I know the challenges that come with trying to find a church that fits. I was born and raised in the Christian Church tradition only to become fascinated in my college years with the history, beauty and wonder of Anglicanism. My stint as an Anglican was a short one as I was soon swept away by John Calvin and a whole host of humble, godly, thoughtful Presbyterians. But then there was that darn infant baptism thing. This sent me down the road to where I would eventually land. You probably guessed it already. I eventually found my home as good ol’ Baptist, where I now joyfully live and serve the Lord as a church member and pastor. While I praise God for all of the ways He used these different denominations and traditions to shape me and help me grow and mature as a Christ-follower, it feels so good to finally be “home.”
Of course, my story is no different from so many others. This is especially true of Christians who came to faith later in life, not growing up in one particular Christian stream. In fact, as I work with college students and seminarians, this is a conversation I find myself engaged in more and more frequently.
“Where do I fit?”
“What church or denomination best aligns with my convictions?”
“How important should issues like baptism, communion, leadership structures be in my decision?”
“How big of a deal is finding one particular church to commit to, really?”
These are important questions that thoughtful Christians must honestly ask and wrestle with. Here's what we know: There is no perfect church. If there were, and it was that clear, we would all be part of it! So, in light of this reality, and until we as believers are all in heaven together, how do I find a church that is a good fit for me? How do I find an (imperfect) church to give my life to? While not exhaustive, I do believe these three steps can be helpful as you seek to discern where the Lord would have you.
Step #1: Begin with hard study and humble prayer.
First of all, prayerfully study different denominations and Christian traditions.
Learn to see the beauty of different streams. Discover what different churches and denominations believe and why. In doing this, work toward a clear understanding of where each tradition stands on both primary and secondary doctrinesof the Christian faith. Be sure to take the time to intentionally read and understand the best explanations and arguments from each particular denomination’s best theologians throughout history. Remember to study these different traditions with a humble, teachable heart, recognizing there are very educated, godly individuals from a variety of Christian traditions who will lovingly agree to disagree on secondary matters.
Secondly, prayerfully study what you believe and why.
There two primary areas you want to think through. Where do I stand…:
#1: Theologically. What are your convictions about both primary and secondary theological/doctrinal matters (beliefs)?
#2: Philosophically. What are your convictions about both primary and secondary philosophical matters (this deals with church practice and methodology…why a church does what it does in the way that it does it)?
Thirdly, in light of both your theological and philosophical convictions, what churches/denominations/streams most align with your convictions?
While you should never compromise your primary convictions, are there secondary convictions you are willing to agree to disagree on? What are you willing to live with…joyfully and not divisively? What are you not willing to live with? Remember, there is no perfect church this side of heaven.
Step #2: Narrow it down and make a commitment.
As you narrow it down, are there several denominations/streams that you could in good conscience be part of? Just a few? What are they? In light of this, I would encourage you to find a church within that denomination/stream that you can commit to and give your life to…not only for your sake, but for the sake of your family and other believers in the Body of Christ. In a culture where the only thing most people are committed to is being non-committal, as a Christian, this must not be your narrative. Don’t jump from church to church forever. Through good and bad, go all in with an imperfect congregation and stay put. Watch what God does!
Take the time to really get to know, understand, and respect the church you are now part of. This means that while you may not agree with everything this particular church holds to or practices, this is your church now. Love it! Lean into it! Make it a huge part of your life!
"But what if I really struggle to align with a church once I’ve committed to it?"
If you find that you have tried but simply can’t “get on board” with a church joyfully and eagerly as a result of your unshared convictions, what do you do then? If you find yourself struggling to live with, encourage, pray for, and minister alongside other believers in a congregation without becoming agitated and bitter, what then?
I think you have two main options at this point.
#1. Check your heart and see if there is pride that you need to confess, asking the Lord, and perhaps others, to forgive you. The problem may be your own heart and an unwillingness to pursue love and unity in the way God calls us to in His Church.
#2. If you are simply unable to peacefully and joyfully live with differences you have with a church, it may be time to find a church that is a better fit for you and your family. Be sure you leave your current church well. Sadly, many people do not leave their congregation well and it causes much pain to others. As a pastor, I have been blessed by those individuals and families that have left churches I was serving well, while also experiencing many who took off without much thought to doing it the right way.
Here are five ingredients to leaving a church well:
1. Make sure you are leaving for the right reasons. Search your heart, talk with your family. Are your motives and reasons for leaving solid?
2. Set up a time to talk directly to one of the pastors of your church about your leaving. You don’t need to share all of your reasons or rationale, but as a matter of love and courtesy, let your pastor know you and your family have chosen to go to another church. Let your pastor know the main reasons you are leaving, but do so with humility, love and grace. Let your pastor know the things you are thankful for regarding your time at this church. Leave in a peaceful manner. This is honoring to the Lord.
3. Communicate clearly and lovingly with others you are close with in the church. I recommend doing this in person, or a personal email, with individuals. Do not communicate your leaving through a mass email that could cause confusion and potential division. Satan love to divide and he works powerfully when there is confusion and lack of clarity. Communicate personally with folks.
4. Once you find a new church, meet with your new pastor and let them know why you left your last church. Don’t throw your last church under the bus. Share honestly, but graciously, why your family chose to leave and why you are excited about becoming part of this new church family.
5. Keep your former church in your prayers. Thank God for your time at your last church and the good things He did in your life there. Continue to pray for your brothers and sisters in that congregation. This will help to fight off any bitterness that could creep into your heart toward them.
Step #3: Learn to live graciously and joyfully in your imperfect church.
Now that you have left your former congregation, there are three things to remember and implement as you transition to your new church family:
#1. Always remember there are primary and secondary convictions both philosophically and theologically. Know the difference between the two. Make sure in your heart you do not let primary matters become secondary or secondary matters become primary.
#2. Learn to practice and celebrate theological hospitality. In love, remember that even in your new church there will be differences that pop their head up once in awhile. On secondary matters, seek to journey with other believers in love and patience. Be willing and eager to learn from others, even if you disagree with them.
#3. By God’s grace, seek to grow in humility before the Lord, His Word, and other believers. Not one of us is inerrant in our beliefs and convictions. We all have blind spots. May we always be willing and eager to realign our beliefs and convictions as the Holy Spirit makes the teaching of Scripture clearer to us. This will involve deep humility and a willingness to “hear out” and learn from other Christians.
Christian, you were made to be part of the Body of Christ! The Lord wants to encourage you, strengthen you, transform you, and shepherd you through a local church. Don’t wait! Don’t remain uncommitted. Dive in and give your life to it, for your joy, the joy of others, and the glory of God!
Primary doctrines are those that are essential to historic, orthodox Christianity. Moving away from these core truths means moving away from biblical Christianity. Secondary doctrines are those that, while important, are not essential for matters pertaining to salvation and/or orthodoxy.