Mark D. Roberts

Part 6 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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In my last post, I wrote that if you’re looking for a church, you should find one that is “essentially orthodox.” The church should affirm as essential beliefs that which Christians have affirmed as essential for centuries (Jesus as fully God and fully human; God as Trinity; Jesus as Savior of the world, etc.).
This raises an obvious question for the one who’s looking for a church: How do you know what a church really believes?
This question isn’t as easy to answer as one might assume. You might think, for example, that you could read a church’s statement of faith. Some churches have them; others don’t. And, to make matters more complicated, some churches have quite extensive statements of faith. A church in the Presbyterian Church USA, for example, affirms eleven creeds and confessions, which take up more than 200 pages in our Book of Confessions. Yet members and even leaders of a PCUSA church don’t have to affirm every statement in the official Book of Confessions. Moreover, some churches have strayed quite far from classic Presbyterian doctrine such as found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (in the Book of Confessions). To make matters even more complicated, a few PCUSA pastors and churches actually deny some of the basic doctrines of Christianity, like Christ as the Savior of the world. So if you are considering a PCUSA church, the official statements of faith won’t necessarily tell you what the church really believes (though they tell you what a church should believe).
Quite a few churches have simple, relatively short statements of faith, in which they summarize core beliefs. Consider, for example, this two-page statement by Oak Hills Church (where Max Lucado is senior minister). If a church has gone to the trouble of condensing their essential beliefs in a statement, chances are that the church really believes what it affirms.
Of course this raises the question of whom we’re talking about when we wonder what a church really believes? Are we thinking of the people in the church? Or the senior pastor? Or the elders? Or the deacons? Or . . . ? In most churches today, you’d find a wide range of belief among the members. Therefore, when you’re considering a church, it may not help very much to talk with a few members about their beliefs. When I talk about what a church believes, I’m thinking especially of what the central leadership of the church affirms. Usually this would include the pastor (or pastors) and key lay leaders (elders, deacons, vestry, council, etc.).
In days gone by it was hard to find out what a particular church believed without actually attending that church. Often you had to ask for a statement of faith, if one existed. From what was preached on a given Sunday, you might be able to discern something of what the pastor and core leadership believed, though one sermon wouldn’t give you too much to go on.
Today, the Internet has made choosing a church much, much easier. Most churches of any size have websites. And you can learn a lot about a church from spending even twenty minutes browsing a church website. Most of the time you’ll find a statement of mission or vision. Often you’ll discover a church’s statement of faith. You can usually read something written by the pastor, and this can give you a good sense of a church’s core values and beliefs.
As you peruse a church website, you can look for certain keywords that succinctly reveal much about a church. If, for example, a church highlights being “biblically-based” or “Bible-centered,” that usually means the church holds the Bible as God’s Word in a strong sense, with teaching and preaching that assumes the full truth of Scripture. If, however, a church claims to be “open and affirming,” this phrase usually indicates that a church accepts homosexual behavior as God’s will in some cases. This almost always implies that a church gives less authority to Scripture, and more authority to human experience in discerning what is true and right. (In my experience, I’ve never known a church to have a high view of biblical authority and hold that homosexual behavior can be correct. Most churches that are “open and affirming” let the experience of gay people trump the teaching of Scripture about homosexuality.)
I should add at this point that I don’t think you can choose a church simply on the basis of clever web browsing. To be sure, you will need to visit a church that you’re seriously considering, many times. But the Internet will allow you to narrow your search by eliminating churches that would be a bad fit for you. And it may point you to the right church before you visit. This happened to me recently, in fact.
Last year, when my family and I were considering a move from Irvine, California to Boerne, Texas, one of the first things I did was to check out the local Presbyterian church on the Internet. There I found statements of mission and vision that revealed a great deal about this church. I knew that St. Mark was essentially orthodox and centered in Jesus Christ. I could see that the church remained significantly engaged with the PCUSA, even as it affirmed a solid evangelical faith. I learned from the St. Mark website that they were active in mission and fellowship. From reading church bulletins and recent newsletters I sensed that St. Mark was an active, caring church . . . one I could imagine being a part of. All of this I learned from an hour on the Internet, weeks before I had ever visited Boerne. As it turned out, my family and I joined the fellowship of St. Mark Pres. (Photo: the chancel of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne).
I have left out one crucial way to know what a church believes. This I’ll pick up in my next post.

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