Your Definitive Church Shopping Guide

I used to be a waiter when I was 16. My first job was working for A&W in my hometown. It had drive-in car service and homemade root beer in chilled glass mugs. We had regulars we loved to serve, but we also had regulars we didn’t like at all. Diet Lady was one of them. She came every week on Tuesday and ordered 1 medium diet root beer and 2 coney dogs (since Tuesday was BOGO). She was nice enough, but she never tipped, that’s never, as in never. We made $2.85 an hour, and we relied on tips to even make the trip to town worth it. Being stiffed was a high insult.

One day I drew the short straw on the wait staff and had to serve her. I took one for the team since as a 16-year-old I was kind of a pushover for teenage girls. I’m sure when my daughters are teens times will not have changed. Ugh. But I digress. I had to take Diet Lady’s car. I knew her order before she even spoke.

“Hey there! A medium diet root beer and 2 coneys with everything?” I said.

“Yes, that would be great.”

“Alright I’ll get your order in.”

So I took care of her. I served her. I took her payment and brought her change. And when her headlights came on a after her meal I knew it was time for me to get her tray and she would leave. But I was shocked. On the tray was a folded up $20 bill!

“Wow! Thanks so much. I really appreciate it. Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, young man. You earned it. Have a blessed day.”

And with a cheerful smile she drove away. I was stunned. I had misjudged her. We all had. Here was a lady that just wanted to be served politely and quickly. And with my brand of service and sunshine, she got the full experience of what she came for and rewarded me.

As I carried her tray into the store, I took the $20 from under the mat on the tray. Then I felt something was amiss. Instead of the cotton fiber of cold hard cash, I felt paper. As I unfolded it where I should have seen a rectangle with President Jackson in the middle, I held a square bible tract.

As I unfolded it where I should have seen a rectangle with President Jackson in the middle, I held a square bible tract.

My loathing of bible tracts notwithstanding, this memory has served me throughout the years. It taught me the value of tipping well and representing the Kingdom. It also taught me that sometimes no matter how well I serve others, I will always be let down. Whether my expectations are too high or a person I’m serving is ill-prepared to reciprocate, I will have moments where I end up with the short straw.

My time in ministry was no different. It was all too common for new families to come and spend some time getting to know us. They would go to dinner with other people in the church. They would be included and loved. The church would help them make connections for jobs, contractors, service providers, friends, and babysitters. They would hang out and share their lives. We loved them.

Then they would leave.

No goodbye.

No explanation.

With the suddenness of a breakup, as leaders we faced this time and again. We would invest in a person or a family, and then we’d be scratching our heads when we were ghosted. Sometimes it took a while for those wounds to heal. Eventually, we just assumed that all people were rude or flakey until they proved otherwise.

I can understand why people behave this way. I’ve been on their end, searching for a church. I’ve encountered church community so radical that it was a little embarrassing. It’s so different to be loved radically that I didn’t know what to do with it. It was like meeting that special someone when you’re dating and they’re just what you’re looking for, but they’re a little too serious right out of the gate. You really think it could go somewhere, but you just met. So you duck out not wanting to face them and answer tough questions.

Sadly many people approach church like a service provider or a business vying for them as customers. If the church doesn’t stack up, <raspberries> thumbs down, poo emoji.

Christian, if people picked our lives apart like we pick apart churches and pastors, we’d be crushed.

Yes, church hurts are deep. I have my share of scars from church, so I understand. But friend, when you start looking for a church or when you find yourself looking for a new one, there is a healthy way to do it. If you approach it like a consumer, you won’t end up with the life-giving community church is supposed to be but rather an experience of God rooted in your own selfish desires.

Here are the questions you should ask when looking for a church:

First—why am I looking for a church?

Are you a new Christian without a church? Have you never been to church before? Maybe you’ve recently moved and you need a church home. Or maybe something has prompted you to leave your current church to look elsewhere.

Whatever your motivation, you need to get to the bottom of it, particularly if it’s the last one. Consider looking for a church like looking for a spouse. You should only be looking if you don’t have one. If you already have one, something is wrong and needs sorted out. Were you hurt? Did you try to reconcile? Is this a pattern in your life, bouncing from one church home to another in the same area? If so, consider whether your bouncing has more to do with you than with the churches you’re bouncing from.

Just like my friend who was single for a long time because he kept dumping really great girls, maybe you just need to look in the mirror.

Second—what is most important in a church?

This is where I want to turn to Scripture. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. There are some key principles in this passage that we need to learn.

2 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

This passage outlines the 3 things every church should model.

  1. The single most important thing to find in a church is whether they routinely teach and model Christ and him crucified. Denomination, location, style, and even demographics are all secondary to Jesus. Yes, these things can serve the Kingdom as vehicles by which people are brought to Jesus, but the centrality of Christ in a church must be evident.

Ask yourself these questions: does the preaching routinely reflect Jesus and the work he did on the cross? Does the music reflect Jesus and the work he did on the cross? Do the lives of the people attending reflect Jesus and the work he did on the cross?

The single most important thing to find in a church is whether they routinely teach and model Christ and him crucified. Click To Tweet
  1. The second most important thing is what the church’s approach Paul says he came to the Corinthians in fear and trembling, in weakness. Can you say that about a particular church? I’ve seen a lot of pride from the pulpit. In an effort to be relevant, some pastors have become brash, uncouth, or downright offensive. Instead of approaching people humbly, knowing they carry the responsibility of their flock’s eternity on their shoulders, some pastors end up as the star of their own show.

Ask yourself these questions: do I feel like the pastor is in this with me, like he or she too is a sinner made righteous in Christ? How elite is the community? Is there an in crowd? How focused is the church in reaching the least, the last, and the lost?

How focused is the church in reaching the least, the last, and the lost?
  1. The third most important thing is where the church’s power comes from. Paul says that his ministry, all his influence, was rooted not in performance designed by men but in power radiating from the Holy Spirit. When you go to a church, the presence of God the Holy Spirit should be evident in the preaching and in the prayer.

Ask yourself these questions: does the church feel alive or dead? (This is not to be confused with entertaining versus boring.) Does the church actively pray and expect God to intervene? Is the Holy Spirit actively taught or is the Bible held in higher regard? Would the church know what to do if the Holy Spirit showed up or would he be an interruption to their carefully crafted order of service?

Would the church know what to do if the Holy Spirit showed up or would he be an interruption to their carefully crafted order of service? Click To Tweet

When you’re looking for a new church, remember this: the best experiences of love in your life likely didn’t happen on the first meeting. They developed as you grew in your relationship. Give any church you attend enough time to accurately and prayerfully judge it. Again, treat it like you’re looking for a spouse. You need time to get to know them. If you turn down a second night out because your date had a mole then the problem isn’t the mole.

What is your experience in looking for a church? Was it easy and you fell into it? Did it take time? How did you work through the kind of church you were looking for? Please comment below.

29 thoughts on “Your Definitive Church Shopping Guide

  1. My absolutely favorite part is asking what the church would do if the Holy Spirit arrived. I think that is something we need to stop and examine no matter how new or old we are to a church.

    I was definitely one of those that did not give church a try. We church hopped so much, because I was almost looking for something I didn’t like. When I went to the church I go to now for the first time, literally in the first two minutes the pastor said to the new people “if you are looking for the “perfect” church, you will never find it. But if you’re looking for a place with honest, broken people, a place where no perfect people are allowed, welcome.” Whenever he has done his opening for newcomers since then, he has never said it that way again. I truly feel like he lets the Holy Spirit lead him, so I never looked back.

    Your Story Matters.

    1. Thanks, Jessie. My wife and I were the same. We had been church goers for a long time, but we jumped around, always complaining about some little thing (well I was anyway). I was kind of a church snob. What ended up healing me was an experience of the Holy Spirit. I had never felt him like that in a church. You’re right. We never found the perfect church, but that was because I ruined it when I walked through the door 🙂 Thanks for reading! Stay safe, and we’re praying for you and your family. Hopefully you’re home safe and everything is ok.

  2. Hi Chip! I totally agree with the three criteria you stated to select a good church: 1) the centrality of Jesus Christ 2) the church’s approach 3) the power of God (Holy Spirit).

    I feel so thankful to be planted in a good church which fulfills the three criteria above – New Creation Church in Singapore 🙂

    1. That’s awesome, Milton! I didn’t know you were from Singapore. There is simply no replacement for genuine Christian community. I can have friends, and I can have clubs, but my church family is a different thing entirely. When you find a good community to be a part of, it is worth committing to. Thanks for reading and commenting, Milton.

  3. It really is embarrassing when Christians leave fake tips like that. I cringe. I love my home church and not looking to find another but since my parents had their strokes I now find myself driving them to their church, which is 100 miles away. It’s been a Drive of Love. Amazingly, my church family here totally understand and they are still the ones helping me out. Awesome post Chip. Such wisdom!

    1. That is so great that your church family is supporting you. I’ve been through some rough times and my church family has risen to the occasion. I know some people who have suffered and not had the support they needed. How can anyone not deeply desire genuine Christian community? It’s been one of the greatest sources of joy and support in my life. One day things will ease up, but stay strong as you support your parents. Don’t burn yourself out, Debby. I’m praying for you.

  4. Each time we have moved to a new town/city/state, one of the first things my husband and I do is to find a church home. We visit various churches until we find that “feeling” of a church being the one for us. The focus should always be on God and also, caring for church and community near and far. We love to volunteer so we look for great mission opportunities. God should always be the center of the church.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve totally experienced what you’re talking about, walking into a church and not sensing God’s presence. The risk is when our standards are too high and we nitpick. I’ve caught myself doing it, so I know how easily it comes. The challenge is to find God. Thanks for your comments and for reading. I appreciate it.

  5. Those are definitely top of the list for seeking a church. We moved across a bridge and continued to attend our same church for years. When our boys got a little older, we finally felt the Spirit telling us to find a church closer to home so our boys can be in the same community as their church friends. We visited 6 churches at least 3 weeks in a row. We stayed at one for 1 year until we felt like it wasn’t the one. Then we ended up at the church on the bottom of our list. Knowing that there is no perfect church, we went for the one with humility at the pulpit of quality Bible-based teaching/preaching. Thanks for your post.

    1. Absolutely,Stephen. It sounds like you and your family approached church hunting the way we have. Sometimes it takes a while to figure a church out, to determine whether it’s a good fit. The key is being open to where God wants you and keeping an ear out for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I agree with you Chris, it is a very big decision and should not be taken lightly. Most of the time we changed churches was because of cross country moves. But we spent time figuring out what new church fit us best after finding out their beliefs. Only one time did with leave a church for another in town and that was after a change in leadership. We felt like they were taking the church in a direction we did not agree with but only after much soul searching and praying

    1. Thanks, Yvonne! Yes, looking or a church takes a lot of prayer, and sometimes it can be a hard break. When I was in ministry, it was hard when people just left with no explanation. It left us feeling like there was something wrong with us. But when there was conversation, we were either able to fix the issue or bless them to move to another church where they were more likely to buy in. I really appreciate your comments.

  7. Great article, Chip. I know it can be hard when looking for a church to not judge based on style or worship or how welcome we feel. Thanks for this reminder that we must look first and foremost at how the gospel is being presented and what foundation the church has been built upon.

    1. You’re so welcome. It’s tempting to let our preferences for style determine whether the church will fit us. The goal should be whether or not God wants us there. In most cases, I believe God’s desire is for us to find a church we’re compatible with and we can get involved in helping. When I have let my preferences lead, it’s usually taken me longer to settle. Thanks for reading and commenting, Emily.

  8. I church hopped most of my teen and young adult years. I was friends with people from nearly every church in my hometown, including 3 Pastor’s daughters! So I can definitely identify and agree with your points here. I’m so glad to have a church home now that has all the main characteristics you mention here.

    1. Believe me, I’ve been there. I think when I was young I just wanted to be with my friends. Community was more important than the quality of the church or theology or anything. I was just glad to be with my friends. It’s awesome that you found a church home and that it’s a healthy thriving church. Hold on to that one!

  9. Oh this was so good. And I laughed so hard about the tract. I’ve seen those tracks! At least we know that God will bring every deed done into judgement 😂. I’ve been in the position where we had to leave a church and it was a difficult time, trying to search my heart to know whether it was just us or not. We did go to the leadership, seeking to work out the issues, which were fundamental. In the end the decisions led us to the church we are at now which is all the good things you’ve listed.

    I particularly love your line, “If you turn down a second night out because your date had a mole then the problem isn’t the mole.”

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! Isn’t that tract thing sad and funny? It was so ridiculous. I didn’t put this in the blog, but when it happened, all the other servers laughed at me and at her. I think they felt pity for me, but they weren’t surprised. It made me so sad that that was the view they had of sharing the Gospel and the people who do.
      When it comes to church, it sounds like you approached it biblically. Some churches are in error. Some pastors are in error. The question is whether or not those errors are worth breaking our covenant over. It sounds like you guys are in a great place, so that’s awesome. Well done. You aren’t bitter. You aren’t resentful, and you handled it with grace.

  10. This –> “The single most important thing to find in a church is whether they routinely teach and model Christ and him crucified.” Yes and amen!! We have been so blessed to find an amazing church family in our little town. Our pastor loves Jesus, the church family loves Jesus. No, we aren’t perfect, far from it, but because of Jesus we have a firm foundation.

    1. Thanks, Heather! If there ever were a perfect church I’d ruin it the moment I walked in the door. I figure if people have enough grace for me and all my mess then I can extend that to them too.
      That’s so good that you’re in a Christ-centered church. Too many churches are leaving the main thing for the minor things. It’s sad. But you’re in a good place, on solid footing, and your tribe is there to help you when you need it. That’s gold!

  11. Hey Chip,

    Diet lady sounds like a trip. 🙂

    Great analogy to the church. And, uh, since I’m married to a lead pastor who used to be a student pastor, I never had much of the privilege to look for a church to attend in the way most people do. Of course, from our standpoint, we prayed through some of these same points as to what makes a church one we would want to be a part of and serve as ministers there.

    I 100 percent agree we must evaluate the purpose of a church and ask the questions you suggest. With our consumer culture, we make the mistake of looking at God’s community as what’s in it for us. Yet, as you said so well, it’s about a church preaching and modeling Christ…and Him crucified. And the truth because the truth is what sets us free. We are mistaken when we think we want sermons and people who only tickle our ears. Or, if we leave Jesus in the church parking lot and ask Him to wait for us to return. That’s not how it works. We should want to go to a church who preaches Jesus and to jump in and serve…get our hands dirty as Jesus with skin.

    In the end, I want to be a part of a body of believers who do life together, walk shoulder-to-shoulder during good and bad stuff, and who are what my husband says “saints with a capacity for any sin.” I want real, authentic, and soulful.

    1. You are so wise, Karen! Many pastors don’t think about the culture they want to create. They either bemoan the one they have or they leave. The best pastor I ever had instilled in me this truth: the community I want needs to be built.
      Also, yes, yes, yes we have a consumer mentality toward the church. It’s frustrating. Too many Christians forget to consider what they can bring to a church. I recognize it’s a necessary part of the church experience, what we get. But what we give is what makes that community thrive. Thanks for reading and commenting, Karen. Real. Authentic. Soulful. I love it.

  12. Hi Chip!

    It was interesting reading about your waiter carrier. I have worked as a waiter in the Middle East for two years, some years ago 🙂

    I loved your advice about tipping well. My experience is that the more money we are willing to give away, the more we get.

    Agree with you; the church should be something different from anything else we know. It’s not an office, a business, or a shop.

    Your questions can help newcomers finding a church for them.

    I’m happy for what you do for the Christian online community, Chip.

    God bless!
    Edna Davidsen

    1. Thank you, Edna! I really appreciate what YOU do for the Christian online community.
      Yes, the church should be different. We’re a family, a body, a bride, a treasure. I think that’s one of the missing pieces. Church isn’t something we go to. It’s who we are. That doesn’t excuse us from getting together as a body, but it means that when we do we’re more like Jesus. Thanks for reading, Edna!

  13. We made a change after a very long time in one place. Our new place is alive, the pastor is a fellow sinner on a journey with us, Christ is preached, and we have no denomination–which makes us the denomination of non-doms. But we are home and with family. Great post!

    1. There are definite pluses when your church is independent. I’m glad you found a home. Sometimes we stay in a place because that’s all we’ve known, even when all signs point to needing to move on. It’s hard to move on from people you’ve known and served with so long. I bet that was hard for you and your family. However it happened, my biggest hope is that you continue to seek Jesus every Sunday and I hope you find him at your church and in its people. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy.

  14. Chip . . . first of all, the Diet Woman. Wow. I’m sorry. That’s a poor witness. I guess when we encounter people like her, we have to do as you said and choose humility and remember Who we’re really serving.

    Your questions in evaluating a church are spot on. We are so human, aren’t we? We want the church to serve us, to meet our needs. But, we should also be looking at ways we can serve others. Not just expect to be served.

    Okay, I’m kind of rambling. 🙂 But I so appreciate your post and the wisdom you’ve shared here.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jeanne. Yeah, it was a moment I won’t ever forget. I wish Diet Lady well.
      When it comes to church, we have had some serious discussions about what things are most important. It isn’t dissimilar from buying a home, except that there are other people in a church. It’s the people that are the wild cards. One of the hardest decisions we ever made was to leave a church we disagreed with that was filled with people we loved and who loved us. Every church thereafter, we’ve had lots of discussions as a family. This is basically where we landed. I’m glad it rang true for you too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *