It seems there's always someone looking for tips on how to choose a church, and I would like to talk about exactly that. But it seems like the wrong place to start. First, one must talk about what you want a church to do.
We universally want a church to feed us the good things of the word of God. On top of that, most of us want an opportunity to worship in a natural way, to receive the sacraments, to pray. A good number of us want to serve in some capacity. Lastly, a few of us want to really share fellowship.
And outside of our personal needs, we want the church to stand for something in the world. We want the church to defend the truth, to reach out in evangelism, to offer a hand of support to the needy, to keep the testimony of God holy. We want the church to be the bastion of truth against the encroachments of government, culture, and decay.
None of those things is bad, and I'm not getting ready to disrespect them. I will, however, reprioritize them. I see the church from a different perspective, and it causes me to see different things as most important.
The church is God's chosen means for answering His Anointed One's prayer requests.
In some ways, this is a pretty big leap. I'll forgive you if you think it sounds a little odd. Still, we do know Jesus' prayer requests because we've heard the Lord's Prayer. We know what He prayed for, and that He wanted us to keep praying for the same things after He left. Therefore, we can take some well-educated guesses at how He figured those things would come to pass. Since the Father believed the best way to start the ball rolling was for the Son to come to Earth, it's a pretty safe bet the best way to keep it rolling is for His children to continue the work Jesus began. That's a tall order, but God has a proven track record of giving tall orders to people. Fortunately, He is also known for following up with the grace to bring them to pass.
Facing heavenward, Jesus prayed we would know the Father as Father, that His Name would be treated as holy, that His empire would come to all the world, and that His will would be done. Facing humanward, He prayed that our needs would be met, that we would gain forgiveness, and that we would be kept from catastrophe and sin.
Those are our marching orders. The same way the Son prayed and worked, we pray and work. Every time we pray for the kingdom to come, we also must work to bring the kingdom. Every time we pray for forgiveness, we must forgive. The Father gives the grace, and we exercise the gifts we receive from Him. In the end, the manifold wisdom of God is revealed by exactly this process. (Eph 3:9-11)
The work of the church, based upon what we know of the Lord's Prayer, should look like this:
The church knows the Father, and lives as if they do. The church lives out the Name of God on Earth, so that all the world can honor it. For example, God is our "Provider," so the church should provide in His Name. That's how His Name becomes hallowed. The empire of God is an invisible kingdom of love, so the church loves, shining its gifts on both the just and the unjust just as He does. And it's the church that sweats to see God's plans and intents, His will, brought to full fruition.
The church also looks out for the daily bread, the needs, of all her children. No member of the church should be allowed to go hungry, and no member of the church should be allowed to go lazy either. The church has received forgiveness, so she should extend forgiveness to each of her members, and thus live without bitterness. And it's the church that should bear people up through every temptation and deliver each member from the evil and catastrophe working against us in the world.
Those are full-time, around the clock jobs for every member.
That's what the church should be doing. In order to prepare the church to do those things, she should engage in solid preaching, worship, and prayer. She should fellowship, take the sacraments, and do all those things that Christians do because those things prepare her to work. Just don't confuse the preparations with the work. Preaching prepares us to work, but it's to the work itself that we were called.
A jungle of red tape stands between the church and doing the work she was called to do. That red tape guarantees all the preparations happen - the doctrine is taught, the preaching is promoted, the worship is well coordinated - but at the expense of freedom. And it's free men and and women who provide, love, and work. It's in freedom that the church cares for needs, forgives, and comforts.
In choosing a church, I recommend you look right past all the red tape.
You could spend months finding a church that agrees with you on 90% of the doctrines you've studied out. You could search out a church that sings the right mix of songs, and worships with a comfortable degree of enthusiasm, and that prays for the things that matter to you. I ask you to consider, though, that this would be a waste of your time, and a waste to the kingdom of God. You might find a church with tape just the right shade of red and that makes oh so gentle chains, but you've missed the greatest blessing.
If you want the greatest blessing, choose the church nearest to you. You'll get everything that matters, and life to boot.
You've heard it said a hundred times, you get out of church exactly what you put into it.
You know the church nearest to you. Picture it in your mind. You drive by it how many times a week? And you've always wondered what those people are like, right? But their red tape is boring or wrong or lazy. They're just not your type. You know why you don't go there, right? And you know you're right, right?
But what if you did go there?
What if you went there to do the work of the church in that church? What if you ignored their red tape, and lived out the high calling of God just blocks away from your home? What if you decided you're not going to church to receive, but to pour yourself out to God and His children?
If you live out having the same Father as those saints, if you live out the Name of God with those saints, if you live out the kingdom of love with them, if you do the will of God with them, if you care for their needs and receive care from them, if you forgive and are forgiven beside them, if bear each other up through every adversity, will you not change the world?
Let me handle a question now. "I could do these things in any church. Why not go to a church that is "as close to scripture"/"enthusiastic"/"dedicated"/"???" as possible? Why go to a church I'm not comfortable with just because it's closest? That seems like exactly the wrong way to choose a church."
I will give you two reasons to go to the church nearest you, and I cannot decide which is the more important.
First, you will be more likely to really get to know those Christians who live nearest to you if you attend a church near to you. The more of us start to fellowship nearer to our homes, the more our Christianity will work its way out of that building and into our neighborhoods. If you tell your neighbors you go to some church on the other side of town, what are the odds they will want to go with you? But if you tell them you go with a few families down the street?!? That packs a punch, because nobody does that any more.
Second, you MUST go to that church, because you won't fit in there. Our churches need more people who don't fit in! We're too comfortable with each other, and it's costing us dearly. The whole world has caught on to the importance of diversity but Christianity. Our emotional denominations need some intellect. Our intellectual denominations need some action. Our active denominations need some tenderness. The high churchers need some casual folk and the low churches need some precise people. We've split ourselves up into these cozy little comfort clans, but we need each other! We need more people who don't fit in.
That intellectual person in the emotional church right down the block is going to feel a little like he's personally desegregating the South. He'll worship differently than everyone else, and that's a hard thing, but it's a great thing. The active person in the intellectual church will squirm in the pew, and the emotional person in the intellectual church will want to burst. It won't be easy. And especially since they won't try to change the church. They're just there to be themselves, children of God amongst children of God - ignoring the paperwork that says they're not free to live to Christ the way they know they must.
If you should decide to attend that church nearest to your home and live the Lord's Prayer toward saints, you'll be really changing the world. More than any other single thing any of us average Joe's could do, being different in the church of Christ can make a difference. Just by showing up in that little body of believers (few people really live close to a mega-church anyway, so your church will be probably be little - and smaller is better for this idea) and giving them your heart, you will breathe life into that assembly. By being different and loving, you will challenge their preconceptions about your denomination and open their minds and hearts to a whole new world. By living close to them, you will encourage them to reach out to their nearest neighborhood. Could you do anything more important?
Most importantly of all, you will know that you're going to church, to that church, for a reason. You are going there to be an answer to the Lord's Prayer.