What to Look for When You’re Looking for a Church, part 2

–Daniel S. Ferguson

I’m not one to leave people hanging. I asked everyone yesterday how they would know a church was a good one right off the bat. I received an unusual, but not unpredictable, silence. It’s almost like no one knew what to say. After all, the question is hard. It’s not like people went to a church and on their first visit knew all the good things (or bad things) they know about it now. Those things take time. It’s like dating. You can’t often predict the long-term outcome of a relationship from the first date.

But there are certainly clues. Here’s my list:

1) You’re not the only first-time guest there.

The obvious question that arises from this clue is “How do I know if I’m not the only first-time guest?” Glad you asked. Thanks for playing along.

If you can spot another first-time guest, it means that they and you have been both identified and well-treated by the church, and also given some kind of visual cue that you’re both new. A small gift, a special information booklet, a slightly different-looking parent-kid identifier tag. Anything that shows that first-time guests are special. (Churches often give these out in order to keep track of the number of first-time guests.)

Why does this matter? It’s a tell-tale sign of a great church that there’s more than one identifiable first-time guest per week. Preferably far more than one. First-time guests mean that many of the regular attenders of the church think enough of it to invite brand new people in. And they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think the church were not only good, but transformative and life-changing. The biggest compliment you can give a church is to invite your unchurched friends to it. If that’s happening, it’s likely a good church.

2) Three or more people introduce themselves to you and have more than just a passing conversation.

Again, this is a clear sign that inviting and welcoming are big deals. This is important because a church that doesn’t do this is likely too inwardly focused on pre-existing relationships to be making a significant impact on its community. Especially given the trend around the country of people leaving churches in droves, if people at church aren’t thrilled that you’re there, they’re not for you. So keep a lookout for solid eye contact and people who genuinely show interest in you.

3) The Gospel is the center of the sermon.

This is essential. I don’t just mean that the Gospel is mentioned or that there’s an altar call at the end. I mean that the sermon hinges entirely on the Gospel. If it doesn’t make absolute natural sense for there to be an invitation to follow Jesus by the end of the sermon, it’s not a Gospel-centered sermon. If the pastor just “throws it in there,” but doesn’t base the sermon on it, it’s clearly not that important. Every series, every sermon, heck, every point of every sermon, should be dripping with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Notice that I didn’t say that the sermon should be “relevant.” I really hate that word. It’s usually a cliché for interesting, funny, or practical. But what you really want isn’t relevance. It’s the weight of God’s love for you, as shown by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that’s not communicated first, middle, and last, that church isn’t for you.

4) Adults are getting baptized.

You may not catch this on your first week, but if you go three or four times and don’t see it, start asking about it. It’s important. Adults getting baptized shows that the congregation is inviting the unchurched, that the Gospel is being preached, that relationships are being forged, that people keep coming back, and that the church is transforming people’s lives. Kids’ baptisms are good, too, but they’re usually an extension of their parents’ faith rather than a church’s healthy emphasis on reaching outsiders.

As a note, it’s possible that churches do special baptism services where they do a whole bunch of baptisms at once from conversions that happened in the last couples months or so. If you’re not seeing baptisms happening, this might be why. Just ask about it. Then attend the next one!

And that’s it, those are my big four. There are a lot of other little clues, too, but most of them are small potatoes. I think you can go into any church and look for those four things. And I think those four things all matter a great deal. If you’re not seeing one of those four, ask questions. If you’re not seeing any two, be wary. If you’re not seeing three, leave. If you’re not seeing any of the four, RUN.

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