People searching for a church these days face a bewildering array of alternatives from which to choose. The old brand names are still alive and kicking: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Reformed, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, etc. Many of these traditional churches have split into a number of subgroups, increasing the choices and the confusion. The fringe groups are also there, and new sects come on the scene almost weekly. Then there is the endless parade of faith healers, fast-talking feel-good preachers, and the self-appointed prophets and apostles, complete with signs and wonders.
How do you find a responsible church in this sea of spiritual confusion? People take different approaches, depending on their individual personalities. Some people follow their heads and take an analytical approach. They look at the church's growth pattern, its ministries and programs, its financial condition, the quality of its buildings and staff, the depth of its preaching. Others go with their hearts or their guts. They take an intuitive approach. They look at the warmth of the worship, the friendliness of its people, how uplifing the sermons and songs are. Some people look to have particular needs satisfied or problems solved - help with parenting, drug or alcohol dependence, habitual destructive behaviors, stress, anger and the like.
I would like to propose an alternative approach to church shopping. It is neither a head nor heart approach, though it employs all your reason and senses. The approach might be called caveat emptor. Buyer beware. In Scripture, St. John writes, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). If that was so in John's day, how much more does it apply to ours? When choosing a church, test the spirits. Find out what a church teaches. Practice doctrinal discernment.
Here, at the outset, I will admit that this is written from an unashamedly Lutheran perspective. I believe that Lutheran doctrine is Christian doctrine without any additions or deletions. I am willing to discuss that point with anyone who takes doctrine seriously. Now I will not claim that the Lutheran churches, as they exist today, are pure and perfect. We have many things of which to repent, but our doctrine is not one of them. Nor am I saying that the only Christians are Lutherans.
To help you in your church shopping, here are a few questions, along with some do's and don'ts of church shopping. I have tried to write from the point of view of the many inquisitive church shoppers that are out there. Some come and join us and become members; others don't. But the questions are honestly given:
Questions for the Discerning Church Shopper
Q: Does the congregation believe, teach, and confess the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - three Persons in one divine Being, as the only true God?
A: This is a basic question, though it should not be taken for granted today, even among those who call themselves "Christian." If a church can't say "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" something has gone terribly wrong.
Q: Does the congregation believe, teach, and confess that all people are by nature sinful in the eyes of God?
A: Churches that deny the teaching of original sin end up pushing self-improvement as the way to salvation, making people think that they have, within themselves, the power to change and improve.
Q: Does the congregation believe that sinners are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and Personal Savior?
A: This is the central teaching of Christianity. Without it, a church cannot be called "Christian", no matter how holy and religious it might otherwise appear. You may hear many things during the course of a service, but did you hear that Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead? Did you hear that for His sake you have pardon, peace, and eternal life?
Q: Do the sermons and Bible studies properly distinguish God's comands, threats, and punishments from His promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ?
A: As we say, there is good news and there is bad news. A church needs to tell the difference between the two. The bad news is that we are sinners. Because of that sin, we will die, temporally and eternally. The good news is that we are saved from eternal damnation by the blood of Jesus Christ. Period. If a church doesn't teach that, it has lost its moorings.
Q: Is the congregation overly or under-friendly?
A: Everyone likes a warm and friendly greeting as a visitor. However, an aggressive or pushy congregation can be desperate for growth at any cost. Beware of "bait and switch" tactics that minimize doctrinal differences among churches. Anyone who says something like, "Doctrine divides, but the Bible unites" or "We all believe basically the same thing" is ignorant or a liar and shouldn't be taken seriously. Look for substance.
Q: Does the congregation baptize the babies of its members?
A: Churches that do not baptize infants may be denying original sin (Psalm 51:5) and what the Scriptures say about Baptism (Matt. 28:19-20, Mark 16:16, Romans 6:4, Titus 3:5, etc.). Check into this matter closely.
Q: How does the congregation see to it that its children are taught the Christian faith?
A: Disciples are made by baptizing and teaching (Matt. 28:19-20). While there is no guarantee that your children will grow up to believe in Jesus Christ, there is evey certainty that children who are not taught the Christian faith will grow up believing just about anything or nothing at all. Find out what partnership exists between parents and the church for the baptizing and ongoing teaching of the children. Even if you don't have children, this will tell you a great deal about the congregation's priorities.
Q: What is the congregation's involvement in outreach and missions?
A: Direct and indirect involvement in mission work and outreach is a good indicator of a congregation's commitment to the preaching of the Gospel. This doesn't necessarily mean a lot of boards and committees, but a clear orientation of the congregation toward those who have not yet heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches that have settled in to being cozy "religious country clubs" tend not to be terribly committed to making disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching (Matt. 28:19-20).
Q: Is the congregation in fellowship with other Christian congregations or does it stand by itself?
A: Watch out for the "Lone Rangers" of religion, especially if they claim some "new revelation" or special teaching that no one else has. Avoid churches that have no mechanism of public accountability for their teachers and pastors, or that seem to be run entirely by one person.
Some Do's and Don'ts of Responsible Church Shopping
Do shop for churches "concentrically". Start with the congregations closest to where you live and work out from there in ever-widening circles. The closer your church is to your home, the more you can be involved in that congregation's life.
Do be so kind as to leave your name, address, and phone number so that the church can contact you. Don't feel compelled to leave an offering, unless you truly desire to make one.
Do attend more than one service before moving on to another church. Don't let your first impression be your only impression. I suggest that you try to attend a congregation for a least a month or more before moving on to another place unless the problems are immediately obvious.
Do introduce yourself to members and talk to them. Find out how long they have been going there, and why they are members at that particular church.
Don't be terribly concerned about what kind of instruments and music are used for worship, or whether the service has contemporary or classical music. Pipe organs, guitars, trumpets, tambourines, and keyboard instruments can all be used as instruments to the glory of Jesus Christ. You wil grow accustomed to whatever music delivers the Gospel. What matters most is content.
Do pay attention and see if the central theme is Jesus' death and resurrection for your forgiveness, life, and salvation and not something else.
Don't be concerned about the number of a congregation's activities. Large churches tend to have many activities. Smaller churches have fewer. Look at the foundaiton and the structure of the church, not the decorations.
Don't be put off if the service seems unusual. The Christian church has been around for nearly two thousand years. A lot of tradition has been handed down to us - some helpful, some not. We're always sorting, but we're not about to toss out the treasure with the trash. Christianity is an historic religion. We don't mind letting the gray hairs of our history show. It may take some time for you to learn the mechanics of the liturgy, so be patient, ask questions and expect to learn.
Don't expect any congregation to be perfect in practice. Churches are compsed of sinners forgiven for Jesus' sake. Every congregation has flaws and weaknesses. So do all ministers. Don't judge a church by the holiness of its members, the success of its programs, the impressiveness of its buildings, or the charisma of its leaders. Judge it solely by the Scriptural purity of its preaching and teaching and the faithful administration of Christ's sacraments.
Do plan on joining a congregation and committing your time, treasure, and talents to the support of that congregation as soon as possible. Church shopping is a temporary activity with the goal of finding a place to receive the gifts of Christ.
Do become a member of a congregation via their ordinary way of making members.
At Trinity that means:
If you are a Missouri Synod Lutheran you may be transferred in from your home congregation. If your present Lutheran church is not in fellowship with us, you will be asked to attend an adult catechetical class that lasts about 4 weeks. If you are sure of your understanding of the Lutheran teaching, other arrangements may be made at the discretion of the Pastor for your convenience.
If you are a non-Lutheran Christian, or converting to Christianity, you will be asked to take the catechetical class that lasts about 4 weeks. This will be of great long-term benefit to you, and will give you a chance to hear our teaching in depth. Of course, don't do anything that violates your conscience or the Word of God.
All who attend our adult catechetical classes will be given a free copy of Luther's Small Catechism. This book contains the basic fundamental teachings of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Finally, we join you in praying that God would grant you His Holy Spirit, who works through the Word. May you discern the truth of Him who is the Way, the Truth, and Life - Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Trinity Lutheran Church
1103 Central Avenue
Hawarden, IA 51023
Guide for the Church Shopper