As my husband and I seek for a congregation with whom we might settle long-term, I realized that what I look for in churches has changed significantly over the years in what I think is a very positive way. So I wanted to offer some of my guidelines in hopes that others might benefit:
1. Eschew the amenities.
When I was young, I found myself evaluating churches (consciously or not) by what they offered in terms of amenities. Did the church have a coffee bar? Yoga on Wednesdays? Ping Pong in the recreation area? Then I became more open to the church. Something about church amenities said “stability” and “modernity” to me at the time. But now, I’ve come to understand that amenities are only that. They might be nice extras, but they can be a distraction, and they don’t make much of a difference if the community isn’t there. Superficial trappings are not relevant. Ignore them. What you think you need may not be what you actually need.
2. Remember denominations are not monoliths, and interrogate your assumptions.
The Methodist church I attend in the area where I live is—well, virtually indistinguishable from the previous hyper-modern evangelical Southern Baptist church I attended prior to that. Doctrine does differ, but not in any meaningful way within the day to day experience Imagine my surprise, then, when I visited a Methodist church in a different part of my state and had a completely different experience. It’s easy to pigeonhole denominations or to make assumptions about how aspects of different doctrine might play out in a church’s day to day, but you can’t really know until you’ve experienced it. The same goes for making assumptions about denominations and churches you may be unfamiliar with – don’t. Learn from experience or from reading that denomination’s official statements of doctrine and similar documents, not by what you hear from others.
3. Find the flaws you can live with.
Back during my first church searches, I wanted to find a church that fit me theologically and politically and doctrinally, that had the diversity and size I hoped for in a congregation, and the ministries I craved to participate in.
That church does not exist.
No church is perfect. The church that mirrors me in some political stances may not mirror me in doctrinal ones, or vice versa. The church may be smaller or larger than I prefer. There may be too many ministry opportunities, or not enough. There will always be something. So we’ve settled on our dealbreakers and decided, as a result, what flaws we’re willing to accept.
4. Don’t be afraid of how time or experience may change you what you need.
When I was in my twenties, I would never have considered attending a church without a contemporary worship option. Coming from decades of piano-plunked Just As I Am, all I wanted was a “modern” church that fit my character.
And now I’m drawn to heavily liturgical services, older songs, repetition, routine. Go figure. I’ve changed. Is worship a dealbreaker? Not really—if a church is perfect but contemporary is the only option, I’ll deal—but I’m surprised by the degree to which my tastes have shifted over the years. That’s okay. It’s natural. It’s normal. And it’s not something I’d ever leave a church over. Still, while I’m looking, it’s okay to acknowledge what’s different.
5. Don’t run from challenge or difference.
“These people aren’t my demographic.”
“This preaching style is different.”
“I don’t feel like I belong.”
While it’s important to choose a church where you are welcomed and where you can become a part of the community, I suspect all too often that what we mean by that is, “I want a church full of people just like me.” I think it’s useful, and vital, to challenge that idea. What might it mean to join church of people of different races, politics, cultures, experiences? We all want a place where we can be ourselves—and it’s important to be able to be authentic and honest in church, and to have a community who welcomes that authenticity—but you don’t have to be in room of people just like you to fulfill that purpose.
6. Think long-term.
The church that shaped me the most was the one I stayed at the longest: my home church. And the reason it shaped me was because I was there the longest. When you commit, you have the opportunity to make real community—to get to know people on a long-term scale, to commit to the mission and goals of the church over time and not just to piecemeal bits of it. The community shapes your life. I want to approach a church like a marriage. We’re in it for the long haul.
7. Let God guide.
This is, of course, the most important piece of advice I could give. But I think, in some ways, it follows from the others. In other words, to let God guide, we have to let go of what we might want, expect, or demand. God has a habit of leading His people to places that can be surprising, maybe even counterintuitive. When I focus too much on my laundry list of desires for a church family, or what I think “community” should look like, I can unintentionally preclude some options that God might want to put on the table.
So, in the end, if you ask me what church I’m looking for: I’d say that there are a few first-tier doctrinal issues that matter, and a lot of second-tier ones I’m willing to compromise on. I’d say that I want a church full of people who want to get to know me and who want me to get to know them. And I’d say that, beyond that, I’m open to the possibilities and where God might want us to be.