May 16, 2016
Choosing a Church
Hello, Dr. Craig.
Firstly, thank you for taking the time to answer questions from your readers and listeners.
It seems your readers comprise a wide variety of denominations, and you specifically answered at one point the question about why you are a Protestant. (Reasonable Faith podcast episode "Questions on Marriage, Secular Strategy, and Catholicism.")
So, I hope, considering that you answered that question, and your diverse readership, that you will find some use in answering this question: Why are you, specifically, a Baptist (if I'm identifying your affiliation correctly)?
I present this question as a professing born-again Christian, myself, who is "in between" denominations, having been brought up Assembly of God in my elementary school years and whose parents migrated to (and we, their kids, with them, in earnest) the Word of Faith quasi-denomination in my high school and college years, but which we all have since migrated away from over the last 20 years.
My parents have been attending an Assembly of God church, interestingly, in their area, in the last few years. My younger brother converted to Eastern Orthodox about three years ago, and there are aspects of Orthodoxy that I find compelling, and aspects I find, so far, untenable.
I've been researching Church history, denominational formations and doctrine and their founding leaders, in conjunction with reading the New Testament to see if I can determine what is the most Scripturally sound. Of course, "picking" a denomination is only the first step, I think; then, one has to wisely choose a local church body to commit to.
In short, what lies beneath my central question to you, as is probably clear, is wanting to know how you decided -- and how you would recommend others educate themselves to decide -- on a denomination (if that's even a proper way of thinking of the decision) and, more specifically, a church, or local body, to commit yourself to. One would want to be properly yoked in this relationship, just as in a marriage, it seems.
Thanks very much again for taking the time to consider and answer questions from your readers and listeners, as well as for your example in service to God, and charity and carefulness in arguing for the Gospel.
I commend you, Chris, for realizing the importance of affiliating yourself with a local church. Too many people today seem to think that involvement in a local church is unnecessary and even unimportant for living the Christian life. This laissez-faire attitude toward local church involvement is mistaken for at least three reasons. First, the uninvolved Christian denies to God the corporate worship which is His due. We don’t attend church primarily because of what we get out of it but because of what we give to God: the worship and adoration of His people which is His due. Second, the uninvolved Christian stunts his own growth. There are lessons to be learned from being involved in a local community of fellow believers which cannot be learned on one’s own. Some of these may be lessons learned through service and submission to others. Third, the uninvolved Christian impairs the body of Christ. The local church is the body of Christ, which functions properly only when all its members are healthy and functioning for the good of the whole (I Corinthians 12.12-27). When a person chooses to remain uninvolved, the local church is like a body which is missing one of its parts. God has given every Christian a spiritual gift to exercise in the context of the local church (I Peter 4.10), and when someone fails to get involved, his gift is not being properly exercised, impairing the body and stunting his own development. It is therefore with good reason that Scripture commands us to be involved in a local church (Hebrews 10.24-25).
In finding a church to get involved in, I suggest that the first step is not picking a denomination, to be followed by choosing a local church of that denomination. Quite the reverse: I suggest first finding a local church where you can participate in meaningful corporate worship and where the Bible is faithfully preached and only then becoming affiliated, if possible, with the denomination of which that local church is a part.
So in our case, although it is true that we currently attend a Southern Baptist Church, that is not because we “are Baptist”! In fact, I am ordained in a different denomination. But we attend the church we do for a number of reasons, for example, its use of traditional hymns, along with a fabulous choir and orchestra, which help me to worship God meaningfully, its service opportunities, such as teaching my Defenders class, and its proximity to our home, encouraging church involvement on our part. One of the intriguing features of the Southern Baptist Convention is how doctrinally minimalist it is. This latitude permits people of vastly different theological perspectives to be part of one community. It doesn’t matter whether you are Reformed or Wesleyan (or even Molinist!); it doesn’t matter what your eschatological views are; it doesn’t matter what theory of the atonement you hold. This doctrinal laxity may not always be a good thing; but it permits me to be in good conscience a Baptist, whereas I could not be a Catholic or Presbyterian.
Prior to attending our Southern Baptist Church we were attending a seeker-sensitive church, which featured a worship band and drama. After several years there I found that my worship life was just drying up. When we’d walk into the building and hear the loud music coming from inside the auditorium, I felt a revulsion inside. I didn’t want to go in! This isn’t right, I thought. I should be drawn to worship. One day our pastor preached a sermon in which he said, “If you’re not meeting with God when you come here each Sunday, then you need to look for another church.” It was then that I knew we needed to make a change. I went to the pastor, a good friend and former student, and explained what was happening to my worship life. He understood my decision, and we left with his blessing. I’m so glad we made the change.
So, Chris, I think you should look for a local church where you meet with God in meaningful corporate worship each Sunday. That’s the main criterion in choosing a church, more important than good preaching (you don’t go to church primarily to receive instruction). Then find out if there are service opportunities and ways for you to get involved and exercise your spiritual gift. Last of all, determine if the church has a doctrinal confession that permits you to become member. If it has a statement that would require you to confess things you don’t believe in, you may wish to attend that church anyway without becoming officially a member of that denomination or church. But if you can join in good conscience, then as an expression of your solidarity with the local believers, do become a member.
May God guide you in your search!