Occasionally, I come across an article stating reasons to either choose a church or make a decision to leave a church. The recommendations typically look something like this. Don’t leave for selfish reasons. Find a church that honors Christ, teaches the Bible and takes fellowship seriously. All that is well and good.
Over at Core Christianity, I thought this was a good list on 4 questions to ask when looking for a church;
What does the church believe about Scripture?
What is the church’s confession of faith?
Is the church man-centered or God-centered?
Is Christ faithfully preached each week?
But one thing I’ve discovered in my varied church experience and many years of being a Christian is that it’s not always that simple. You can have those standard elements present but there still be a hole. Just because the preacher uses the Bible doesn’t mean he’s being faithful to Scripture. Just because he quotes Bible verses doesn’t mean he’s preaching Christ. Just because people gather, doesn’t mean there is genuine love in the body. Just because there is evangelism doesn’t mean the church is being faithful to its whole task.
There’s also the varied expressions of church practice. Aside from the absolute essentials of the faith to which any Christian must be committed, there are questions to be asked about the way in which church is conducted. What does that church believe about the sacraments? The practice of spiritual gifts? The make up (liturgy) of the service?
But there’s one overarching question I think all these questions point to: Does this congregation foster Christian growth? Put another way, will this congregation provoke a growing in grace and the true knowledge of Jesus Christ? (2 Pet. 3:18). This is as much applicable to joining a church as it is leaving one. We should not be in a place that does not foster growth.
This does start with individual growth. Maturing Christians (all of us) need discipleship as Jesus outlined in Matt. 28:19-20. Discipleship is a lifelong process whereby we learn what it means to follow Christ. That takes a commitment and desire to know about God on his terms and alignment with his ways. Does the church take the Bible serious? And by serious, I mean an intentional effort to teach the Bible that shows who God is and what he has done through the Son from Genesis to Revelation. How committed is the church leadership that congregants are acquainted with the whole counsel of Scripture? Does the pastor try to connect the dots or dot his sermons/teaching with novel concepts based on fragmented pieces of Scripture taken out of context to support his ideas? The latter will not grow your affection for Christ.
Speaking of whom, what do they do with Jesus? Is he a means to an end or the beginning and end? Are you encouraged to find rest in his completed work or worn out trying to work for him to gain acceptance? Growth happens when we become more mindful of the Father’s will, dependent on Christ and his work, and reliant on the empowerment of the Spirit to exalt Christ and submit to his kingdom. Growth happens when Christ is front and center.
One reason people church hop is because they don’t have such a commitment. And where there is not faithful commitment to Christ’s kingdom and particularly within the context of a local assembly, such folks will find all kinds of reasons to leave a church when it rubs against their personal preferences.
But let’s be honest, Christians generally tend to want to be part of a fellowship. It’s in the DNA of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us (see Rom. 8:4-7?) to follow him and be on board with the church’s mission. Generally, Christians seek out a local body because they are hungry to learn and grow. They want to learn about God and participate in the life of the body. Christians who are committed to the importance of being in a local body and understand or at least desire, how their Christian growth happens within that context, will find reasons to stay committed unless there is a departure, or perceived departure of faithfulness from that local assembly. This covers a wide variety of issues of belief and practice whereby the church is not living out its calling in some form or fashion (doctrinal deviations, lack of fellowship, pastoral unfaithfulness, isolation, spiritual abuse, unfaithfulness to Scripture, cliques, etc.). Christians committed to being part of a local church don’t just leave for selfish reasons.
Thus, corporate growth is an important part of the equation as well. I’m not talking about increasing numerically but substantively. We can’t just stop at individual growth because Christians are birthed into the body of Christ. That means how the local church functions as a body matters. When the church does not function as it should, growth is hindered not just on an individual basis but on a corporate basis. It is possible to have the right elements in theory but something goes amiss in practice. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect or that we won’t encounter friction. Certainly this will happen! But Christians who are genuinely committed to discipleship and the life of the church, faithfulness to Scripture as the final authority, and desire to see Christ’s kingdom flourish will know when something is amiss.
The bottom line is that Christians are called to be part of the local assembly, to participate in the life of the church and grow together in the Lord. If we are not being oriented in this direction, it may not be unreasonable to look around.