Church Shopping: One Family's Approach

by John C. Darrow (c.1992)

You've moved to a new city, and don't know anyone there. Or for some reason, you're leaving your current church. How do you decide on a new church?

Several years ago our family faced this situation. The church we had attended for years was in the middle of a vicious church split over some serious doctrinal issues. My wife, Zora, and I had met with those teaching certain doctrines, first privately, then along with others in church leadership, several times over the preceeding three years in an attempt to peacefully settle the issue. But we realized that the problems were not being resolved. Rather our own spiritual lives were drying up. This triggered our search for a new church.

Zora and I both had extensive Biblical backgrounds. We grew up in churches that emphasized understanding and obeying the Scriptures (Foursquare and independent Bible churches), and had attended churches of several other denominations (Assembly of God, National Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Plymouth Brethren, and Conservative Baptist.) Added to that we had some Bible college and seminary training, as well as experience in various Christian ministries. All this influenced our search.

As we analyzed our situation, we grew aware of several other deficiencies in the church we were attending - deficiencies that would not have led us to look for a new church, but that we wanted to consider now that we were looking.

Basic to our approach was the understanding that we would not find the perfect church. Thus it was necessary to in some way assign priorities to what we were looking for.

Some things we felt to be absolutely essential - we called these "musts". A church not meeting these would be eliminated from further consideration. Foremost was the need for evangelical beliefs, with the NAE's doctrinal statement as a good summary. Also in this category was the need for a good Sunday School or children's program, since we had visited some churches which made no provision for children. (At that point we had two children - we currently have seven.)

Similarly, we regarded some practices and teachings as disqualifying - we called these "must nots". A church doing or teaching these things would not be considered further. Doctrinally, the teaching that tongues (or any other spiritual gift) is necessary, either for salvation or to show one to be filled with the Holy Spirit, fell in this category. So too did the opposite teaching - forbidding the practice of any of the spiritual gifts delineated in Scripture.

In the face of the abortion holocaust in which our nation had already slaughtered millions of unborn children, any church acquiescing to this slaughter through a "pro-choice" position would be disqualified.

One "convenience" matter appeared among our "must nots." Due to a severe respiratory handicap, I had several times required medical treatment from paramedics due to exposure to other people's tobacco smoke. Thus a church permitting smoking in the building would be essentially inaccessible.

Any serious doctrinal aberrations (a major one common at that time was called Positive Confession) we considered to be disqualifying factors. Although not as serious a matter, our own study of Scripture had led us away from Dispensationalism, with its corollary doctrine of PreTribulationalism, even though we were both raised in churches teaching these doctrines. Thus we could not in good conscience join a church requiring acceptance of these doctrines.

Next came a category we called "needs". These were considerations we wanted to place in "musts", but that we did not realistically expect to find all in one church.

Solid Bible teaching was first on our set of needs, but was also something we felt we could contribute to. It is quite possible (even common) for a church to have a "formally correct" doctrinal statement (and even doctrinally true preaching) without having solid Bible teaching. The passage being used to present a particular doctrine may, in fact, not deal with that doctrine at all, even though that doctrine IS taught elsewhere in Scripture. The weakness lies in hermeneutics, the study of properly understanding or interpreting Scripture.

Next, we wanted certain practices to be prominent parts of congregational life. These were prayer, a missions emphasis, fellowship, and worship and praise.

Rounding out the "needs" category, we sought a church in which the leadership worked to prepare and encourage all the congregation to "do the work of the ministry" (Eph. 4:12), rather than one with a pastor-centered ministry.

The rest of our criteria we classified as "minuses" or "pluses". As minuses, we counted an exclusivist attitude, and "Second Work Holiness" teaching (basically a teaching of the need for a crisis experience rendering one incapable of further sin.)

Among our pluses, we sought an integrated congregation, Biblical pacifism, a proLife emphasis, a PostTrib emphasis, and an active social awareness. Practically, we sought a nearby location (good stewardship of resources), an opportunity to teach, and a good music program. Wheelchair access would indicate an openness to people with disabilities and thus would be a plus. Also, we had discipled several people over the years who were in missions work, so we wanted the opportunity for designated missions giving, since having one receipt would simplify our income taxes.

Our final plus was women's ordination. We saw no consistent interpretation of Scripture which would justify excluding women from ministry (especially considering such passages as Acts 2:17-18; Acts 21:9; Judges 4:4; Luke 2:36; and the I Corinthian 11 instructions for appropriate dress for women publicly praying and prophesying, which would make no sense if women were not permitted to do these things.) Those Biblical passages restricting women's ministry could be consistently explained as dealing with specific local situations or with attitudes that would be equally sinful if done by men ("usurping authority"; "lording it over" others). As a corollary, we classified excluding women from teaching as a "strong minus".

Having developed such an extensive, categorized checklist, we began to apply it. We took a large city map and the local Yellow Pages. We consulted Arthur Carl Piepkorn's Profiles In Belief to review general doctrinal statements for denominations as a whole. (This or similar reference works may be available in the library at a local seminary or Bible college, or perhaps even in a public library.) From this, we marked those passing this initial screening on the map. We gave separate consideration to independent churches or congregations we knew to significantly differ from their parent denominations, sometimes obtaining a copy of an individual congregation's constitution and/or doctrinal statement. This screening gave us several hundred churches.

We then selected the closest of these churches (nine were within three or four miles) for additional investigation. Our plans were to attend 3 or 4 for up to several weeks each (shorter if any major deficiencies were obvious), then decide if any of these really provided what we wanted. If not, we would continue the process with another group of churches. However, other events at our previous church occurred which kept us from using this particular procedure.

Instead, we attempted to call these nine closest churches, but reached only one, a Mennonite Brethren congregation. Those we spoke to at this church expressed concern about many of the same things we were considering on our list. We began attending part-time and found it far exceeded our most optimistic expectations, though of course it did not match our list on all points (and still doesn't.) After about a year of attending there part-time, and our previous church part-time, matters at the other church were settled and we felt free to formally make our change.

How does this affect others? The process of making a list and prioritizing it made us think about what we considered to be really important. It made us more aware of both the good elements in our church life and of the deficiencies we had been unable to put a finger on. This is a valuable experience, whether you plan to change churches or not. Being in a large city gave us the luxury of a large variety of choices, but the list could also be used to determine what to work on in an existing church (in fact, that's how we originally began our checklist.) We found we could subdivide our list another way as well - into doctrine, practice, and logistical or convenience matters. Doctrine was at the core of our search (As we've stated to other Mennonite Brethren, we "didn't come for the zweiback.") However, rarely are church problems matters of doctrine. Much more often they are matters of practice, and perhaps even more often of personalities - a category we didn't even include on our list.

Our list may sound quite extensive, but actually fit on a single 3 by 5 index card. Whether you choose the same items or not, I hope our criteria cause you to think about these issues.
Checklist for Church-Hunting (c.1978-1979)  
Evangelical doctrine (NAE compatible) MUST
Sunday School/ Children's program MUST
Tongues necessary MUST NOT
Gifts forbidden MUST NOT
AntiLife/"ProChoice" MUST NOT
PreTrib/Dispensationalism required MUST NOT
Serious doctrinal abberations (e.g.Pos.Confession) MUST NOT
Smoking MUST NOT
Solid Bible teaching NEED
Fellowship NEED
Worship/Praise NEED
Prayer NEED
Eph. 4/"priesthood of all believers" NEED
Missions Emphasis NEED
Integrated PLUS
Pacifist PLUS
PostTrib emphasis PLUS
Location nearby PLUS
Ordain Women PLUS
Designated missions giving (one receipt) PLUS
Opportunity to teach PLUS
ProLife emphasis PLUS
Social awareness PLUS
Good music program PLUS
Wheelchair/disability access PLUS
Exclusivist MINUS
Second Work Holiness MINUS
Preclude women teaching STRONG MINUS