Two of the most important decisions you will make this side of eternity involve who you marry and what church you join. One is certainly more permanent than the other, but both are vitally important and should not be viewed as disposable decisions. Are you planning to move out of state and will need to find another local church in your new city?
Perhaps you find yourself looking for a new church—it should be obvious that the decision should be based on more than the relevant name or the church’s online presence. As you plan this very important decision, consider asking some important questions prior to making your decision.
- Is the doctrinal statement of the church clear and precise? If the statement of faith is unclear, could this reveal an intentional ambiguity by the leadership?
- What is the main preaching philosophy of the leadership? Is it based on an expository or topical methodology?
- Does the church practice church discipline? Are there any instances of church discipline on record in the last 10 years of the church’s existence?
- Is it too easy to join and too easy to leave this local church? Is there a membership class or any other requirement to fulfill prior to becoming a member?
- How is the music ministry of the church used? Is it a tool for worship and discipleship or is the music ministry geared toward an entertainment approach?
- What is the church government structure? Is the church led by one CEO pastor or a plurality of pastors?
- Is the preaching of the church aimed at the heart and the head? Do the pastors of the church expect the members to engage the mind in worship?
- What is the temperature of the church in regard to local and international missions? How involved is the church in missions?
- How does the pastor address unbelievers in his weekly sermons? Does he seem to be too focused on the unbelievers or does he strike a good balance between feeding the sheep and proclaiming the gospel to the unbelievers?
- Does the church have a ministry to children and youth? Who leads those areas of ministry? Are the men who lead in these areas mature and godly or do they appear to be perpetual adolescents?
- Is the church led by male leadership? Is the church complementarian or egalitarian?? How is this conviction put on display in the leadership of the church?
- What mode of baptism is practiced by the church?
- Is the church a single campus or multi-campus model?
- Does the pastor give an open public invitation to respond to the sermon at the end of his sermon? How is that conducted? Is there any hint of manipulation involved?
- Does the church have a culture of disciple making?
- Does the church take up an offering as a part of the weekly worship? How is this process conducted?
- Does the church seem to be committed to laboring to love one another?
- What is the church’s position on marriage, divorce, and homosexuality?
- Does the church have a traditional Sunday school or a small group discipleship ministry that meets off campus? Why has the church gone in their chosen direction?
- Does the church have a Sunday evening service? Why or why not?
- Does the church have a church covenant? What exactly does the covenant bind the members to?
- How often does the church observe the Lord’s Supper? Is the Lord’s Supper open, closed, or close communion?
- How many prayers are offered per service? What is the specific purpose of each prayer?
- What priority does Scripture have in the worship service? Does the church practice a weekly Scripture reading? How is that organized and who reads the passages? What place is it in the service?
Before joining, it would likewise be a good idea to meet with the pastor of the church in order to gain clarity on important theological and practical points of consideration that you would not be able to know by merely visiting the church for a few weeks.
While this is not an exhaustive list, it does cover quite a number of vital points of consideration involved in joining a church. Just because a church has your denomination’s name doesn’t mean it’s a healthy church. Take time to pray, discern, and think through the membership of a specific church before committing yourself. On the other hand, don’t just hang out with a church indefinitely—commit yourself to church membership in a local church.
A popular campaign that many churches are promoting in our day is titled: “I Love My Church.” How many churches do you know who may pass out bumper stickers or T-shirts with this slogan, but in reality, they merely tolerate one another?
The culture today is swimming in a sea of tolerance. The politically correct behavior today is centered on tolerance and we’re commanded to tolerate everyone and every idea that comes our way. Interestingly enough, many Christians in the church stand directly opposed to that type of ideology and rightly so. However, many of the same Christians are unwilling to tolerate false doctrines and cultural movements, but they want to merely tolerate their fellow church members rather than engaging in the hard work of love.
One of the greatest errors of many church members today is the idea that God is perfectly happy with us merely tolerating one another and refusing to love one another in the life of the church. God’s Word clearly teaches his people to love one another in a way that involves more than tolerance and casual passivity in the hallway of the local church building.
Love Is Commanded
In multiple places in the Bible (Rom. 12:10; Eph. 4:2; 1 Thess. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:3; Heb. 10:24; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 4:11-12), we see God’s children being called to engage in the hard and often messy work of love toward fellow Christians. Love is nowhere in God’s Word considered an option worthy of consideration in the church. God drives his point home with crystal clarity that he has called his people to a life and ministry of love rather than mere tolerance.
Far too many people in the local church live as if 1 John 4:7 reads as follows:
Beloved, let us tolerate one another, for tolerance is from God, and whoever tolerates has been born of God and knows God.
While most Christians would stand boldly before the person who would dare to change God’s Word and pervert the holy Scriptures, but often they live in such a manner that seems to change love into tolerance. We would never do this with a pen, but we do this with our attitudes. We would never promote such an agenda in the world of academics, but we often promote it in the world of our local churches by how we live out 1 John 4:7.
Love Requires Sacrifice
It is impossible to love others without some means of sacrifice. For instance, in Romans 12:10, the apostle Paul writes, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” When Paul insists that the Christians in Rome should outdo one another in showing honor, this type of behavior will be one of sacrifice. It may not be a financial sacrifice (although it could be), it will certainly involve some form of sacrifice such as time, resources, or talents.
To the church at Galatia, Paul said:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
In serving one another, you sacrifice some of yourself, some of your time, some of your money, some of your energy, and you pour into the life of another person. You can’t serve someone that you don’t love. Have you ever tried to serve someone out of a fake love? Your heart wasn’t into it and perhaps the only reason you did it was in order to appear holy or to avoid showing your real dislike for another person or group. True love requires a measure of sacrifice and that is never an easy thing. Pride is natural and sacrifice is not only abnormal—but difficult in many ways.
Love Honors God
When we consider the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that God demonstrated his love for fallen sinners in a sacrificial manner (Rom. 5:8; John 3:16), to engage in the labor of love and the lifestyle of love is to genuinely pursue God. As Christians, we know that we’re called to be holy—in essence we’re called to be like God. Have you ever considered the reality that we are never more like God than when we are engaging in true love for others? The opposite is likewise true. To refuse to love others is to refuse to be like God.
Tolerance may be something that the culture teaches, but if we genuinely want to be like Jesus and to pursue holiness as followers of Christ—we must go well beyond the borders of tolerance. We are called to a life of love and that’s not an easy thing.
John 13:34 — A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
One of the things that happens in the evangelical church world that mirrors the culture is that local churches often engage in the trends of the day. For instance, if community churches are in vogue, it’s a common thing to see many local churches named “________ Community Church.” If it’s multi-site church growth models, it’s common to see a church described as “one church in six locations.” In short, many church leaders want to be ever progressing to avoid the image of age and to dodge the title of “old fashioned.” Perhaps this is why Sunday school has fallen on hard times in many circles. It just sounds old and outdated so it must not be profitable—right?
Wrong. To judge the Sunday school book by its cover would be to make a grievous error. Just because one church down the road calls it “life groups” or “connection groups” and your church still refers to the Sunday morning gathering as “Sunday school” doesn’t mean that your church is behind the times. Have you considered the many reasons why you should stop skipping Sunday school?
You Need to be Taught
Far more important than your ability to network in a local church with certain friends is the ability to learn the Word of God. How serious do you take the study of the Bible? Is it merely a hobby that you engage in every so often or is it at the core of who you are as a person? Every child of God needs to be taught the Word of God, and without such teaching the individual Christian will dry up spiritually. Sunday school is a place for Christians to learn. God desires for us to know him and make him known.
The central aim of the local church is the teaching and preaching of the the doctrines of God’s Word. The central agenda of pastors is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” and this is accomplished through the right handling of God’s Word (Eph. 4:12; Col. 1:28). Are you bored with the Bible? Do you believe God to be boring? J.I. Packer, in his excellent book, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, once said, “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep.” 
Teaching and preaching overlap considerably, but the teaching atmosphere in the small group Sunday school setting is invaluable for the growth of the Christian. There is a certain dynamic that happens in that gathering that doesn’t happen in the sermon. For instance, the ability to ask question immediately and to engage in the process of iron sharpening iron is extremely helpful and something that we should regularly engage in.
You Need a Close Community
Many churches have tried to help modernize Sunday school in the eyes of a younger population by renaming it something catchy like, “Connexion Pointe” or “Cross Groups” or “Impact Groups.” While that may be a certain trend that many churches employ to appear to be relevant, let’s be honest—the name really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the group actually develops into a meaningful community. The Sunday school ministry of your local church is a place where you can know and be known by others. Real friendships that last for a lifetime are often birthed and nurtured in these groups.
Last week I wrote an article that critiqued Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about Facebook bridging the gap of failing church membership by offering a meaningful community group through Facebook. While Zuckerberg is correct that people feel more whole and fulfilled as they are connected in a meaningful community, he misses the mark by believing that Facebook is capable of solving the problem of falling church membership.
Facebook may serve as a tool for the local church to strengthen their community efforts, it will never replace real biblical churches. Why not? Because real community cannot happen through the click of a mouse or engagement in a social networking website. For real meaningful community to take place, people must spend time in the same room, hear one another speak, show interest and care for one another, share one another’s burdens, and serve with one another at some level for an important cause. The place where Christians can accomplish this type of genuine community is within small groups—even if it’s named “Sunday school.” Far too often people who become disconnected and disappear from your local church disappear from Sunday school first.
You Need to Serve
One of the latest trends among the millennial population is the need to support a company that promotes, supports, or serves in some charitable way in their local community or perhaps a third world nation. This is not a Christian thing—this is a millennial trend. The latest trends demonstrate that many younger people are interested in buying from a company if they know that that particular company is giving back a percentage of their profits to fund some humanitarian cause.
We enjoy doing for others, and as Christians, we should enjoy serving the church and the community together for the glory of Christ. The overall vision of the church can often be set by the pastors and that agenda often is heard from the pulpit. However, it’s through the Sunday school (or small group) of the local church that the vision is carried out. Often the local and foreign mission work is pushed through the local church’s Sunday school gathering by natural conversations, intentional praying, and planning means of involvement.
If you aren’t involved in a Sunday school class in your local church it’s very likely that you aren’t serving in your church or beyond the borders of your church campus beneath the banner of the gospel. Consider your need to serve and how opportunities will arise through your Sunday school group in your church. Get involved and start serving.
If you don’t like the name “Sunday school” — that’s fine, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Immerse yourself into a class and seek to know God more through the study of the Bible. If you’re resistant to making new friends and opening up, that’s understandable—but know that you need real friends who will know you (the real you that you don’t put on Facebook), and you need people to be honest with you. You don’t have to air out your dirty laundry each week in your Sunday school class, but a measure of openness and intimacy is necessary. You may already know that God has gifted you for a reason, and you need to engage in serving the Lord through your local church. What better way to do so than through a meaningful and healthy Sunday school class.
You need Sunday school and your church’s Sunday school needs you.
- J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990) 285.
In a recent statement about the progress of Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested that the social media platform was able to fill the gap of falling church membership. With an expanding population that has now crossed the 2 billion user mark, Zuckerberg is looking to bring people closer through social media. It might be true that church membership is dropping and our world is becoming more secular and less religious—but there are several reasons why Zuckerberg’s church will never be able to replace Jesus’ church.
Jesus’ Church Will Never Fail
When Jesus was talking with his disciples, he pointed out the reality that he was building his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against his church (Matt. 16:18). Through the years, from the very beginning, the gates of hell have attacked the church. From organized efforts of the Jewish Sanhedrin to the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church during the days of the Reformation—many attempts have been made to silence God’s people and to stop the growth of God’s church.
None of these attacks have proven successful. In fact, the more blood that has fallen from God’s people, the more vibrant the church of Jesus Christ has grown and expanded. Today’s falling church membership is not indicative of a failing church. Perhaps in some circles, falling church membership is indicative of deficient methods of former days that caused the local churches to become bloated with false conversions. No matter what happens across the denominational lines—we should rest assured that God’s church will never fail (Phil. 1:6).
True Community Cannot Be Fulfilled through Social Media
One thing that Facebook taps into is the basic need for social interaction among people. I can travel to remote villages in the Andes mountains and find groups of teenagers huddled up in Internet cafes interacting with friends on Facebook. It’s true—Zuckerberg has tapped into a common need among all humans—the need for friends.
Jesus’ church is better than Zuckerberg’s church in that real friendships, real interaction, real social networking, and real communication happens on levels that are more healthy and more intimate than text on a social media platform. While social media can bridge a temporary gap among people—the church of Jesus Christ can provide more meaningful and healthy relationships.
Furthermore, the community that’s built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and assembles in person will not only have more healthy relationships—but will also be able to work together for social causes and helping the poor along with other humanitarian needs. It may be that the church of Jesus Christ can use Zuckerberg’s Facebook to accomplish some really good things—but Zuckerberg’s Facebook will never become anyone’s church. In fact, if Zuckerberg becomes a Christian and joins a local church he will completely understand the difference between social media platforms and a local church.
Jesus’ Church Has a Far Greater Mission
The mission of Facebook has now been revised from “Make the world more open and connected” to “Bring the world closer together.” The overall goal of Zuckerberg and the Facebook staff is to build a network that bridges the gap of communication, connects people and business, provides entertainment opportunities, and all of this makes the world smaller and brings the world closer together.
The mission of Jesus is to bring people to hear and understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. This transforms much more than a community’s communication network—it transforms the hearts of real people and changes the overall direction, morals, goals, ambition, affection, and purpose of entire groups of people. The mission of Jesus is to bring people to a saving knowledge of God’s gospel which is a far greater mission than connecting people in a social network.
The purpose of Jesus’ church is to engage in a mission to reach unbelievers, but then the gathering of the local church on a weekly basis is for the worship of God. The worship of God involves the preached Word, the observance of ordinances, prayer and praise to God—none of which require Facebook.
If Zuckerberg is looking to bring the world together, the only hope that the world has is Jesus Christ—not Facebook.
When new people enter our church, we encourage them from the beginning to get involved in a small group or two. The reality is, just attending church on Sunday is not sufficient for spiritual growth and relational growth among the church body. In order for a family to be healthy, two things are required in the life of the church—spiritual progress in active obedience to the gospel and relational growth among genuine friendships in the church. Small groups—both Sunday school and other avenues designed specifically for men and women are essential.
With all of the focus on small groups and how such groups are vital for healthy church growth, it would be wise to pause and consider the fact that something more than a small group is necessary. It would be wise to recognize that your small group is not your church—in fact it can’t be.
You Need Preaching Too
While small groups often focus on good teaching and group discussion, you need something more than that in your spiritual life. Each Christian needs to sit under the preaching of God’s Word on a weekly basis. While preaching and teaching certainly have their common ground and overlap in many areas, they are not exactly the same thing. That’s why we see different terms used in the Scriptures to reference teaching (διδάσκω) and preaching (κηρύσσω).
God uses the faithful preaching of the Bible to reprove, rebuke, and encourage the church in ways that may differ from teaching. It is also God’s design to use the preaching of God’s Word as the message of a herald sent from the King in ways that may not allow for immediate dialogue and discussion. This is good for the heart, the mind, and the conscience. This is God’s design for the church (Acts 15:35; Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 15:1).
You Need to Observe the Ordinances
While small groups certainly have their place, there is no place for the observance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper within those small groups to the exclusion of the whole church. Although it may seem like a popular thing for youth to be baptized in the ocean at summer camp, since this is an ordinance of the local church it would seem most appropriate for new converts to be baptized when the local church can gather for that purpose. The same thing must be stated regarding the Lord’s Supper. A Bible study group on the college campus should refrain from observing the Lord’s Supper unless the entire church comes together for that purpose.
If you think that Sunday school is enough, you’re wrong. If you think that your special group within the life of the church is all you need—you’re missing the big picture of the church. You need more than your small group—you need to gather with the whole church and observe the Lord’s Supper and witness new converts follow Christ in believer’s baptism. This is essential for your spiritual progress, and this can’t happen in your life if you’re excluded from the wider body of believers.
You Need the Whole Body—Not Just a Few Body Parts
Just as you need all of your body rather than just a small group of your body parts—so it is with the church. You need more than your Saturday morning coffee group. You need more than your Sunday school class. Yes, those groups are essential and profitable for your spiritual growth—but you still need more.
You need the wider body of believers who have been redeemed by Christ and who come together as one body from different backgrounds, diverse age ranges—encompassing male and female. This is evident as we read Titus 2 and see the exhortation for the older to invest into the lives of the younger.
Likewise, you need more than a group of people gathered to study the Bible. You need for the church’s leadership and servant roles to be employed in your life. You need elders to oversee you and deacons to serve you. The offices of the church are critical for spiritual growth—and these offices are often not fully functional in the context of your small group. You need the whole church.
You Need to Sing with the Whole Church
Finally, it’s important to consider the value and necessity of singing together as a church. Not only is singing a vital part of worship, it also serves as a means of discipleship. Singing the gospel not only praises God, but it helps people learn theology and affects their doxology.
Most small groups meet together, discuss theology, pray together (and for one another), but not many small groups sing together. Singing is crucial to true worship and sanctification. This is why the corporate gathering of believers made up of diverse ages, races, and sexes coming together to sing the gospel is so important. This goes beyond what typically happens at Starbucks on Saturday morning.
The next time you gather together with your small group—be thankful for how that group works together for your spiritual growth, but never lose sight of this reality—that group is not your church and can’t be your church on several different levels. You need the church and your small group, but don’t embrace your intimate reading group to the exclusion of the whole church. That pattern is common, but it’s also extremely dangerous. Don’t buy into the lie that you’re a special case and that you don’t need the whole church. You could do without your small group before you could do without your church.
One of the highlights of my year is teaching the membership class to prospective members. Typically we offer the class during three different months and it lasts 4-weeks each. During this time, I find great value in interacting with the new members who are pursuing membership in our church. I likewise enjoy teaching on the doctrine of the church and explaining the importance of a proper ecclesiology. Not only do I find value in it, but I believe the prospective members do as well. This class provides value to our whole church.
Guard the Front Door
In the church culture that I grew up in, joining the local church was not that difficult. It was more difficult to join a little league baseball team than it was to become a member in the local church. That was true among many Southern Baptist churches. Typically families would walk to the front of the church at the conclusion of the service when the pastor would give a formal invitation and invite people to come for counseling or membership. It was common to see families or individuals walk to the front, answer a few questions, and be presented as members immediately.
The membership class works in a different way to go beyond a casual introduction to a more formal introduction that provides a proper context of the prospect’s background, spiritual condition, testimony of conversion, and life dynamics before becoming an actual member of the church. This is not a pragmatic method and it may seem strange to guard the front door of the church, but it’s a needful practice that prevents people from joining who could be potentially dangerous to the church.
Although the church should be open to anyone, there are exceptions. For instance, unconverted people are not welcome to join our church. Church membership is reserved for Christians and you don’t become a follower of Jesus by joining the church. Secondly, prospects who are not in good standing in their local church should not be welcomed into membership. Finally, people who come from different theological and ecclesiological backgrounds may need to be evaluated more intensely before welcoming them into the life of the church. All of this is for the health and unity of the church.
Introduction to the Church’s Beliefs and Practices
During the 4-week class, we take time to teach what we believe and how our church operates. The class is broken down as follows:
- Christianity 101
- The Church 201
- Distinctive Marks 301
- Becoming Productive Members 401
We always begin with a proper explanation of the gospel and this allows unbelievers to hear the good news of Jesus Christ at the beginning. On several occasions, I’ve had people go through the class and dropout after the first or second week when they realize that they aren’t a true Christian.
The class moves on to explain very specific distinctive marks of our church’s doctrine and ecclesiology that may overlap with other Baptist churches and will likewise be distinct from other churches in our community. We want prospects to understand how our church is served by a plurality of deacons and led by a plurality of pastors and this may not be something that some people are accustomed to and it’s good for them to hear it in the beginning.
Expectations and Responsibilities
The class ends with a focus on what is expected of members who come into the life of our church. We expect members to be productive and healthy as they contribute in ministry and promote unity among the church family. During the final class, we discuss spiritual gifts and how they are to be used in the life of the local church for the glory of God.
Finally, at the end of the process, each prospective member or family will meet with one of our pastors for an interview where they talk privately on a date set aside on the calendar for that particular meeting. During the conversation, the prospective member will be asked to share his or her testimony of conversion and to provide a simple definition of the gospel. We also provide an opportunity for the prospects to ask questions to the pastors regarding anything from the class or things pertaining to the life of the church.
In the end, the membership class provides a more healthy way of entrance into the local church. It is not fail proof—as I’ve had people lie their way through the new membership class, but it does provide a much more difficult process for deceptive people who have some motivation in joining the local church. In the end, I believe the new membership class is valuable for the prospective member, the pastoral staff, and the local church as a whole. We want new members and the church to understand the shared responsibility of membership from the very beginning.