The wrong reasons to choose a church
One of the blessings of living in this great country of ours is the freedom of religion we enjoy. As Americans we are not required to support or participate in a government-sanctioned religion or a state-established church. We are legally free to choose any religion we want (or no religion at all), and to go to any church we choose (or no church at all). Ideally this legal freedom of religion can indirectly assist the church’s spiritual vitality, because it means that those who come to church do so voluntarily, because they want to (a noble motivation indeed!), and not involuntarily because they have to (due to such factors as social pressure or fear of legal sanctions or violent persecution; all of which are less than noble motivations for religious observance). However, if there is a “down side” to this blessing of religious freedom it is that the door is opened to the possibility that people will choose a church for the wrong reasons. Given that we live in a consumer-oriented, market driven culture that is obsessed with celebrities and cults of personality, and given that the church in the United States has been profoundly impacted by these cultural factors, Christians in America often select a church, not for correct, biblically-based reasons, but for reasons which arise instead from these cultural factors. Below I list what I believe are some common, but biblically-wrong, reasons why many believers in the US choose a church, and I seek to offer some biblical responses to such reasons.
The wrong reasons to choose a church include:
(1) The church has a popular and/or famous preacher.
There is no question that God has gifted some men with tremendous gifts for preaching and Bible teaching. Sometimes such men will gain a large hearing, and preach to large audiences. I myself benefit from the preaching and teaching ministries of certain “famous” or otherwise well known preachers and teachers (for example, R.C. Sproul, Michael Horton, etc.), and I praise God for their profound gifts. I am not saying we shouldn’t appreciate or benefit from the tremendous gifts with which He has seen fit to bless some of His servants. However, when a believer’s sole or primary reason for choosing a particular church is because it is pastored by a popular or famous preacher, that is an unbiblical reason to choose a church. That is nothing less than “cult of personality” thinking, and the Apostle Paul views it as a sign of spiritual immaturity (see, for example, First Corinthians 1:10-17, where he is dealing with the issue of division in the church, division caused in part by the Corinthian believers following their various favorite preachers). Of course, if you have Bible-based, doctrinally-sound reasons for choosing to affiliate with a church that happens to have a well known and/or “popular” preacher, that is fine. But from the standpoint of God’s Word it is not about the Minister of the Word; it is about the Ministry of the Word! It is not about who the preacher is; it is about the proclamation (i.e., what he is proclaiming)! It’s not about the man (however gifted he might be); it’s about the message! The main question ought to be: Is the Word of God being faithfully, clearly, and plainly preached, taught and enforced? Not, “Is the preacher a great orator?”
If you had to choose between a church which featured a famous celebrity preacher who was an engaging motivational speaker, but whose sermons were doctrinally shallow, questionable or minimally biblical at best; and (on the other hand) a church which featured an ordinary, simple pastor who lacked the flash and pizzazz of the first preacher, but who was nonetheless faithful to the Word and doctrinally sound; which church would you choose? In such circumstances, from a biblical standpoint which church should you choose?
(2) The pastor is a really cool / nice / “hip” / great guy.
See response under # 1 above. I’m not saying it isn’t important for the pastor to be friendly, or that you should try to find a church with an unfriendly pastor, or one where the pastor is a spiritual tyrant. Obviously, pastors and other church leaders should be friendly, polite, approachable and compassionate. But the point is that the pastor’s personality should not be a major factor in choosing a church home, for nowhere do the Scriptures require pastors or other church leaders to have a certain personality type.
(3) The church has lots of great programs.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with a church offering lots of programs, as long as those programs are centered on the Word of God and are properly part of what God in the Scriptures has called His church to do. Sometimes the offering of lots of programs can be a positive indication that the members of the church are active in using their spiritual gifts to serve the Body of Christ and are excited about what God is doing in their midst; and that is certainly a good thing! However, sometimes the “programs” of the church become so central to the life of the church that the primary tasks Christ has entrusted to His church — namely, the proclamation of the Word, prayer, the administration of the sacraments, the worship of God, fellowship, witness, etc. — get minimized, pushed to the side, or are viewed as merely a means of getting congregants “pumped up” for being active in the church’s multitude of programs. (I.E., the ministry of the Word ends up serving the interests of the church’s programs, rather than the programs being an extension of the ministry of the Word.) When Christians choose a church home primarily because of the “programs” such a church offers (even if such programs happen to be good and biblically-based), rather than primarily because of biblical reasons such as the faithful preaching of the Word and sound doctrine, they are choosing their church for the wrong reasons.
(4) The congregation has lots of people who are just like me, and with whom I can easily connect. I’ll fit right in.
This too is an unbiblical reason for choosing a church and a manifestation of spiritual immaturity. It assumes that God wants us to feel “comfortable” in church. But God’s purpose for us believers is not that we should be “comfortable” (although certainly the gospel Word and sacraments do indeed “comfort” us as believers). Rather, God’s purpose is to make us holy. It is to sanctify us and conform us into the image of Christ (see Romans 8:29; Hebrews 12:4-11). One of the things that God uses to conform us into Christ’s image is the church. When He saves us through Christ He also connects us to the Body of Christ, a Body that includes believers from many different backgrounds who are made one in Christ (see Galatians 3:26-29). God intends for us to learn to get along with brothers and sisters in Christ whom we may not naturally be inclined to “hang out” with if we were still walking according to the flesh. And sometimes that learning process (and that’s what “discipleship” is — learning and growing to be more and more like Jesus) can be a rather “uncomfortable” process. So don’t let your subjective “comfort level” be the primary or determining factor in choosing a church. God may want to take you beyond your “comfort zone” in your church involvement, but if He does He will use it to help you grow in the knowledge and love of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
(5) The church has great music and singing.
The singing of praise is a vital and important element of biblical worship, as the Psalms and other passages of Scripture attest (see, for example, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16). Music is an important part of the life of the church. However, music is not the most important part of the church’s worship or life. On the contrary, the Word of God (especially as the Word reveals the gospel of Jesus Christ) is primary in the life and worship of the church. The most important factor the believer must consider in choosing a church is whether or not the church is faithful in proclaiming the gospel with clarity and integrity, and whether or not the Word of God (rather that secondary things like the worship music) is central in the church’s life and worship. The praise band may be great and offer soul-stirring music, but if the “sermon” is customarily a light, shallow, moralistic pep talk that barely skims the surface of Scripture (or, worse, twists the Scriptures to fit the preacher’s personal opinions or political views), then avoid such a church like the plague (not primarily because of the presence of a “praise band,” but primarily because the Word of God is not being faithfully handled). Or, for those with more “high brow” (and less “popular”) musical tastes, if the organ sounds majestic and the organist can play masterfully, but the “homily” is heretical, then run like the wind and flee for your life! Don’t allow yourself to be exposed to soul-destroying heresy, even if it is accompanied by great music! The point here is not to denigrate the importance of music. The point is to elevate the primary importance of the Word of God over the secondary importance of the church’s “music ministry.”
If you had to choose between a church which offered a wonderful organ (or a cool “praise band”; whichever your musical tastes might prefer), but which had poor or shallow preaching, on the one hand; and a church with poor singing and a deficient “music ministry” program but faithful, solid preaching of the Word and sound doctrine, which would you choose? From a biblical standpoint, which should you choose?
(6) The church is large and I can attend while remaining anonymous.
This is not only a wrong and unbiblical reason for choosing a church. It is also a sinful reason. God does not intend for believers to be “anonymous” at church. He saves us and places us in the Body of Christ so we can use our spiritual gifts to serve the church. But you can’t serve the church if you are an anonymous face in the crowd who shows up for church right before the service begins and scurries away immediately after the benediction with little or no interaction with your brothers and sisters in Christ. An “anonymous Christian” is an unfaithful Christian. God intends for His children to be involved — deeply involved — in each other’s lives. He intends for us to love the Christian brotherhood (read First John.) You can’t do that and remain anonymous. God also wants us to be accountable to our brothers and sisters in Christ, including being subject to the loving, biblical leadership of the church (see Hebrews 13:17). But, again, such biblical accountability is impossible for the “anonymous Christian.” You cannot be anonymous and accountable at the same time.
I’m sure many more wrong reasons for choosing a church could be listed, but the above reasons are common among professed believers. I plan to follow up this blog article with a more postively-focused future article on biblical reasons for choosing a church.