If you're searching for a church, here are four things to look for.
We cannot have a healthy, vibrant relationship with the Lord if we are neglecting the church. It is through the local church that we experience Christ, meet with our heavenly family, and grow in love and faith as we are stretched by one another. That is why, throughout the New Testament, early Christians were exhorted to gather together: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another" (Hebrews 10:24-25). And that exhortation remains true for today.While today's church gatherings look and sound different from those of the early church, the purpose of the local church has not changed for the last two thousand years. Participation in a local church is clearly Biblical and crucial, but how do we know when we've found a local church that actually believes what the Bible says?
If the Word of God isn't being preached in the church, what is?
Some churches have unfortunately become marketplaces that simply supply what its members demand—positive vibes, good feelings, and unconditional acceptance. In this postmodern age, it is absolutely critical that we commit to and invest ourselves in a local church that truly believes the Bible and holds itself accountable to the teachings of God's Word. Let's look at four clear indicators that a church is seeking the Truth of the Bible and applying that Truth accordingly. We can also use these parameters to determine when our current church may be headed down a slippery slope.
1. The Bible is preached faithfully from week to week.
If a church claims to believe and obey God, that church must be reading and teaching God's Word. Makes sense, right? In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul writes, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." In our pursuit of Christlikeness, what better resource is there to help us than God's own letter to us? The Bible is trustworthy, and without it, we will be led astray.
If the Word of God isn't being preached in the church, what is? Are the members listening to motivational speeches, practical how-to guides, or simply good stories? These seemingly innocent things are poor counterfeits for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The real Gospel will stir our hearts to repentance and cultivate in us a desire to conform our lives to Christ. If our church is exposing us to the Word every week, faithfully studying the text in its context and pursuing not just knowledge of God but a relationship with Him, we will likely leave each service with some level of conviction—a prodding of the Spirit to make changes in our lives to better emulate our Lord Jesus.
It's important to realize that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive to our sinful nature. If we fail to wash ourselves regularly in Biblical Truth, we will become more susceptible to the half-truths and compromises of Satan. When we forget the Word of God and water down the Gospel to accommodate our culture, we lead people away from God and false doctrines arise.
If the Bible isn't being preached, then it certainly isn't a priority. Find a church that loves, cherishes, and takes seriously the living Word of God.
2. Jesus is at the center of worship.
Just as all of Scripture directs our gaze to the Son of God, so also should the worship of the local church. When a church makes entertaining its congregants the priority of its services and activities, it encourages us to focus on what delights us rather than on what delights God. By planning services made to please or even to make Christianity "cool," churches can unwittingly direct people to be me-focused instead of Christ-focused—even going so far as to compromise the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is nothing wrong with executing services well. In fact, we must, for as Colossians 3:23 says, "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men." But the local church must keep at the fore of all its pursuit of excellence in music, liturgy, and preaching this only lasting purpose: to glorify the Lord. If we, as congregants, find ourselves enjoying the entertainment, the cool people, the lights and mood, the neat children's ministry, or even the pastor's charismatic personality more than we enjoy the presence and revelation of Jesus, we have missed the boat. And if a church has become more focused on lifting up these things instead of lifting up the name of Christ, then it is a boat far off course.
3. Fellowship, community, and discipleship are priorities.
One of the most striking characteristics of the early church was its emphasis on fellowship and community: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). These believers didn't depend on the head pastor for all their needs, and they didn't church-hop every week, chasing the coolest sermon series in town. They also didn't just worship and learn together; they lived in communion with one another—they "were together and had everything in common. . . . Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:44, 46-47).
We weren't intended to face the trials and temptations of the Christian life on our own. Rather, we are called to "carry each other's burdens" (see Galatians 6:2), to joyfully feast with one another (see Acts 2:42, 46-47), and to raise up new believers in the faith (see Matthew 28:19). Like the early church, we are called to invest in the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ by committing to real relationships with one another.
If a church is following Scripture's guidance, there will be natural focus on Christ-centered fellowship, community, and prayer. Don't settle for shallow relationships; instead, pursue opportunities for deep fellowship and communion with your brothers and sisters in Christ so that as you together walk by the Spirit, you grow to become more like Jesus.
4. There's an active effort to share the Gospel with others, near and far.
Jesus' final parting commandment to the disciples was to "go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15). He wants us to share the Good News of His death and resurrection with everyone who will listen.
If a church has no focus on missions and evangelism, it would be appropriate to question the ministry's goals and purposes. Proclaiming the goodness and glory of God displayed in the salvation He offers to all the world through Jesus Christ is the very heartbeat of the church. It is just as the Westminster Shorter Catechism declares, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever."
Remember, though, that every church's outreach won't look the same. As Jesus laid out for us in Acts 1:8, a healthy church's outreach will begin with the geographical areas surrounding the church ("Jerusalem"), move out farther through the congregation's spheres of influence ("Judea and Samaria"), and then to the nations ("the ends of the earth")—whether by planting churches or supporting missionaries. However the church is seeking to fulfill Christ's great commission, a passion to reach the lost for Christ must be evident.
A Word of Caution and a Call to Prayer
While these characteristics of a Bible-believing church will help us identify whether a church is seeking the face of God, we must humbly exercise caution that we do not approach these four signs in a spirit of legalism. Our purpose is not to find the perfect church that meets our standards. Rather, we seek a church that knows its need for God's grace—a grace only received through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. We seek a church that knows it is God's grace alone that can transform its people corporately and individually into the image of the Lord with ever-increasing glory.
As we look for a church to which we will belong, we can never underestimate the value of praying and asking God to draw us to the Bible-believing congregation where He would have us grow in faith and serve in love. So dive into God's Word; seek His will. And ask the Holy Spirit to grant you discernment and wisdom as you search for a church home where you can seek God and serve others.