Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Choosing a Church: A Few More Preliminaries

Part 3 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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Yesterday I put up a few preliminary comments to lay some groundwork for this series on choosing a church:

1. How you choose a church depends on your basic understanding of the church.
2. In a sense, we don’t choose the church. The church chooses us.
3. The real question is not what church I choose, but what church God has chosen for me.

Today I want to add a couple more items.
4. There is no perfect church.
If you’ve been hanging around churches as much as I have, you know this is true. Every church has strengths and every church has weaknesses. Often the strength is closely related to the weakness. If, for example, a church has an excellent choir or worship band, chances are that average singers or musicians are not welcome to participate in the choir or band. So the church gets an A+ for musical quality and a C- for lay ministry (at least in this area). On the contrary, a church might welcome every one into its choir or band, thus guaranteeing relatively low musical quality along with stellar participation.
Of course, from another perspective, there is no perfect church because churches are made up of people, and people are imperfect. Even the healthiest church is composed of forgiven sinners who wrong each other, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. If a church appears to be fully harmonious, know that you’re simply looking on the surface.
It’s important to acknowledge that there’s no perfect church because sometimes people’s idealism about church gets in the way of their actually joining one. They keep on looking for a perfect community or a perfect fit, when this just isn’t to be found this side of heaven.
If there’s no perfect church, then every church you’ll consider has trade offs. A megachurch will offer an amazing array of programs, but will allow you to remain disconnected from the body. A house church, on the contrary, will maximize relationship but may lack ministries you deem essential, such as a youth ministry for your kids. You’ll have to decide what you value most in a church so that you can accept something less than impossible perfection.
5. Don’t idealize the early church.
During my freshman year of college I first experienced “church shopping.” Having move far away from my home church in California, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I found myself “churchless” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As I thought about what kind of church I wanted to join, I expressed this in terms of finding a church “just like the early church.”
What I meant by this was that I was looking for a church that was open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit like the church in the Book of Acts. At that time I did not have established views about how spiritual gifts ought to function in the church today, but I sensed that God wanted to do much more through me than I had experienced in the past. I wanted a church that would encourage me in new avenues of ministry and that truly sought the power of God for daily living.
Yet I now chuckle at my desire to find a church “just like the early church.” The New Testament is plenty honest about the messes that the first churches made. Conflicts and heresies abounded in the early church, much like we find in today’s church. So, though we can surely desire a church that imitates the zeal and commitment of the early church, we should also remember that the early church wasn’t perfect either.
6. Don’t idealize your own earlier churches.
Throughout my years as a church member and a pastor, I have found a tendency for some people to idealize, even to idolize their own previous church experiences. They remember what was good about their former churches, often magnifying that goodness through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. At the same time, they conveniently forget what wasn’t so great about their earlier churches. A friend of mine would wax eloquent about the wonderful “traditional” worship of his boyhood church, yet neglect to mention that this church died out because it failed to connect with its community. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I was involved in this church from 1963 through 1991, both as a member and as a pastor. It was (and is) a wonderful church, and it’s easy for me to idolize my experience there.)
When I was the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I often heard from folks who moved away that they couldn’t find a church like ours in their new location. I took this as a compliment, but often felt concerned that this kind of comparison was keeping people from getting plugged in to a church in their new community. ?
It’s surely fine to be thankful for your positive church experiences. In fact, you should thank the Lord for such marvelous gifts. But if you dwell upon the past, and if you exaggerate its goodness, you may very well have a hard time finding any new church that measures up to your idealized memories.
In my next post in this series I’ll move beyond preliminaries and begin to offer some suggestions about how to choose a church.

  • kozak

    Interesting that you mention house churches. I’ve just read “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola. He refers to house churches as exactly New Testament churches, and acknowledges no defects. I’d have been more convinced if he had acknowledged a downside, or potential issues.

  • Chris Giammona

    I must agree that I tend to measure new churches by my past ideal church experiences.
    I can see where this can hinder one from plugging into a church though it can also be used as a basis for deciding what matters most to you in a new church.
    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Thomas Buck

    Regarding “imperfect” churches, the church I attend now has a tradition of not applauding after a choir or musician performs. I’ve had a hard time getting used to it, but our pastor has helped in that area.
    We’ve had a number of discussions in small group settings about practice vs. doctrine, and how practice is not something to get upset about as long as it’s not injuring sound doctrine.
    Also, making waves and dishonoring a congregation’s tradition to satisfy only yourself is neither wise nor kind. This doesn’t mean one can’t suggest changes, but there are ways to go about it that are better than others.

  • Don Yeager

    Actually there is a perfect church. It is The Perfect Church in Atlanta, GA.
    Check out their website at
    It even says “The Perfect Church” on the sign out front!

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