As I was writing my previous post, ‘Balancing Church and Seminary,’ I realized that a lot of what I was writing assumed that you were in a time in your life where you needed to choose a church. But since not everyone in seminary is in such a season of life, it did not make sense for any of that material to be in the final cut. Still, as I reread what I had written, I thought it might make a good post by itself. Churchgoers (not just seminarians, but all churchgoers) need to practice wisdom in choosing which church to attend. This is the case for several reasons:
Membership in a local church is necessary for growth.
Our regular contact with other Christians is one of the primary ways in which God sanctifies us. If we are not attending one church and surrounding ourselves with the same people on a weekly basis – people who know us well enough to help us grow through encouragement and, when necessary, chastisement – then we are seriously undermining this marvelous means of grace. To be clear, I’m talking about church discipline here. I believe that church discipline takes place, not only when church leaders confront sin in their midst (both privately and publicly), but when regular people in the church encourage the growth of one another.
The American church scene today is woefully consumeristic.
Most thoughtful Christians I have met have a sense that this is true; but David Wells drives the point home in his book The Courage to be Protestant. The point is that churches that are both rooted in Scripture and connected with the historic faith have much to offer American culture (or any culture, for that matter). When we jump from church to church, we force the Church to serve our desires. Even worse, we exchange the truth they’re hearing from the pulpit for a lie – the lie that God exists for us. It’s as if we skewered the gospel and held it up like a white flag to the culture saying, “You’ve won!” I can only speak from my own experience, but I would guess that this is a problem (to varying degrees) in much of the Western Church.
So, now that we’ve established to need to be part of a church, what church should you choose? Let me begin by emphasizing my hope that these following points do not tempt anyone reading to leave any church at which they might already be members. That would fly right in the face of point number 2 above. But, if you are in a place where you need to find a church (having just moved to attend seminary, perhaps), then keep the following in mind:
Try to choose a church near where you live.
This is just good advice whether or not you’re in seminary. There is no practical way to be seriously involved in a church if you have to drive 45 minutes to get there. If you’re in a place where there are a lot of options, proximity should be fairly high on the list of factors that helps you choose a particular church. I sense that this is going to be a problem in younger, sprawling cities more so than in smaller communities or older cities that came of age before mass transit and the automobile. After all, in a smaller community there may be only one church to choose from (hopefully the leadership there is faithful to the gospel!). This is still worthy of mention, though.
Find a church that matches your vision of community.
I like churches that encourage a close community spirit within their congregations. The church I go to now has a lot of young, single adults. Many of the young men are getting together to rent houses or large apartments, and likewise with the women. This also complements my first suggestion. It won’t make much difference if you choose to live near a church if everybody else lives 45 minutes away! Others would prefer to sacrifice some community closeness for a more serious approach to worship, and I think that would fall under this category (worship is, after all, a community event). You will likely find, upon reflecting here, that you have a lot of preferences about what you would like to see. Let me encourage you to expect compromise here. It’s not a bad thing. Growing in grace means being able to be gracious with others, including others in the Church.
Always avoid the temptation to replace church relationships with seminary relationships.
This is not at all to say that relationships with professors and students at seminary are not important. They will be extremely important in helping you solidify a vision for your future ministry. This is simply to say that if you’re not engaged in a church, then you’re missing something. Involvement in a worship community both as a participant and, where appropriate, as a leader, is paramount with respect to your growth as a Christian.
There are other things that could be said here. If you’re in seminary, would kind of church would you like to pastor upon graduation (assuming that is your calling)? You may want to factor that into your decision and choose a church with similar sensibilities. That way, you can get some face time with your pastor and potentially score yourself an internship. Even if that does not work out, it’s very likely you’ll see enough of the inner workings of that church to form a better picture of your own ministry down the road.
Keeping these points in mind, you should be better equipped to make a wise decision concerning your next church. As seminarians, this approach will complement to approach you take toward ministry within the local church once you’re there. Remember, our goal as ministers is to work for the good of our congregations. As I hope I made clear in ‘Balancing Church and Seminary,’ that work ought to start now – even with choosing a church. Let’s help build healthy, stable, faithful churches that love the gospel and love others.