What to Look for in a Church

Fifteen years ago, in July of 2009, when one of my young parishioners was applying to various colleges and considering where she might go to church in each case, I put together a list of ten things that she and other young people (and their parents) should look for in a church. I had long since forgotten about that list until recently, when a colleague mentioned that he had found it to be helpful and had shared it with other pastors and students. In going back to look at the pastoral counsel and advice I offered to those under my care at that juncture, it struck me that it might be helpful to others now, as well, both pastors and laity. If nothing else, it offers food for thought. So, with that in mind, here are ten important things that a Christian should look for in a church, listed more or less in order of their relative significance (beginning with the most important):

  1. Faithful Preaching: Faithful preaching will take up the appointed Scripture Readings of the day, especially the Word and works of the Lord Jesus from the Holy Gospel and proclaim that to the people as the speaking of God to them. The sermon will not only talk about the Law and the Gospel, but will command what God commands, forbid what God forbids, and forgive sins in the Name of Christ Jesus. It will be the preaching of repentance, unto faith in the forgiveness of the Cross: preaching to and from Holy Baptism, to and from the Holy Communion. Such preaching is not a break in the midst of the Liturgy, but a fundamental and constitutive part of the Liturgy. It moves from the lectern to the Altar, from the Word of the Holy Scriptures to the Word-made-Flesh in the Sacrament. Not every sermon will be great; nor should every sermon be the same. But you should be able to tell within a few weeks whether the preaching is consistently faithful or not. If not, then look elsewhere; because, if the preaching is not right, everything will falter.
  2. The Regular and Reverent Administration of the Holy Communion: Look for a congregation where you will be given the opportunity to receive the Lord’s Supper every week. There may not be any such congregation in some areas, but that is the benchmark. Frequency by itself is not the sole criterion, however. Look for a congregation that clearly practices closed Communion, because that is the catholic and evangelical practice of the Church. Look for a prominent use of the chalice, even if individual cups are also offered as an option. Look for a congregation in which both young and old are being catechized and communed. In general, ask yourself whether the Sacrament is being administered with care and dignity. That’s a judgment call, to some extent, but you should be able to tell whether the Sacrament is being handled as the very Body and Blood of Christ, or as though it were little more than fish ‘n’ chips at the pub.
  3. Hymnody: Not every hymn will say everything, but every hymn should say something, and what it says should be a faithful confession of the Word of God. Look for a predominance of strong, solid hymns which fit the season of the Church Year, touch upon the Readings of the day, and serve the liturgical purpose of their place in the Service. A few weaker hymns in the course of the Service are not necessarily a deal breaker, so long as the larger context bolsters them with a real meat-and-potatoes diet. Look especially for the regular singing of hymns by Martin Luther, Philip Nicolai, Paul Gerhardt, and Johann Heermann.
  4. Catechesis: Look for a church in which the pastor is personally and actively involved in the ongoing catechesis of the young and the old. And along with that, look for a congregation where fathers and mothers are seeking ongoing pastoral catechesis for themselves and participating in the ongoing catechesis of their children.
  5. Confession and Absolution: Look for a church where regular opportunities for Individual Confession and Absolution are provided and publicized, and where the practice is taught and encouraged. If you are not able to find a congregation where that is the case, then look for a pastor who readily responds to your request for Individual Confession and Absolution.
  6. Daily Prayer: Look for a church where regular opportunities are provided for the parish to be gathered together for the Word of God and prayer during the week, whether for Matins, Vespers, Evening Prayer, or otherwise. Likewise, look for a congregation in which the people of God are encouraged and assisted in the regular practice of daily prayer within their homes and families.
  7. Service Book and Hymnal: Look for a congregation that uses the Church’s service book and hymnal (whether that be the LSB, or TLH, or LW). If everything is printed out each week, look for a consistency of practice from one week to the next, preferably following the order and form of the Service as published in one of the Church’s books. Every congregation has its own local practices and “flavor,” to be sure, but those characteristics should not deviate widely or wildly from the agreed-upon norms of the official service books. Parishioners should not be asked to pray and confess (or give their “Amen” to) words they have never seen or heard before.
  8. Vestments and Other Adornments: Look for a church where the pastor is vested in his conduct of the Liturgy. Vestments cover the person of the pastor while adorning the Office he serves in the Name and stead of Christ Jesus. These are good things; not absolutely necessary, but significant and meaningful. Similarly, look for a church where the paraments, architecture, artwork, and other adornments are all used to focus on Christ and His Cross and His Means of Grace. In particular, look for a crucifix; not because it is necessary, but because the prominent display of a crucifix is a good indication that the congregation focuses on the Cross of Christ.
  9. Decorum and Demeanor: Look for a church where the decorum of the Divine Service and the demeanor of the pastor convey an ambience of dignity, rather than a casual sloppiness. You should be able to discern that there is a seriousness about what is being done, and that the pastor and people actually believe themselves to be in the presence of the Holy Triune God. At the same time, look for a relaxed confidence in the pastor’s conduct and the congregation’s practice. Anxiousness and over-earnestness do not resonate with the grace and peace of the Gospel.
  10. Parish Communications and Announcements: In whatever is posted, printed, or announced, look for a focus on the Church’s life in the Means of Grace and in works of mercy. Other things happen in the routines of a parish, which is surely fine and good, but it ought to be clear that the Gospel of Christ Jesus is the heart and center of things, the defining emphasis of the congregation. Faith and love depend upon the Gospel, and Christians live from the Gospel. So, look for a church where the Gospel is the focus of everything that happens.