Many people want to know what to look for in a church. Often, well-intentioned pastors or Christian leaders have offered their own list of requirements, or those seeking a church may have devised their own criteria in their minds. Yet such lists or criteria are often filled with somewhat trivial or “surface” litmus tests that in no way speak to the root of what a church truly is or should be. Unfortunately, many people believe (or are led to believe) that the perfect church exists. They simply need to find it, and they will find themselves happy for the rest of their lives. Others believe (or are led to believe) that a perfect “type” or “branch” of churches exist. They just need to look up this type or label of church in any particular town, and they will find the right church because of its label.
Some spiritual advisors tell people to look for a church that has a particular name in its title or to base their decision on the number of programs or ministries offered by a local assembly. Others advise believers to attend only a church that is growing numerically or, conversely, one that is small and intimate. Some recommend that Christians should worship only at a church with a particular “focus” (for example, a “Spirit-filled” church or a “soul-winning” church) or should consider only a church’s music style or use of a particular Bible translation. Of course, these things are important, but it is quite possible to find a church that meets the criteria of a particular advisor (or a church that takes a good stand on one particular issue) and yet is totally rotten at its very core! The bottom line is this—churches are as diverse as people! No two churches are the same. Black, white, and every shade of grey in between constitute a true picture of the many local churches that dot the earth’s landscape.
So, what (in our opinion) are some of the characteristics one should require when looking for a place of worship?
First—The church must first and foremost have a proper philosophy of ministry, that is, it must truly understand the purpose and nature of the local assembly. The church’s purpose is not to lure in the unsaved with gimmicks, to work for social justice, to occupy people with programs, or to prosper numerically in the eyes of men. The purpose of a local church is to glorify God by equipping believers to go out into the world and do the work of the ministry as they grow in grace and in the knowledge of God and are faithful to God and His Word (Eph. 4:11-13).
Second—The church must make much of Scripture. The Bible must be the focal point of the service, for it is only through the Bible that we get to know Jesus Christ and grow spiritually. Any church that propagates the error that God communicates or reveals His will through dreams, visions, tongues, prophecies (revelatory “sign gifts”), or even through one’s feelings or emotions is a church that must be avoided. God’s Word makes it perfectly clear—the Scriptures are totally sufficient to equip the believer to know, understand, and accomplish the will of God in the world today (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Third—The church must be a place where God is truly worshipped—not man or tradition, but God. Believers are to worship God in fear and reverence, not flippancy or condescension. Whether in prayer, song, Bible study, or fellowship, the church is to display a reverential awe of the person and nature of God. Tradition should never be the measuring rod of worship. The exaltation of man should never be the focus of worship. To incite emotional “feelings” in the worshipper should never be the goal of worship. God is the goal, focus, and “audience,” if you will, of all true worship.
Fourth—The church must have a deliberate and serious understanding of how Scripture is to be interpreted. The church must take God’s Word for what it says. It must not spiritualize or allegorize texts that are to be literally understood. It needs to embrace a “dispensational” hermeneutic, that is, it makes a distinction (as does God’s Word) between the Jew, the Gentile, and the church of God. The church is not to place an emphasis on “kingdom work” or on “bringing in the kingdom” nor on the temporal betterment of society and culture. Rather, it must understand that God will establish His literal, earthly, millennial kingdom yet future. A proper interpretation of Scripture enables a body of believers to focus on God’s will for His church in this church age.
Fifth—The church as a whole should model true Christian love toward the saved and unsaved alike. No room exists in a good church for a judgmental attitude toward those who do not know Jesus Christ or a self-righteous and exclusionary attitude toward other brothers and sisters in Christ. Self-centeredness, arrogance, and selfish pride should never characterize a believer individually or a local church collectively.
Sixth—The church should not be associated with a denomination, association, or Christian leader who supports efforts contrary to “the faith once delivered” to the saints. The emphasis that God’s Word places on sound doctrine and separation from error should rule out any union with a person or an institution that propagates or tolerates false doctrine. This also applies to the many unbiblical fads and movements that come and go in this church age.
Seventh—The church should have a leadership structure and personnel that lovingly shepherd the sheep rather than an authoritarian tyrant who herds the cattle. Christians need to realize that a pastor or elder is not any “better” than they are, nor do they possess or deserve some elevated status or recognition. They are not “spiritually superior.” Rather, they simply have a different function—a different gifting—in the body of Christ. The leaders of the church are not to be followed blindly or obeyed without question.
Keep in mind—this list is not exhaustive but serves as a “starting point” in considering the foundational issues that make a local church a body of believers that fulfills its biblical purpose and glorifies God in the process. Always remember that the church is not about you or how you feel. The church is Jesus Christ’s, and He is its Head. Therefore, it is vitally important that God’s people focus on God and His Word as they seek to be faithful to Him in finding a local church. Seek out an assembly that meets the New Testament qualifications and emphases of a local church. Desire to be a part of that assembly and make it a priority in your life. In so doing, God will be glorified, and others in His body will be edified.
— By Matt Costella. Reproduced from Foundation magazine, Volume 34, Issue 3.