Many of us, when we were first coming out of Charismatic superstition and confusion, had no idea what to look for in a new church. In my case, I only cared that was genuine, biblical, and not Charismatic or vulnerable to that form of control over people.
I must qualify it when I say, “Always look for one that is true to the bible,” since all churches claim to be faithful to the bible and yet there are such huge differences between them. So here’s what I advise in addition to a church’s belief in the authority of scripture:
DOCTRINE: Every church has some kind of creed. Even the motto “No book but the bible, no creed but Christ” is itself a CREED! A creed is simply an affirmation of belief in a particular set of doctrines (a doctrine is a teaching – some are true, some are false). Many of the supposedly “creedless” churches (and I maintain that there can be no such thing unless a church believes that nothing is really true) are independent works with no means of accountability to anyone. “I answer only to God for what I teach,” you’ll hear their overbearing, puffed-up pastors say when they are pressed to answer questions about their form of church government and discipline. That should be a major warning sign.
About creeds: Every church has one, but the safest and most stable and faithful of churches have bound themselves to a written covenant and creed and placed themselves under authority to be accountable for their teachings and doings. That way, you can learn what a church believes by examining its written creed (often called a Confession or a Statement of Faith). Putting the creed in writing is vitally important! This way all the people know what their leaders believe. And when they stray from the creed, they can be corrected, and the people protected from error. Some creeds are very short and very simple, addressing only a few of the most fundamental tenets of a church’s teaching. The better ones (in my opinion) delve into every doctrine a church believes and even describe its worship and government.
The best of the creeds in my opinion is the London Baptist Confession of Faith. Denominational churches here in the USA who have bound themselves to it’s sister Confession – the Westminster Confession – include The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Associate Reformed Presbyterians (APC), and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). Oh, don’t let the fact that all these groups are Presbyterian groups bother you… the word Presbyterian refers only to a church’s form of government, not to it’s teachings. One group that supposedly claims the Westminster Confession but has modified it so severely that their version of it bears no resemblance at all to the original is the apostate PCUSA (Presbyterian Church in the USA). That denomination has abandoned all loyalty to the bible and to it’s former creed. Only a few of its member churches may be truly Christian at all, so I generally advise people to avoid the PCUSA. Among Baptist churches, it is harder to find one that subscribes to the great historic Baptist faith as it is described in the 1611 London Confession. But they can be found in several Baptist denominations including my own (Southern Baptist Convention). But Southern Baptist churches run the entire gambit from strict adherence to the great historic Confessions and creeds to wildly unbiblical social clubs with pony rides and hot dogs for kids of all ages, trying to compete with Disney World for entertainment value.
God having ultimate authority and the bible, His word, having first and highest authority in everything should be the very utmost posit of any creed. Second in authority comes the written creed (a Confession or a Statement of Faith), which itself can be amended if any part of it conflicts with Scripture. Third in authority should be the oversight of leaders (plural – never a single individual) having equal authority (often called a Session, Board of Elders, Council of Elders, etc. More widely called presbytery, synod, council, or association).
I would urge a study of the creeds (confessions, Statements of Faith, whatever they’re called in the different denominations) and selection of a church that has bound itself to a creed that you find most faithful to the scriptures. Studying the creeds and searching the scriptures changed my mind about a lot of the beliefs I once held very ardently.
But what else should you look for in a church besides a creed that is faithful to the bible? I suggest a few more things to look for in a church beyond its Confession or creed:
GOD CENTERED WORSHIP: In my old charismatic church, we all thought our worship was so spirit-filled and so intimate that it could never be surpassed by any “cold, dead, orthodox, man-made” substitute. This is the hardest adjustment for most of us to make when we finally decide to abandon Pentecostalism in search of a return to simplicity and purity. What made this a lot easier for me was learning what the bible really says about worship. What is true worship? What did Christ really mean when He said, “true worshippers worship Him in Spirit and in truth?” Finding out what the BIBLE says about worship (and it’s nothing like the warm-fuzzy, touchy-feely stuff we were taught in our old charismatic churches) has become one of the most compelling and radical changes in my life since we left Pentecostalism behind. Worship has now become my greatest passion!
Worship “in Spirit” means NOT IN THE FLESH, for one thing. That rules out unbiblical man-centered stuff that pays no homage to Christ but celebrates our own experience. It rules out manipulative, contrived stuff that designed to appeal to human emotion rather than designed to appeal to the One being worshipped!
Worship “in truth” means not only sincere worship, but worship that is ACCURATE – “in truth.” That rules out songs with unbiblical lyrics that portray God in an unbiblical way. It rules out songs celebrating false doctrines and it rules out the practice of anything that adds man-made appointments to the gospel.
PLURALITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY OF LEADERSHIP: No “one-man-show” church should ever be considered by an earnest seeker of a biblical church. I made that mistake when we left the Pentecostal church and joined a church that was governed entirely by the pastor alone. His accountability was limited to a council of two other men (all pastors of churches in the tiny “micro-Presbyterian” denomination who were all relatives! Look for a church ruled by elders (whatever they may be called, by elders I mean mature spiritual men) under the authority of a denomination and bound to a biblical creed, not a church ruled by the pastor or by a tiny handful who dominate the church. Where there is no accountability, there is tyranny.
DIVERSITY OF WORK: A church that just does one thing without an appropriate balance of other work should be avoided too. For example, a church that does nothing but evangelism is way out of balance. Evangelism is certainly important, but it is of no LESS importance than a church’s ministries in worship and in teaching and in charitable work. We all have three ministries (and so do all churches), not just one:
Our ministry to God, our ministry to one another, and our ministry to the world. Our ministry to God comes FIRST, and that ministry is worship. Our ministry to one another is teaching, admonishment, nurture, and discipline. Our ministry to the world is evangelism, missions, and works of charity. A balance of all three is important. A good balance of these things is an indicator of a healthy church.
CONTINUANCE: A good church is always raising up from among it’s own members new workers and new leaders who are being constantly equipped and trained to replace those lost through time, and to begin new works and new churches. A church that fails to raise members up into positions of service and ministry is failing its ministry to every one of its members. Such a failure too often betrays a jealous, ego-driven neglect by those in authority.
These are the major things I look for in a church, but this is by no means a complete picture. Time spent examining each of these things in worship services and in conversations with the leaders is a good means of evaluating a church. For a really good in-depth look at what a true biblical church looks like, visit http://9marks.org.