If you're searching for new church, what should you look for? Read any book or blog and you'll often find similar responses: "Is it Gospel-centered?" "Is the teaching biblical?" "Is the doctrine orthodox?" "Is the community Christ-centered?"
These are all true & even primary. However I feel there are more practical factors that should go into choosing a church. I've rarely met people who leave a church because of doctrinal issues. It's usually these small, intangible things that people didn't consider until years later when it was too late. And the result is that the church they chose often serves as a temporary stop rather than a spiritual home.
So based on personal experience, here are five questions that I'd encourage any Christian to consider when looking for a new church. These questions may not be the most important ones to ask, but they are often the most overlooked.
1) Can I Become Friends With People at This Church?
It's great to be at a church where you have brothers & sisters in Christ who can encourage, rebuke, & pray for you. But sometimes you also want friends - people you can hang out & have fun with. However if you're at a church where there's no one you can connect with, you'll find yourself being really sanctified (which is primary) but also quite lonely (which is sad). And if you ever find yourself in a situation like this at a church, you'll contemplate leaving.
Therefore when visiting a church, ask yourself: "Can I imagine being friends with the people here?" Again I'm not saying this is the main thing you should look for in a church community; however it is significant. And while "not having friends" may be a bad reason to leave a church, there's nothing wrong to consider this before choosing one.
2) Do the Leaders Enjoy Working & Serving at This Church?
If you're about to board a ship, it'd be wise to know if the captain is legit. Otherwise the boat may sink. If the church is a ship, the lead pastor is the captain (hired by Jesus). Is he a good captain? Usually people find out by asking members in the congregation. However I think this is a mistake because most of them don't really know the pastor - they just see his gifts.
The people you should be really asking are those who work closely with the pastor: elders, deacons, pastoral staff, etc. They know who the pastor really is. If you're new though & you ask them what they think about the pastor, it's unlikely they'll trash him in front of you. Instead you should ask, "How do you like working here?" and "How long has everyone been on staff?" Their response will tell you all you need to know about who the captain is.
3) Will I Be Able to Continually Grow Under the Preaching?
The key word here is "continually." Generally speaking, when we were young we enjoyed sermons that were loud & emotional & made us feel like we were wasting our lives. Therefore if we're young & looking for a new church, we often look for that same style of preaching. Well just know that unless you're naturally a loud & emotional guy, this style tends to feel stale as you get older.
In other words when you're looking to grow, don't just think about how the preaching affects you now. Think about how it'll affect you later as an adult or a parent. A good way to find out: Does the preaching minister to adults & parents at this church? If you look around & only see a bunch of young college kids, then the answer is "probably not."
4) What Christian Practices Does This Church Emphasize?
What is this church about? What is it's focus? Please don't think the church's vision statement will answer these questions. Maybe I just haven't seen enough good ones, but a church's vision statement is often so broad that it sounds exactly the same as any other church you'd find on the internet ("making disciples...through the gospel...to the ends of the earth").
Instead look at the culture & see what the church emphasizes. Does everybody at this church make it a point to hang out after Sunday service ends? If so, you know this church focuses a lot on community. Or does the pastor push bible study & catechumen classes & everybody attends? If so, you know this church focuses a lot on doctrinal knowledge. None of these emphases are bad - but does it match your emphases? If not, you'll grow frustrated down the line.
5) Will My Future Children Be Able to Grow Here?
This one is tough for younger Christians to consider. However for people who are dating & thinking about marriage, trust me - a church's children's ministry is really important if you're going to stay long-term. No parent wants to go to a church where they're personally growing but their kids are miserable. However if a church's children's ministry sucks or is non-existent, it'll break your heart bringing your kids to church.
Before when I visited churches, I would pay attention to the worship, preaching, & demographics. But after my wife got pregnant, I primarily looked at a church's children's ministry & based on this, it's really easy to tell why some churches have a lot of parents & why so many others don't. If you want this church to be not a temporary stop but a home, it'd be wise to consider how your future children would fare here.
Again these aren't the most important things to consider when looking for a church, but I've found so many people leaving their churches because of the practical things I listed above. And yet nobody really addresses these things because they're often overlooked & not considered.
I know this kind of thinking can lead to a culture of "consumerism" when looking for a church. However when it comes to finding a local church for you & your family, I don't think there's anything wrong with having preferences (we all do) or being aware of questions that you should be asking yourself.
But once you find a church, that's where I feel the danger of consumerism really rears its ugly head. It's kind of like marriage: Once you marry them, you need to be faithful & committed. But because of this heavy commitment, you should actually be all the more wise in your selection.