Friday, June 27, 2008

How to choose a church

The elder teen asked, "If someone wants to know how to find a good church, what would you tell them?" and I said that would depend on why that someone was interested in church.

But that made me wonder how I'd answer that question for myself. Why do I go regularly, what am I looking for, and so on?

One reason is to help me remember that God loves me, because when I forget that, all kinds of trouble follows. And not only his great love, but other things about him. How do I get reminded about this great and wonderful God and his marvelous love?

First, by words: words of the songs, the Scriptures, and the sermon.

Second, by the setting: going into a certain place, a place different from other places. If the place is very old and very big, like the cathedral at Chartres, I remember that I am very small and that my perspective is, too.

Third, through fellowship. As my friend Carole said, the principal way God shows his great love for us is through each other -- particularly friends who also know and love Him.

So I go to church to receive and be reminded of God's love. Which is what makes it church -- as distinct from a concert-hall or classroom.

I also go to church (and there is some overlap here) to serve and to become equipped to serve. This is really about serving God, but just as I receive God's love through others, serving God usually means serving others.

This can also be a source of joy, which I will try to illustrate by way of analogy.
Take a truck roaring down the highway, carrying food and supplies to people who need them, and imagine the joy the truck might feel when its engine is tuned up, fuel lines clear, transmission in adjustment, tires properly inflated. If the truck is well used, then it will be about on its mission most of the time, which is great. But it needs fuel on occasion, its tires must be checked, and so on.

The truck also needs a mission; it wants to pull real loads, not just an empty trailer. And carrying the load for a block or a mile won't satisfy its engine, which was built for longer trips. Hauling a real load over real distances will bring joy to the truck, to its maker, and to its owner.
Like the truck, I have joy when I'm healthy and working toward my purpose. (More on purpose in another essay.)

So that's why I go: to reconnect to God, to be equipped, to serve. So what do I think of as a good church? Well, a good church for me is one where these things can happen easily.

What if somebody doesn't have much of an idea of who God is, or whether God is even there? If that's you, and you're looking for church, first of all I want to say, "Great idea!" I hope your search brings you to a place where you come to meet Jesus, learn of his great love, and find joy in following and serving him. Then, here are a few questions I think you should ask yourself when you visit.
  1. Do the words in the songs and the scriptures and the sermon (I hope all three are present) give you a sense of God's great love, his generosity and mercy and justice and kindness and goodness?
  2. Is the place OK for you as you try to think about God? Not that it has to be beautiful and awe-inspiring, but if the sight or sound or smell of the place distracts you, perhaps you should seek God somewhere else where you won't be quite so distracted.
  3. Do at least some of the people reflect God's love? (I said "some" because every group of humans has grouches and hypocrites, so don't be surprised if you find some in whatever congregation you visit. Most congregations have at least a few people -- maybe as many as half -- who haven't met Jesus or aren't even trying to follow him.)
  4. Is there someone who can help you find out who God is, how much he loves you, what he wants from you, etc.? If you're interested in church because you want to get to know God, this might be the most important thing.
  5. Related to that, are there materials (tapes/CDs, books, pamphlets) available there that can help you learn about God?
That's what comes to my mind, anyway.

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