Occasionally I get email from people who want my advice about what church they should attend. I can’t presume to tell anyone how to make a decision like that, but I can tell you how I would go about doing it.
If I were looking for a church, this would be my scorecard. I wouldn’t hold out until I found a church that got a perfect score, because there probably is no such church, and because my criteria might be flawed. Nevertheless, if I were looking for a church, I’d select one that scores high against these criteria.
The Pastoral Staff
- The pastor and any other ordained ministers on the pastoral staff received their ordination from someone outside their own congregation. If they are ordained by the congregation, some organization outside the congregation recommended, endorsed, or approved their ordination.
- The pastor and any other ordained ministers on the pastoral staff have post-graduate degrees from accredited seminaries whose degrees are acceptable to more than one denomination. (Most denominations require a degree from a seminary that is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. e
- The pastor and any other ordained ministers on the pastoral staff answer to some kind of higher authority outside the local congregation to maintain their ministerial credentials.
- Lay members on the pastoral staff have formal training in their areas of responsibility.
- The pastor is not a bossy smarty-pants king-of-the-world know-it-all. He is the servant, not the master, of the congregation. His work does not end on Sunday afternoon, and he is not stuck in his study all week. For example, when people go to the hospital, he visits them.
- Sermons are not tirades against sinners who are not in the church, which would be demagoguery. The sermons are biblical, but they meet the congregation’s pastoral needs. Sermons rise above current events; they are not tangled up in them. Sermons edify, uplift, and teach; but they should not primarily be lectures. The sermons should not be overly doctrinaire, theological, or intellectual.
Most denominations require these standards or something very close to them, so in most cases we are just verifying that the congregation is obeying its own rules:
- The pastors do not have their signatures on the church’s accounts.
- The pastors cannot write checks or withdraw money from the church’s accounts.
- The offering is counted by two unrelated people, who sign a statement citing the total amount.
- Different people handle income and disbursements. Usually the person who handles the disbursements is called the treasurer, and the person who handles income is called the financial secretary or assistant treasurer.
- The person who handles the church’s income is also responsible for tracking donations and pledges and for sending out receipts to individuals for tax purposes. This is the only person in the church who knows how much each individual donates to the church.
- The person who handles the church’s disbursements (the treasurer) only writes checks for preauthorized expenditures that are in the budget. If a check would take a line item over its budget, the treasurer must escalate the issue to the authority that set the budget (either a board or the congregation). If the treasurer writes checks in excess of the budget without approval, they must be prepared to reimburse the church out of pocket if the expenditure is not approved.
- The finances of the church are public. The congregation knows the total amount of donations, and possibly also statistical information about donations, such as average giving per household, but the congregation never learns which person gave how much.
- The pastors do not know how much money any given person donates to the church.
- There is a financial report at least annually to the congregation.
- Once a year the books are audited by an accountant who is not a member of the church.
- The congregation is neither too friendly (which means it has factions looking out for fresh meat) nor is it too cold (which means it is dead).
- The congregation does not have a survivor mentality; that is, they aren’t obsessed with whether or not they will continue to exist.
- The congregation has good demographics that reflect its neighborhood. For example, if it is a white church in a black neighborhood, it means the church did not adapt as the neighborhood changed. Most of the members probably have to drive long distances to get there; if so, the church’s days are numbered. Most churches are top-heavy with older people, but there should be people in all age groups.
- Any size is okay. If it is a Protestant church, I’d prefer to see attendance average about 100-150 in Sunday morning worship. Catholic churches are larger because they are centrally planned.
- The congregation does not have a bunker mentality.
- The congregation is not obsessed about the end of the world or with political or social issues. It should be concerned about these issues, but not obsessed with them.
- The congregation serves their community in some way. For example, if the church is downtown where there are street people, it might run a soup kitchen. It the church is in the suburbs, it might have a mother’s day out program.
- The church has some kind of working relationship with local churches of other denominations.
The Power Structure
- The pastor does not hog all the power and the members of the pastoral staff are not all related to each other.
- There is a large number of lay leaders at all different levels.
- The lay leaders reflect the diversity of the congregation (age, ethnicity, sex, different families, and so on).
- One family does not hold all the power, either officially or unofficially.
Their Attitude Toward you as a Newcomer
- The church gives you the space and freedom to decide your own level of commitment and participation.
- The church tries to persuade you to make commitments and to participate, but they do not pressure you.
- If the church asks you for commitment or participation, and you turn them down, they accept your decision gracefully and they do not hold it against you.
- The church gives you the freedom to grow spiritually without pressure and without guilt-trips.
If a church has about 100 members or more, it might have informal organizations that address the needs of the community or the congregation. These are called programs, and they are the church’s way of putting hands and feet on their faith. Give the church bonus points if it has programs that you would like to get involved in, such as a soup kitchen or a choir.
The church obviously must have whatever amenities you or your family members need to attend it at all. ‘Amenities’ include such things as wheelchair ramps, handicapped-accessible restrooms, sufficient parking, a nursery for infants, or a sign-language interpreter.
- The congregation is not passive all the time. It actively participates in worship with hymns, responses, and so forth.
- Applause is rare, following only a musical performance of astonishing quality or things done by children. (In a show, the audience applauds, not the actors. In worship, the audience is God, not the congregation.)
- Lay people lead some of the portions of the worship service that do not require clergy.
- The worship is ecumenical and is founded on historic Christian worship.
- The worship is not dry and mechanical on the one hand, nor overly jocular on the other.
- The service is is at times humorous, but the humor is never inappropriate.
- The worship is reverent and there is a sense of the holy.
- Objects used in worship are handled respectfully.
- Communion is frequent; the optimum is every Sunday.
- The church observes Christian holy days, such as Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and so forth. (This tells you they are not making things up as they go along.)
- The church belongs to a denomination or some sort of equivalent fellowship of congregations. This gives the congregation resources that an independent church cannot have. Denominations set standards for handling money and conducting the business of the church. Denominations also police their clergy. All these things are advantageous to you.
- The denomination (or equivalent fellowship of congregations) sets standards for ordination and provides guidance and resources to individual congregations.
- Give the church bonus points if it belongs to a major brand-name denomination.
- The denomination (or equivalent fellowship of congregations) must have some sort of working relationship with other mainline denominations whose names you recognize.
- If it is a Baptist church, it should be affiliated with at least two Baptist conventions, one local and one national.
You notice that I care that the congregation is affiliated with a denomination, but I am not too concerned about which denomination it is. That is because denominational affiliation brings accountability and discipline; but just knowing a congregation’s denomination doesn’t tell you much about its character. Congregations within the same denomination can be very different, while congregations in different denominations can be very similar.
This is what I would look for in a church. Perhaps this can help you develop your own set of criteria for choosing a church home for yourself.