Church shopping. I hate the phrase. It sounds so….consumeristic! But at one point in our lives, most of us do it. Even pastors do it before they are pastors. If they have a break from pastoral ministry and move, or retire, they do it again.
So what do we look for in a church? What I hear most people include on their lists these days includes the following. Prime consideration number one: they are looking for a certain style of music—traditional service with a strong choir…..or hot band with great worship (meaning music). After that comes the theological preference they are looking for. They also want a pastor who is a “good communicator.” They scope out churches that have strength in a favorite ministry area, i.e. “I’m looking for a strong ________ministry,” (fill in the blank—“youth,” “children’s,” “men’s,” “women’s,”, “singles,” “young married’s.” Sometimes it is the building that matters—does it have enough parking, a gym, coffee stations, tweet screens, etc.? Sometimes they want a small church where they can know everyone. Other times they are looking for a Walmart like “full service church.”
What should we look for in a church? We are all familiar with lists like the one above. What we may not be familiar with are the ancient lists, used for centuries, to help Christians identify a good church. It may help us reshape our own lists, by those of previous generations.
The first lists comes from Scripture in Acts 2.42. It describes the early church and says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” That’s a great starting point. You could even look at verses 42-47 to round out the list.
A second list comes from the Nicene Creed of the early church (AD 325/381). The creed concluded by identifying four marks of the church—“one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” These four marks are found in the writings of the early church fathers. “One” describes the unity of the body of Christ—its belief in one God, one Lord, one faith and one baptism. The focus here was more the spiritual unity than organizational unity. “Holy” was a reminder of the Bible’s words “be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1.15,16). This does not mean a church is free from sin, but that it is set apart for God’s redemptive and sanctifying work. Next comes the word “catholic.” This did not mean Roman Catholic, but catholic as in “universal.” The idea was not so much inclusiveness as it was “mainstream Christian.” Catholic Christians were those who believed what all Christians everywhere believed—as opposed to what Marcionites, Arians, believed. “Apostolic” focused on the origins and beliefs of the church. The church’s teachers were apostolic; that is, it was rooted in and in continuity with what the early apostles (the authorized representatives of Jesus) taught.
A third list comes from the Reformed churches of the Protestant Reformation. The marks of the visible church include—the Word is rightly proclaimed, the sacraments are properly observed, loving fellowship is maintained, and scriptural discipline is practiced. Reformed churches began their list with the faithful preaching of the Word—was it true to Scripture and centered on the gospel. They highlighted the right use of the sacraments—that is were they correctly understood and practiced according to the Scriptures. Maintaining loving fellowship was important—because the mark of the Christian is love. Spiritual discipline was also practiced. Disciples need discipline. The discipline conceived here involved both pastoral care and correction in order to keep the church on track.
Chances are, you will find yourself church shopping at some point in your life. Maybe you are church shopping now. Before you jot down your own list, learn from some of the believers who have gone before you. Let their lists refine your own.