Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Excerpt: Choosing a Church

The new book, Faith: In Your Own Handwriting is inching closer to publication. This is one of three appendices, and I thought I'd go ahead and share it. Might give you a little taste of the book as whole, and be useful as well. 

Choosing a Church

Among the most important decisions you’ll make is which church you’ll connect with. If you’re still making your initial faith decision, the wrong church can push you to a wrong decision. If you’re a new believer or seeking to re-write your childhood faith in your own handwriting, the church you choose will be a major force in shaping (or re-shaping) your faith. And even for more experienced Christians, a church can stunt your growth or help you move to a greater faith than you’d dreamed possible. 

And remember, this decision is personal. God has made you unique, and your church choice should enhance that uniqueness, not conform you to some human pattern. Your focus should be on pleasing God and finding His will for you. 

In my immediate family, one of my sisters is comfortable in the same style church she grew up in, while the other worships and serves in a totally different environment. The church I pastor is radically different from both, and I think my baby brother is still working out his fit. Your job is still to find your own God-designed path, not focus on the approval of anyone else. 

When it comes to your church decision, I think there are five things to consider: worship focus, worship style, church calling, church doctrine, and your connection.

We discussed worship focus earlier in the book. You may remember the concepts of God’s Immanence (God is near.) and His Transcendence (God is other.). As we mentioned, these strongly influence worship. Do you most easily worship in surroundings that point to God’s majesty or His proximity? Do incense and stained glass draw you to worship, or do less formal settings make you feel closer to God?

Worship style is different from focus. Do you worship best with upbeat, contemporary music or with pipe organs and traditional hymns? Acoustic or electric guitars? Dresses and suits, or jeans and t-shirts? I believe people can worship God in all these diverse styles, but that doesn’t mean you personally can. Some styles will help you worship, some won’t. Some could even discourage you from worship. While I think this is probably the least important of the five considerations, it is real. 

The one consideration that I think most people don’t even recognize is church calling, but I think it might be the most important. 

In his book Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church, Collin Hansen defines three types of churches based on their calling. Courageous churches take stands. Whether it’s a cultural issue or a doctrinal dispute, courageous churches relish speaking truth into a situation.
Compassionate churches seek out the downtrodden. They feed the poor, love the unlovable, and try their best to be the healing hands of Jesus toward anyone who is hurting.

Commissioned churches focus on the Great Commission. They are all about helping unbelievers find their way to Jesus, and are always on the lookout for the best methods of communicating the Good News. 

Obviously, Jesus calls every church to do all three, but churches tend to migrate toward their strength. While I doubt any church member would say their church ignores one of these, it doesn’t take long to tell which of these three each church considers its calling. Our church has a real heart for compassion, and does its best to stand for truth, but if you cut us we bleed the Great Commission. 

Here’s the thing. As you develop your faith, you will probably find yourself drawn more toward one of these callings than the other. For you to fully live into what God wants to do in your life, your church has to support your calling. Our church makes a concerted effort to wed Commission and Compassion. We think advancing the Gospel includes transforming cultures to better reflect God’s values. We have plenty of members who have a primary calling toward compassion and they fit in well with our church’s mission and vision.

The same can’t be said about people who are called to the Courageous church. Our almost-overwhelming passion to reach people and advance God’s Kingdom means we don’t take public stands on as many issues as the purely courageous like. People with this calling tend to leave our church eventually. Hopefully, they can find a Courageous church where they can more fully write their faith.

One key thing to remember about calling is that the only wrong answer is the one that doesn’t match you. The world needs Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned churches. And all three need each other. Without the Courageous churches watching our doctrinal backsides, the Compassionate and Commissioned churches can wander into serious error. Without the prodding of the Compassionate churches, the other two can become cold and uncaring. And without the passionate pushing of the Commissioned churches, the other churches can become inwardly focused. 

The key isn’t which one is right. The key is which one (or which combination) is right for you. 

A fourth consideration, and one that is directly tied to how far along you are in your spiritual development process is church doctrine. If you’re just getting started, you probably don’t have strongly developed beliefs on any of the secondary (or tertiary) doctrinal issues. While you hopefully understand the importance of the Deity of Christ, you may have no opinion whatsoever on, for instance, the “proper” method of baptism. Rest assured, the church you connect with will have an opinion. Before you connect, make sure you have at least some peace about the church’s doctrinal stands. If you feel misgivings here, that could be God nudging you in a different direction.

If you have been a Christian for a while, you may well have strong opinions on certain theological issues. Make sure your views are compatible (not necessarily identical, but compatible) with the church you’re considering. You can write this down. You’re not going to change their mind, and they’re going to try to change yours, intentionally or not. Joining a church with the idea of changing them is just as bad an idea as getting married with a plan to change your prospective spouse.

The final consideration is Your Connection. Can you see yourself belonging here? While the church’s job isn’t to make you comfortable, a certain level of comfort with the people of a church and its culture is vital. If you are considering a church but can’t see yourself working in and with the people of that church, if you don’t see yourself confidently giving your money or your time, or if you can’t imagine inviting people to that church, keep looking. 

Of course, there is one more thing to consider. Churches come in lots of flavors. Perfect is not one of them. Churches are composed of screwed up people (like you), so they are all imperfect. Usually massively so (again, like you). Perfection and connection are not the same thing. 

What if you can’t find a good church fit in your area? Pick the one that comes closest and try to make it work. You need other believers to truly thrive, even if the match is far from perfect, and quite often that imperfect fit works out better than you’d expect. 

You can also look online for a church that broadcasts its services. An online church service might make up for what’s lacking in a local church. And if you just can’t connect, pray that God sends someone to your area to start a brand new church where you can serve and grow.

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