Friday, April 25, 2008

With Churches, It Pays To Be Selective

Recently I was speaking with my mother, and the subject of church came up. I had told her a few weeks earlier that I'd begun attending church again, after discovering a local congregation which seemed to show some promise. My mother is very devoted to her church, and she knows that I share her faith in Christ, so she has always strongly urged me to commit myself to a local congregation of believers.

In principle, I agree that that's a worthy goal. The problem is that finding a church which meets my criteria has been easier said than done. During my phone conversation with Mother last week, I revealed to her that my investigations had revealed that the latest church I'd visited didn't meet my most important criteria. I could hear the disappointment in her voice when she learned that I'd decided not to make that my home church.

Frankly, she wasn't half as disappointed as I was. I'd been without a church for a while, and I'd been hoping that this group I'd recently discovered was the one for which I'd been looking. But I have been to enough churches in my life, both good and bad, to know that it's a big mistake to pick a church randomly out of the phone directory and then make a commitment to that church before one really has any idea what one is committing one's self to. Life is too short to spend Sunday after Sunday after Sunday in a church which poorly reflects one's own values or which does a poor job of empowering one to fulfill God's call upon one's life. So when I start attending a new church, I tend to take a very "proactive" approach designed to help me ascertain as soon as possible whether or not the church is worthy of a long-term commitment. That means asking a lot of questions and then asking myself if I can live with the answers I receive.

When Mother spoke with me, she advised me to bloom where I was planted. But even though that advice sometimes has merit (in situations where people have no choice about where they have been planted), it's somewhat disingenuous when it comes to one's choice of a church to attend. After all, the only thing which "planted" me at the aforementioned church was that I decided to attend the church in the first place. There were no family issues or other things binding me to that particular church. It seems a bit absurd to me to say that it's O.K. for me to exercise my free will by choosing to attend the church, but not O.K. for me to go in search of a church which better meets my needs if it turns out, upon investigation, that the church doesn't offer the things which I seek.

When seeds or plants are planted in dry soil which lacks the nutrients they need, they don't "bloom". They die!!! I don't deny that there were some good aspects of the church I most recently attended. Otherwise, I never would have returned in order to attend a second service. But I was looking for some specific things which were extremely important to me. Unfortunately, I learned after several weeks that they weren't prepared to offer those things to me.

Many people would argue that "there is no such thing as a perfect church". Well, duhhh! Of course there isn't. People, even redeemed people, are imperfect, and probably always will be imperfect, this side of heaven. But what bothers me is when true statements are misappropriated in order to support false dichotomies.

It doesn't follow from the fact that churches are all imperfect that one ought to refrain from exercising discernment when selecting a church. That's the kind of gullible mentality which led people to feel as if they had to keep attending Jim Jones' cultish church (The People's Temple) even after it had become abundantly clear that the guy had become psychologically and spiritually unhinged. The tragic results, it seems to me, speak for themselves.

Not every church is as cultish or abusive as The People's Temple, but there are a lot of churches which are abusive in subtle ways, even though their doctrinal statements may look great on paper. They may have great music and great preaching, but those aren't the only things which are needed in order to make for a great church experience.

Churches are all imperfect, but it is possible (albeit difficult) to find churches which are good enough to justify long-term commitments to them. I know, because I have attended such churches in the past.

If a person is attending a church where getting up in the morning to go to the worship service feels like a dreary chore which is performed out of obligation and nothing more, then there's something seriously wrong, because church was never meant to be that way. Jesus said it well: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27) Legalistic observations of the Sabbath can defeat the purpose of the Sabbath, which is to strengthen believers and equip them for lives characterized by joyful service to God. If that goal is not being accomplished, then the value of such regular observations is highly questionable.

The problem is that there's a mentality among many Christians to the effect that Christians who are unwilling to settle for spiritually unfruitful relationships, and who regularly change church homes in search of things they haven't yet found, are somehow selfish and undisciplined.

I understand where they got that idea. There are admittedly some Christians who leave churches over issues which are utterly trivial. The color of the carpet, for instance. Such people are undoubtedly responsible for the phrase which some Christian coined several decades ago: "Church hoppers".

But individual situations should be judged on their own merits, not on the basis of generalities which may or may not be applicable to those particular situations. I happen to think that the criteria with which I decide whether or not to continue attending a particular church are biblically defensible and extremely important.

Some people may disagree, and that's their prerogative. But it should be remembered that different people have different needs, and therefore different priorities.

For example, if I had children, it is likely that I would be looking for a church with a dynamic children's ministry which would protect and nurture my children, and which would teach the gospel to them in a way which would maximize the likelihood that they would commit themselves to Christ in a way which would motivate them to make the world a better place. But I don't have children, and the way things are looking, it seems unlikely that I ever will have children of my own, for the simple reason that it seems unlikely that I will ever get married. (Not that I wouldn't like to get married! But the older I get, the less likely that seems to happen. I'm just as selective when it comes to women as I am when it comes to churches.) So while I think that every church ought to have a great ministry to children, it isn't as important to me, personally, as it would be if I had a wife and children.

Some people greatly prefer a small church, and other people greatly prefer a big church. I have no real preferences in terms of what size of church makes me comfortable, but the size of the church can be a relevant consideration when it comes to some of my other criteria. Small churches tend to be a lot friendlier, and pastors there tend to be a lot more accessible, but the downside is often the fact that such churches don't have much in the way of material resources. That might not matter much if I were just looking for a place to worship, but I'm also looking for a church which can help me to accomplish some specific goals in my life. And that requires a church with substantial resources.

The trouble is that pastors of large churches tend to be very inaccessible. They sometimes unintentionally or intentionally convey the idea that individuals who attend their churches are somewhat expendable and unworthy of individual attention and consideration, unless those individuals are part of a very limited "inner circle" consisting mostly of staff members or people who have attended the church for a very long time.

But that's mostly a matter of attitude, and attitudes aren't carved into stone. I think that it's possible to pastor a large church which has abundant resources without becoming egotistical or isolated from the people who attend that church. It's rare, but it's possible. So I guess that if I had my choice, I'd say that I'd prefer to attend that kind of church.

Having said that, I'd rather attend a small church where people have all of the right attitudes and values than to attend a large church where their contrary attitudes and values stand in the way of my ability to achieve my life's goals. Lots of material resources are nice, but they don't do a whole lot of good if one can't utilize them.

In terms of theology, I am pretty conservative. Of course, that word means different things to different people. What it means for me is that the scriptures are far more important than "traditions of men". For too many churches today, the scriptures are only of peripheral concern --- and this, ironically, includes some churches where they give lip service to the idea that the scriptures are of paramount importance.

Where the scriptures speak clearly about issues, then it seems to me that really sincere Christians have no choice but to accept their authority and do their best to comply with their demands. This doesn't mean, however, that there will be no legitimate disagreements about what the scriptures teach and demand. The Bible is a marvelous book, and that's an understatement. But that doesn't mean that it's always 100% clear how a particular scriptural teaching should apply to us. Some people do a better job of properly interpreting scriptures (in the context in which they were written) than others. ("Exegesis" is the fancy technical term for such interpretation. The Bible itself calls it "rightly dividing the Word of God".) So it seems to me that all Christians ought to have the humility to make every effort to explain their policies and practices in the light of their understanding of the scriptures, and to listen with sincerity to those who might disagree with them on specific points.

Ideally, people would always agree with one another, but this is not an ideal world. Sometimes, when it comes to secondary issues, the best option is to agree to disagree. At other times, though, it's important to have some backbone and take a stand against immorality. Far too many liberal churches today have allowed the culture to shape them, instead of accepting the responsibility to shape the culture in positive ways which reflect values derived from the Word of God.

To many people, stylistic matters (pertaining to preaching styles, music styles, liturgical styles and so forth) are of paramount importance. I have worshiped in a wide variety of environments, some of which were very formal and some of which were very informal. I do have my preferences, of course. I generally tend to prefer a more informal type of service, because I have seen the way in which liturgy can become so stale that no real spiritual encounters with God are facilitated. But I've also seen how informality can be abused in a way which props up the egos of the people who lead such services, so that's the flip side.

Even though I might have my preferences, I would say that such matters are relatively low on my list of priorities, unless they impact the freedom which I have to use my own talents in service to God. How might that happen? Well, in one case, I was told in no uncertain terms that the pastor of the church I was attending at the time had no tolerance for any musical performances which did not involve the performance of hymns. No jazz allowed! I knew of no relevant scriptures which would justify such a position, so it seemed to me that the pastor in question was simply imposing his personal aesthetic preferences on the rest of the congregation, with no biblical justification. I felt hamstrung by the realization that as long as I attended that church, I would never have the opportunity to make the most of my musical talents during a worship service, or during any other church event for that matter. To me, that was more than reason enough to leave that church and continue my search for a church which would appreciate what I had to offer.

If I had to list my highest priorities when selecting a church to attend on a regular basis, I think I would list the following things:

  1. A strong commitment to the proclamation of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ, with a foundation in the scriptures. This includes the willingness to speak out clearly against sin (even when it's "politically incorrect" to do so) and to make it very clear to people that those who reject Christ's salvation are lost.
  2. A strong commitment to the need for social justice and compassion --- not based on Marxist presuppositions, but based on Christ's teachings, which make it very clear that we have obligations in terms of ministering to hurting people and victims of injustice, such as prisoners, sexual abuse victims, poor people, minorities, unborn children and so forth.
  3. A strong commitment to the necessity of cultural transformation --- not cultural accommodation, and not withdrawal from involvement and engagement with mainstream culture. In particular, I feel that it's important to recognize the dominant role which the arts play in terms of shaping the values of our friends, neighbors, coworkers and relatives. Churches which have little interest in the arts have abdicated their cultural responsibilities. If they aren't empowering artistically talented Christians, artistically talented unbelievers with entirely different agendas will be more than happy to step in and fill the cultural void.
  4. A strong commitment to the goal of empowering all Christians to fully utilize their God-given talents --- thereby fulfilling their biblical responsibilities --- and to leave lasting legacies which will validate the time which they have spent living on this earth.

The preceding list isn't all-inclusive, of course. But it ought to give a good idea of what I'm seeking in a church. Such a church isn't easy to find, but I keep looking, because I am convinced that God has a calling on my life. I cannot fulfill that calling without substantial help from brothers and sisters who share my values, goals and priorities.

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