Introduction Before relocating, I have been looking for a church to join in my new area. During this process, one thing has become apparent—the average Christian has no idea what to look for in a church. When asking others why they chose their church, I often receive the response, “I like the music,” or “The pastor is funny,” or “I just love the atmosphere,” or “All my friends go here.” Rather than following an objective criterion (i.e., the Bible), it seems that many people select a church based upon superficial emotions and subjective impulses.1This article provides a brief description of the Christian church, outlines its core purpose, and provides some practical points to consider when choosing a local church.
What is the church? In defining the Christian church, we must differentiate between the universal church and the local church. The universal church consists of all those who receive salvation through faith in Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12). In contrast, the local church (cf. Galatians 1:1-2) “is a gathering of baptized, born-again Christians, who covenant together in love to meet regularly under the authority of the Scriptures and the leadership of the elders, to worship God, be a visible image of the gospel, and ultimately, to give God glory (cf. John 3:1-8; 13:34-35; Acts 2:41; 14:23; Ephesians 3:10; Colossians 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 10:24-25).”2 Upon conversion, the Christian receives immediate adoption into the universal church, yet she remains responsible for choosing a local congregation with which to become an actively involved member.3
What is the purpose of the local church? The local church is a corporate display of God’s glory and wisdom (cf. John 13:34-35; Ephesians 3:10-11), intending to glorify God by producing disciples of Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). The local assembly accomplishes these goals by proclaiming biblical truths (cf. 2 Timothy 1:13; 3:16-17; 4:2), refuting false doctrines (cf. Titus 1:7-9), and actively displaying the gospel message through godly congregational conduct (cf. John 13:35; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26).
What to look for in selecting a local church to join. Acts 2:42 provides a model of church operation, stating, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.”4 While this passage is not a comprehensive guide to church operation, it places particular emphasis on biblical teaching, congregational unity/conduct, administration of the sacraments, and communal prayer—thus providing a basic criterion to consider when selecting a local church.
Dr. Mark Dever expounds upon this foundation and offers the following principles to help identify a biblically sound and healthy church:5
1. Expositional preaching.6 Does the pastor preach God’s Word? (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 4:2-2) — Take the example of the Bereans (cf. Acts 17:10-12) and actively compare the pastor’s message against the Scriptures.
2. Biblical theology.7 Does the church affirm biblical principles, and do the leaders consistently teach sound doctrine? (cf. Titus 1:9-11) — Carefully inspecting the congregation’s statement of faith and bylaws is a good place to start.
3. A biblical understanding of the gospel.8 Does the church clearly and consistently proclaim the gospel message? (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4)
4. A biblical understanding of conversion.9 Does the church have a biblical view of conversion, affirming that one must be born-again, repenting of their sin and trusting in Jesus for salvation? (cf. John 3:1-8; Acts 11:18; 20:21; Ephesians 2:1-10)
5. A biblical understanding of evangelism.10 Does the church present the gospel to non-Christians while encourage its members to do the same? (cf. Matthew 28:18-20)
6. Biblical church membership.11 Does the church take membership seriously—seeking to ensure its members faithfully attend, while actively encouraging spiritual growth, and fostering strong relationship among the congregants? (Hebrews 10:24-25; Ephesians 4:11-29)
7. Biblical church discipline.12 Does the leadership practice church discipline in a loving, patient, and biblical fashion? (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13)
8. Biblical discipleship and growth.13 Does the church promote spiritual growth among its members, expecting congregants to mature, while actively encouraging them to disciple one another? (cf. 2 Peter 1:3-11; Romans 15:14)
9. Biblical church leadership.14 Does the church adhere to Scriptural teachings in determining its leadership structure—only recognizing godly, biblically qualified men as leaders? (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-11)
While it is important to remember that no local church will ever be perfect, this benchmark helps to identify healthy congregations that maintain an emphasis on Scripture. Also, although it is not a characteristic of a healthy church, one should consider the location, as inconvenience will likely hinder church involvement and attendance.
- Similarly, the average person uses subjective impulses when selecting a Bible translation. For an alternative method, see “A Practical Guide to Choosing a Bible Translation.”
- J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, audio version (Escondido, CA: ChristianAudio, 2016), Chapter 5/7, 13:11.
- In contrast to our contemporary understanding of church membership, Christians are to be active contributors—not passive consumers—within a local church. The New Testament assumes Christians are active members of a local church, and church membership does not appear optional. For additional information about church membership, specifically about its importance and biblical mandate, see Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). For a quick reference, see Jonathan Leeman, “Twelve Reasons Why Membership Matters,” 9Marks, April 28, 2011, https://www.9marks.org/article/journaltwelve-reasons-why-membership-matters/.
- All Scriptural references are from the HCSB unless noted otherwise.
- Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 3rd Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013); Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, “Marks of a Healthy Church” (lecture presentation), DVD, Ligonier Ministries, http://www.ligonier.org/store/marks-of-a-healthy-church-dvd/.
- David Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014); also see Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan III, R. Albert Mohler Jr., and C. J. Mahaney, Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009); (Mark Dever, and Greg Gilbert, Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012).
- Bobby Jamieson, Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).
- Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
- Michael Lawrence, Conversion: How God Creates a People (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).
- J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
- Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
- Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
- Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).
- Jeramie Rinne, Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).