There’s a term for people who are looking for a church—they are called “Church Shoppers.” I have never really liked that phrase because usually when someone enters my church and says they are “church shopping” I get the idea that we are being evaluated and judged. It’s not the evaluation that bothers me, it’s the fact that I don’t know by what criteria we are being assessed.
Often, church shoppers tend to be looking for features in a church that are relatively superficial like, the newness of the facility, the ‘quality’ of the music, the features available in children’s ministry, or the length of a sermon.
It’s not that these things should not be included in the evaluation of a new church, I believe they should. However, there are more critical things to look for in a church. I think these are the 4 of the most important things you should pay attention to when “church shopping.”
Teaching the Bible
The expositional preacher, David Helm, once quipped, “Some preachers use the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamp post…more for support than for illumination.” It’s common to attend an average evangelical church today only to find the minister preach a sermon that sounds like a TED talk, using a few random and disconnected scripture references to bolster his/her opinion on spiritual issues.
In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul encouraged his young protege to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (italics mine).
He wanted the young preacher to make sure his focus in teaching was the word of God. While there’s nothing wrong with instruction that is topical in nature; the main points should be grounded in scripture, while paying attention to context.
Any church that pulls away from solid scriptural teaching is a church that is on the path toward trouble, regardless of its success or growth rate.
Lately, this has lead many churches into problematic situations, most notably the problems that Harvest Bible Chapel has had with their last pastor, James McDonald. As it turns out, McDonald had a stranglehold on the leadership, and very few people were allowed to know precisely how the church’s money was being spent. When the dust settled, McDonald had been fired, and the church found out that he was being paid $960,000 per year, not including his book royalties or the money made from his syndicated radio program, Walk In The Word.
When you go to choose a new church, make sure the finances are well accounted for. In some cases, you may ask to see a copy of the budget or request to speak to a finance team member. Granted, churches won’t usually divulge intricate financial details, like the salaries of their leadership team, but they should be able to provide a general report on how the money is spent. If they are overly hesitant or guarded about finances, take that as a cautionary sign.
Solomon said, “Without counsel, plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). This is an important principle when it comes to church leadership.
The early church model for leadership was a team of elders to direct the affairs of the church. While some churches may call this group a “board” or “trustees,” the concept is the same. A group of men and/or women who are willing to humbly protect and guide the church body is an essential thing for every church.
If you attend a church and you recognize that the pastor is the only one calling the shots, or that a particular board member has unique sway over the congregation that is a sign of danger and should be avoided. Also, I’ve always been wary of churches that allow members of one particular family to hold multiple leadership positions, for example when the father is the pastor, the son is the youth leader, and the grandfather is head of the deacons. The Bible doesn’t warn against it, so it’s not forbidden. I just think it leads to problems.
One last vital thing to consider is the heart of the pastor. Are they humble? Will they work quietly and patiently, away from the limelight if necessary?
Sadly, a lot of ministry leaders venture into ministry for the wrong reason. Some desire the spotlight of weekly ministry and preaching, hoping to be a ‘pastorlebrity’ like so many of the preachers they see on TV or the web. Others get into ministry because they don’t know what else to do, and their skills are too soft for other jobs. I know that sounds harsh, but trust me, it’s true.
It’s challenging to know a pastor right away, especially in larger churches. Even so, there are ways to learn about their motives. For example, does the pastor preach every Sunday or do they allow others to minister to the congregation from time to time? Is the pastor open to suggestions, or do they rebuff criticism? Are they willing to meet with new members and spend time making hospital visits?
No pastor is perfect, of course, but finding a church where the pastor is willing to serve with patience, self-control, and humility (1 Tim 3:2) is especially important.
So how about you? I would love to hear about your “church shopping” experiences. What has gone well, and what has gone terribly wrong? Send me an email and tell me all about it! firstname.lastname@example.org