Deciding on a church is one of the most monumental choices a Christian can make. Your church is where you will feed on the Word of God. It’s the place where you’ll worship and serve with the same people—your fellow sheep—for perhaps many years. When you join a church, you’re submitting to the leadership of that flock, and that is a big deal: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:7). In short, your spiritual growth and the spiritual growth of your family will be significantly affected by your decision.
Because this is such a critical issue, I can’t adequately answer the question of which church to join within the limits of a short article. Therefore, my goal is simply to offer a few suggestions that will help guide your decision.
1. Don’t leave your current church without a legitimate, biblical reason.
It might surprise you to know that there are only a few legitimate reasons to leave your current church.
- You’re a new Christian looking for your first church.
- You have moved to a new location.
- God is calling you to a ministry position at a different church, or He is calling you to be a missionary.
- Your current church has fallen into heretical teaching or practice.
There may be a few other reasons why it might be wise for a Christian to consider moving his membership (some Christians may disagree over some of these reasons), but on the whole, Christians should be committed to remaining at their current church. If you’re leaving because someone hurt your feelings, reconsider your decision. If you’re leaving to find better programs for your children or a bigger choir or a modern worship band, reconsider your decision. If you’re leaving because you’re just tired of it and want something fresh or trendy, please, reconsider your decision.
“Church shopping” and “church hopping” are not good things. Consider how marriage and church membership are similar. They’re both covenants that we make with other people for the glory of God. You shouldn’t drop your spouse when you get tired of him or because you’re having some problems or because you’ve supposedly met someone better. In the same way, if you are currently a member of a church, you should feel a strong loyalty to that congregation, a loyalty that enables you to work through most difficulties and problems. God put you together, so you should stay together through thick and thin.
Far too many Christians refuse to take the commitment of church membership seriously. If you are leaving a congregation for sinful, selfish, or trivial reasons, you really shouldn’t expect your next church experience to be any better. In many cases, the church isn’t the problem––you are. Instead of leaving, why not mature and grow? Instead of demanding a church meet your needs, why not find ways you can invest in the congregation and make it better?
2. List your options.
If the reason you desire to join a new church is legitimate, then you should begin by determining which churches are available in the area. You may want to attend Grace Community Church near Los Angeles (John MacArthur’s church), but if you live in Des Moines, Iowa, that’s not practical. You have to choose from what’s available.
By the way, listening to John MacArthur preach online is not the same as joining a church. Online sermons are an excellent resource, but they’re no substitute for worshipping God in the same room with other Christians or sitting under the preaching and leadership of qualified men to whom you are accountable.
If you live in a rural area, there could be only a handful of churches nearby. In this case, pray for wisdom and pick the best one. That is, select the one that most cherishes, preaches, and promotes the Word of God and takes a firm stance on major doctrinal issues like the authority of Scripture, the holiness of God, the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone, and so on. Pick the church that has a loving, discerning pastor and other biblically qualified leaders. If none of the churches in your area take the Word of God seriously or have qualified leadership, you will have to drive to another area or, in some cases, you might consider whether the Lord is opening the door for you to be part of a church plant (no, seriously).
If you live in a large city or a highly populated area, you may have hundreds of choices spanning the denominational and non-denominational spectrum. Many of the liberal and heretical choices can be crossed out immediately. (Thankfully, many of these groups post their heretical teachings on their websites!) You may need the help of a discerning Christian friend to help you see the difference between orthodox, biblical churches and those that teach false doctrine.
3. Join the best church that is closest to your home.
Once you’ve narrowed down the list, think geography. Which churches are within five or ten minutes of your home? If there aren’t any good options within that range, then look for those located within a fifteen to twenty-minute drive from your home. This is important because God desires his people to make an impact on the communities where they live and to be involved in the ministries of their church—you should never be content merely attending the services (1 Corinthians 12:27; Romans 12:11). If your church is too far away, a serious level of involvement is impractical or impossible.
Here is a good general principle to keep in mind: Join the best church that is closest to your home.
Since this is only a general principle, there will always be exceptions, and you should strive for balance. For example, there may be an amazing church that is over an hour away from your home and a merely good one five minutes away. I’d advise you to go to the closer one, or at least try it first, because joining a church is not merely about what the church can do for you (don’t think like a consumer purchasing a product); it’s also about how God has gifted you to serve your church. If the distance means that you only have time to show up and receive the teaching and preaching, then you will be missing out on much of what it means to be a serving, contributing member.
However, the quality of the church is essential, too. If the church closest to your home has a weak, undiscerning pastor or no clear stance on the crucial doctrines of the faith, then you’ll need to look for a different church even if you have to drive further to find it.
For the sake of clarity, when it comes to evaluating the pastor and other leaders, realize that you’ll never find perfection. Don’t expect a pastor to be perfect, but do expect him to have certain vital qualities. For example, he may not be the best preacher, but so long as he is preaching the content of Scripture faithfully and is committed to feeding the sheep the Word, then give him grace on his presentation abilities. It may be that God is calling you to encourage him in this area.
4. Consider how your gifts might fit.
Next, think about how God has gifted you for service in his church. Are you passionate about any particular ministries? Has God called you to teach? Has God called you to encourage those who are hurting or lonely? Has God given you a love for children?
When you are looking for a church, you want to know how you might fit into the existing ministries of the congregation. The church is a body, and “. . . God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Corinthians 12:18). Don’t just evaluate the quality of the church, but also evaluate your gifts and your potential place within a congregation.
What you discover about your gifts may tip the scales concerning the previous principle. Suppose you have a strong desire to teach children. There may be an incredible church within walking distance of your home, but if they do not need teachers in their children’s department, you may opt to drive further to another church in order to exercise your gift.
5. Pray for guidance.
Finally, bathe the process in prayer. This is last on the list but first in importance. Because joining a church is such an important decision with long-term ramifications, you must lean heavily on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Ask the Lord to place you right where he wants you and to use you for His glory.