Harriet and I both remember when my employer transferred us to a new city as part of a de nova bank start up. In the banking world this was a new work, a bank in a new city with no existing loan portfolio, no depositors, no local balance sheet, and no income. In the planning stages the regional executives plotted the strategy and hired three bank officers to a equip a facility, employ a staff, and launch bank business. I distinctly remember when one of the regional execs strongly suggested that we join First Baptist Church. He said it would be good for business. So, Harriet and I did just that.
Our reason for joining that church was far outside the biblical and spiritual parameters for making a church decision. Though we joined for the wrong reasons we both learned something important about God's work and ways. Our six years in that congregation were instrumental in important faith decisions we both made and my final obedience in leaving the business world, attending seminary, and entering pastoral ministry. Still, joining the church because it was good for business has been a reminder of the casual mechanics of church affiliation and membership for so many people.
Over the years I've asked church members, neighbors, family, and friends what factors influenced their selection of a church. The list really isn't that long and you can perhaps guess at the items on it. I remember when my mother and father, The Chester and Esther joined Hampton Heights Baptist Church, the church I was honored to lead for fifteen years. At the close of the service they presented themselves for membership. Then, totally unexpected, The Chester, a retired business executive, asked for the microphone. Ruh roh, something every pastor dreads. But, he was my dad and I knew what he would say would be at least be well intended. He said, "Esther and I are thankful to be members of Hampton Heights. We've heard that the preaching here is pretty mediocre but that the food is always good. So, we want to be members here now". Thanks a lot The Chester. The vote of confidence was a real boost.
The usual answer to questions about why people choose a church isn't all that surprising. They usually had worked through a list of likes and dislikes that governed their selection process. They liked the preaching. They liked the music. They liked the youth (children's, singles, married couples, senior adult) ministries. They liked the location. They liked the service times. They liked the food. They liked the facilities. They liked the athletic programs. They liked their Sunday School teacher (class, etc). They liked the size of the congregation. They liked the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. They liked the dress atmosphere (traditional, casual, etc). And, the list goes on---parking lot, rest room facilities, security, curriculum, mission trips, ski weekends, moms day out, and who knows what else. More or less it's a long list of personal preferences that influence so many church affiliations.
And, that's a trouble spot. You see, life changes, often rapidly. So do we. My personal list of life preferences isn't the same today as it was even five years ago. Changes in congregational leadership, community demographics, and many other factors can alter the dynamics of local church life. For that reason many people are disappointed when their personal likes and dislikes are no longer primary in that setting. We fickle humans have a tendency to lose interest when our agenda has slipped to the margins of church life. The result, in too many instances, is a large drop out rate. We often discover that the spiritual family we have chosen really isn't the silver bullet we had envisioned when weighing our church affiliation choices. Likes and dislikes cannot be our final answer in such an important and critical matter.
We humans cannot entirely eliminate a likeability factor in choosing a church. These fickle and often shallow criteria, however, shouldn't be the acid test of church selection. While the Bible doesn't provide a neat checklist that will guide our selection of one church over another, there are clear directions to give us spiritual leadership in deciding which church is best for our family. These include---
1. The doctrinal position of the local church (see Ephesians 4:4-6)
2. Denominational considerations. This will involve some deeper study.
3. Provision of strong biblical teaching so that our family members can grow and
mature in faith, and use spiritual gifts in ministry (see Hebrews 5:12-13).
4. Whether or not our family can fulfill the "one another" expectations of church
membership (there are 59 "one another" passages in the New Testament. Click here
to review them).
5. The degree to which our family can be involved in the biblical mission of the church
as assigned by Jesus Christ (see Matthew 28:19-20).
Jesus taught about building a strong house. He said, " Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it" (Matthew 7:24-27, ESV). In my limited opinion this truth can be applied to many areas of our Christian life, including the selection of a church. Choosing a church should be more than our fickle likes and dislikes, the trends of the times, or our emotional whims.
Fickle me and my preferences about church may just be sand which cannot sustain my family as we live the reality of faith every day. Lord, relieve me of my fickle preferences!
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