morning? All of the churches we have visited have been different, and that is a good thing. Not everyone is like me, and most people would agree that is a good thing. What appeals / challenges me is not necessarily what is going to appeal to or challenge someone else.
So how does one know when they have found the ‘right’ church? One can either visit until one feels right, or you can determine what is important to you and then evaluate each church against that list. For me it is really a combination of the two; that it ‘feel right’ is important, but even more important is that it be a church where I can become involved and can grow in my faith. I am very much an introvert and am retired; the only real social interaction I have, apart from family, is with the church. I crave deep relationships with a few people and enjoy theological and/or biblical discussions. I yearn for a closer walk with God, but struggle with surrender. Now everyone is different, but that is who I am, and it is important to me that I am a part of a body that will maximize my potential for developing a few close relationships, will enable me to effectively serve, and where I will to be challenged to grow in my faith.
Below are some of the primary things that I am looking for.
Worship: The first three of these are based on the Sunday morning experience; and first is worship. For me this is primarily the music portion of the service. I like hymns, and I like praise chorus’. I am good with a variety of tempos. What I do not want is to be entertained with a dynamic worship team and light show, or to have the music so loud that it hurts. Nor is it enough to just sing through three or four songs and then settle down for the preaching. I like to sing, but I am not an accomplished vocalist, so if the songs are hard to sing I get left out. Whether the worship team is a single vocalist and a piano, or a full blown ten person worship team, what matters to me is that I am led into worship; that the worship leader (and their team), the music, and the environment are drawing me into active participation in the worship of my creator and redeemer. Don’t entertain me; lead me to worship.
Preaching: Of these three, this one is the least significant to me. I seem incapable of sitting still for half an hour to listen to someone talk; by the end I will almost always be nodding at least a bit. But the preaching still is important to me. I am not interested in jokes and personal anecdotes. You don’t need to entertain me. What I value is exegetical preaching in a logical and rational form.
Atmosphere: This is the hardest to quantify of the initial three. It has to do with the general feel of the gathering. Is it warm and inviting? Or is it cold and sterile? Or somewhere in between? I find that most churches are friendly; at least among themselves. But how friendly are they to the visitor walking in cold? In few of our encounters this past month (we generally hit two services a Sunday) have we had someone just come up and visit with us. Most of our interaction with church members has either been by designated greeters at the door, or at the greeting time that seems to be built into most services, although even then sometimes I am ignored. I do appreciate both of those opportunities, even if they make me uncomfortable, because they say that the church recognizes the need to meet me. As an introvert, I certainly don’t want to be mobbed by people, but I do want to feel like I am welcome and wanted.
Small group opportunities: The rest of these items can sometimes be ascertained from the bulletin or churches web site. For others it may be necessary to engage the pastor or other members of the body. The most important of these, at least for me, is the opportunity to be a part of a smaller group whether that be a Sunday school class, a small group, or some other gathering. I will generally not interact much with people in a large group setting. The small group setting is also the best opportunity, at least for me, to learn and grow; the more personal experience of the smaller group is essential for me. I look for multiple opportunities to be engaged in smaller groups that are focused on personal interaction and growth in God’s word.
Ministry opportunities: I am interested in being more involved in the life of the church than passively sitting in worship services, attending a Sunday school class and tossing some money into the offering plate. Is there an opportunity for me to be able to serve in some capacity that is in alignment with my giftedness?
Outreach opportunities: Is the church focused internally, or does it have an outward facing view of ministry? In other words, is the church actively involved out in the community, looking to make a difference where they are. Outreach is a problem for me, and it is helpful to have avenues for this available within the church body.
A clearly defined purpose and commitment to that purpose: This is really important for me; does the church have a clear sense of purpose they adhere to; or are their ministries and activities based on tradition and/or popularity. The latter is the easy approach and one that many churches seem guilty of. But it leads to a broad focus with little depth. I would much rather be part of a church that has a clearly defined purpose and who focuses all their efforts in accomplishing that purpose. Unfortunately this can be very challenging to discover as a visitor; requiring one to ask members of the church, as well as the pastor, what their purpose is.
Doctrine: Most churches have a doctrinal statement on their web site, making it easy to discover the major doctrines of the church. The doctrinal statements of most of the churches we have visited have been very similar and fairly orthodox for an evangelical church. An issue for me though is their response to one whose beliefs are not totally in line with theirs, which will likely be true for me. I agree that some beliefs are essential, but what about those that are not?