It is not an uncommon scenario – someone seeks a new church to join, either because of relocation or out of dissatisfaction with their previous congregation. In my context, so many of our seminary students have moved from elsewhere and they need to find a new body to join – many having just left the only church they have ever known. Which church to join? I would hope that all of God’s servants would acknowledge that God’s will is primary in this endeavor, but how do we determine God’s will in this vital decision? The following is some pastoral advice I give to people seeking a new church home.
I like the analogy of choosing a life’s partner in marriage. With a certain amount of compatibility and an awful lot of commitment a marriage can work. Physical and emotional attraction can help in a marriage, but they make a weak basis for stability in the relationship. Although I believe that it is a good thing for people to like/love their church, it is my opinion that those who join a church for the primary purpose that they “like it” for whatever reason (music, preaching, programs, etc.) are thinking mainly of themselves. A person’s relationship with their church has to be based on more than mere attraction. The Father’s will must be primary in this relationship. God not only wants to be involved in “joining” people together in marriage (Matt 19:6) but also in “placing members in the body as He desires” (1 Cor 12:18).
Much in western consumer-driven society promotes the highest good being that people get what they want. In fact, for many Christians the idea may be foreign that what God wants for their lives may not be what they personally desire. But the Master may have something else in mind. He may have a need somewhere else that He has specifically gifted this servant to address. God may be sending His servant into an “undesirable” situation to be His agent of change there (most missionaries experience this). Many times the affection does not precede the service but rather follows it.
But neither is simply finding ministry need automatically the call from God. There is far too much need in this world and in churches for any one individual to address them all. Instead, the highest good is for each servant to find the place(s) God wants to them to serve and to increase His kingdom there.
In choosing a new church people need to look around but look for different things than mere likes, dislikes, and attraction. Here are a few questions that might help in the search.
“Where is this church headed?” I want to know where a plane is going before I board it. Is the mission of this church and my calling and giftedness compatible? I would do some homework here. I would talk to the pastor and learn his vision for the church and the direction he seeks to lead the congregation. I would observe the various ministries the church has and notice the values demonstrated in the church budget. How well do these things harmonize with my heart?
“Are there people here with whom I can experience genuine koinonia?” A church is a community of believers linked together as a body, not merely a congregation that attends a worship service. This question may not be answered right away, but at least the potential for genuine koinonia can be observed almost immediately. Can I link myself to these people? Will they allow me to be linked to them?
“Can I at least tolerate, and to some extent worship, in the worship experience?” Some worship practices and styles can be an obstacle to some in their worship. People should be afforded an opportunity to worship somewhat in their own idiom in their local church. If the tenor of the worship service is indeed a hindrance to my worship (and this goes beyond mere likes and dislikes), then I would find a place where I can worship.
“Are there opportunities to serve the Lord and use my gifts in service here?” We hold a stewardship to God for the gifts He has given us. We need to find an outlet to use those gifts in ministry. Sometimes openings in ministry are already available, but sometimes new ministries need to be created. How open is this congregation to such possibilities?
Finally, and most importantly, “What is the Lord telling me as I study and attend this church?” This comes down to one’s personal walk with God. Henry Blackaby teaches that if someone cannot hear God speaking they have trouble in the very heart of their Christian experience. God speaks in different ways to different people, but however God speaks to me I need to know when God is speaking and what He is saying. We have to believe that no one wants a person to know God’s will more than God does; therefore, His servant must listen to Him. Personally, I place a lot of stock in His peace on my heart. God rewards obedience with His peace. As soon as I am disobedient the peace leaves. Therefore, I “go with the peace.”