Most Christians will ask themselves this question at some point in their lives. You might be asking yourself this very question right now. Maybe you just committed your life to God. Maybe you got a new job or went to college and moved to a new town. Maybe the 45-minute drive you have been making just isn’t possible anymore. Whatever the reason, you are looking for a new church to be a part of and aren’t really sure where to start or what to look for.
Part of the reason you’re unsure might be because there isn’t exactly a “how to know which church to join” passage in the Bible that answers all the questions you have and gives you step by step instructions on how to find the place where God is calling you. The reality is that during New Testament times, “how do I know which church to join?” wasn’t a question anyone was asking. Even in the larger cities like Galatia where we know there were multiple house churches meeting in the same city, we don’t ever see Paul write about what made certain people go to one house church instead of another. Most of the time, Paul writes more broadly to “the church of God that is in Corinth” or to “the saints who are in Ephesus”. We know that many early churches met in the homes of wealthier members but we know very little about exactly how many local churches there actually were in each city. For early Christians, “choosing a church” was a foreign concept. There weren’t dozens of churches of all varieties on every corner. There was likely only one group of believers to which a new Christian could possibly belong – the group of believers that was closest to them. Realizing this certainly helps us appreciate the doctrinal and relational struggles that arose within the early church, doesn’t it? Imagine if there was only one church for you and your family to join whether or not they had great kids programs, decent music, solid preaching, or even completely biblical doctrine (many of the NT churches didn’t, as we learn from Paul’s writings).
The reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of churches in America – way more than there were in Paul’s day. Another reality is that long distances that took hours or even days to walk back then now only require a brief car ride. The Internet and social media have also allowed the modern person to be significantly more aware of just how many options for churches there really are to choose from. Along with many other factors, these three modern realities have altered the way that people find a community of believers to join. Even a hundred years ago, the lack of Internet and transportation meant that families only had a few churches from which to choose. But the culture has changed; the world has changed; technology has changed; and with that the process for finding a church has changed. So in 21st century America, how do we know which church to join?
First, lets answer the question, “What does the Bible have to say about this?” Because of the historical realities of the early church, “choosing” a church wasn’t something that happened. Since most early churches met in houses and many were under the threat of persecution, times and locations of church gatherings were probably not posted on a huge sign somewhere. Churches were local gatherings of believers who sought to follow the commands of Jesus and the writings of Paul in community together. It is most likely that when early believers found a group of believers near them, they committed to that group for the rest of their lives. They probably had contact with other nearby churches, but weekly church life was limited to the one group of believers within walking distance. As a result, the Bible speaks little about “how to know which church to join”, but a great deal about how groups of random people who have nothing but their faith in Christ in common are supposed to function collectively as one, united body.
What is clear from Scripture is that it is impossible to follow the commands of Jesus and the writings of Paul without committing to a local, specific group of Christians. Church hopping or shopping is fine for a while as long as its purpose is to find the best group of believers to commit to. God’s desire for each child of his is that the Christian life be lived out in loving, committed relationship with Him through a local church.
But this doesn’t mean that the Bible is useless in helping us decide which church to go to. In fact, it is incredibly helpful. Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by Paul, Peter, and other apostles to local churches about the kind of people and churches they are to be. As a result, the Bible gives us a very clear picture of what a healthy, Godly church should look like. That doesn’t mean any church is perfect, because no church is or ever will be this side of heaven. But there are healthy churches and there are unhealthy churches. Asking “How do I know which church to join?” is really asking the question, “How do I know which churches are healthy?”
Here are 10 characteristics of healthy churches. As you search for a church, see how many of these criteria are met.
- Doctrinally sound – Healthy churches are doctrinally sound. This means that the church is defined by a Bible and gospel focus and is Christ centered in every aspect of the church – from its finances to its teaching. They are clear and open about what they believe and every ounce of it is rooted in Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. It means they don’t waver from God’s truth, even under the pressure of today’s culture. The church is clear about what it believes and holds firm to the sound doctrine of the Bible.
- Visible love – Healthy churches display, visible love for God, each other, their community, and the lost. You can tell from the moment you walk in that the people genuinely care about you, your family, and each other. But even more important than that is their visible love for God made evident through their worship and their encounters with one another. This love motivates them to spend their lives in service to God and one another.
- Strong, healthy leadership – Healthy churches have strong, healthy leaders. They don’t need to have PHDs or even seminary degrees. Of course they should be adequately prepared and biblically qualified to lead a church. But what makes a person qualified to be a church leader is less about education and natural ability and more about character and humility. Strong, healthy leaders meet the Bible’s standards for leadership, love their families, love their churches, and humbly obey the Lord.
- Wise, generous stewardship – Healthy churches uses the resources that God has blessed them with wisely. Many churches, simply put, are poor stewards of what God has given. Churches ought to be open about their budget, their finances, and how they spent the “talents” that they have been given. Healthy churches are almost always generous churches that use their resources wisely for the kingdom of God.
- Strong against sin, strong for holiness – Healthy churches do not tolerate sin and even practice church discipline when necessary. God has commanded his people to be holy like he is holy. Healthy churches teach what Paul called “what accords with sound doctrine”. In other words, they teach that Godly living always accompanies true faith. They don’t let sin reign in the lives of their members who have been set free by Christ, who now reigns instead of sin. They lovingly rebuke sin and strongly exhort one another to Godly living.
- Authentic God-worshippers – Throughout the Bible, the two things that are condemned in the people of God over and over again are idolatry and hypocrisy. Idolatry is loving and worshipping something other than God or in addition to God. Hypocrisy is fake, two-faced religion. People who put on a religious mask but then live completely contrary lives. Healthy churches are filled with people who don’t worship the common idols that plague churches today. They are also filled with genuine people whose entire lives reflect the truth of God they claim to believe.
- Disciple makers – The primary command of the Lord to his church is to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach. Healthy churches never lose sight of their primary objective as the body of Christ. They are mission minded and regularly support mission work throughout the world. They are constantly looking for new areas in need of ministry and consider starting new churches or second sites in order to bring the gospel to more people. Throughout their church programs like small groups, kids & youth programs, and Sunday schools, they emphasize discipleship and spiritual growth. Healthy churches always make disciples.
- Prayer reliant – Jesus himself was reliant on prayer as he sought to accomplish his mission on earth. So too Paul taught that churches should pray without ceasing. Prayer is the lifeblood of the Christian faith and healthy churches don’t lose sight of this truth. They pray regularly during services, small groups, and everything else that they do. They pray as individuals and with other people, rightly understanding that without prayer and the Lord’s direction, all our effort is in vain.
- Vibrant worship – Healthy churches are characterized by their vibrant life and joy. Their focus on Christ and the gospel message constantly drives them into exuberant worship of God Almighty. Their worship services are marked by loud singing (not necessarily loud music), smiles, and genuine, passionate love for their King. You can tell almost instantly when you walk into a church how alive they really are and how passionate their worship of God really is – not just in church services, but all the time.
- Self aware and forward looking – Healthy churches are not clueless about what lies around the corner. Of course God likes to take our plans and transform them into what they were originally supposed to be, but healthy churches spend time praying about and reflecting on what exactly God has called them to do and how he has called them to do it. They know their church identity and have developed a clear, concise mission statement that describes their specific purpose as a church. Likewise, they are constantly looking forward to whatever might be next. They have some sort of clear plan in place for how to get from point A (where they are) to point B (where God wants them to end up) and make known to the church where exactly point B is. They take an honest look at themselves and constantly evaluate, in order to keep all distractions aside and remain focused on being a healthy church.
There are many more important factors described throughout the New Testament about what makes a healthy church, but these stand out as particularly important. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are particularly helpful for further reading, as Paul was focused on helping an unhealthy church become a healthy one as he wrote. So as you continue to search for a church and ask yourself which one you are supposed to join, look for a healthy church that possesses these 10 characteristics.
What would you add to the list? How do you identify a healthy church from an unhealthy church? What has helped you know which church to join?