Choosing which church to attend can be a difficult undertaking. What appeals to one causes great consternation for another and what some view as centrally important others see as of little consequence. In some places there are so many churches to choose from we feel at a loss as to which to attend. In other places our choice seems so limited that it appears there is nowhere appropriate to go. So, how do we determine what is important in a church? On what basis do we rule churches in, or out, of our search for a spiritual home? How do we decide where to go?
At a basic level, John notes the foundations upon which we meet together. He states:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us– that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:1-7, ESV).
Here John highlights two key things: fellowship with the Father (1) and fellowship with other believers. Interestingly, John later suggests that you cannot have one without the other (2) – the two cannot exist in isolation. In order to enjoy fellowship with other believers we must first have fellowship with the Father and if we are to have fellowship with the Father we should also have the fellowship of other Christians. This helpfully lays down a basic criteria for which church we should attend. Firstly, do the church – that is the people – love the Father and; secondly, do the church love each other? In reality, if somewhere doesn’t meet this basic criteria we are hard pressed to even call it a church! If the church is the body of believers and we accept what John says, where a meeting of people fail to love the Father or to love one another, the two unable to exist in isolation, we must conclude this meeting is no kind of church. Therefore, we should firstly look to join a church that love the Father and love each other.
To some degree, the considerations following this basic criteria are somewhat secondary (3). Four common areas cited as important when considering a church are doctrine and teaching, worship, evangelism and fellowship. However, exactly how important are each of these areas? Individually, they make up a significant portion of what the church does and we all have our preferences on how they ought to be worked out in practice. It is also worth remembering that each of these areas do not carry equal importance i.e. the style of music is not necessarily as important as the church’s evangelistic outreach? Further, we should recognise that certain issues within these individual areas are matters of preference e.g. we may agree on the importance of evangelism but may disagree over the most effective means of reaching people with the gospel. How do we therefore determine what is and is not important?
I would suggest that the most important of these areas is fellowship. In Reformed circles especially, choosing a church predominantly on fellowship can be seen as frivolous, not giving due prominence to the importance of teaching and doctrine. This is wrong for two main reasons. Firstly, returning to the passage from 1 John, fellowship is one of the base criteria for identifying a church. Therefore, to attend a church which has its doctrine supposedly all sewn up but which fails to love its members and seek to befriend them in a real way (see 1 John 3:18) is to defeat the very purpose of the church itself. No amount of sound teaching and doctrine can make up for a lack of friendship with fellow believers. Secondly, all these areas – with the notable exception of fellowship – can be gleaned from other sources to either supplement, or to make up for a lack of, the church provision. A lack of teaching can be dealt with by downloading a sermon or reading a good book, a lack of evangelism can be overcome through personal efforts to take the gospel out to one’s local area but a lack of fellowship cannot be beamed in from afar or downloaded from the internet – the church is the only place which can provide ongoing, meaningful fellowship with believers. As such, far from fellowship and friendship being a trivial basis upon which to attend a church it is possibly the most important.
Perhaps the least important of these areas is that of worship-style (4). I have previously discussed this issue here and here and will not revisit it again. Suffice to say, this issue is largely one of preference. Personally, I believe worship-style is one of the saddest reasons for church splits, however, I also believe it one of few actively positive reasons for us to have several different churches in one area. I say this because I believe the style of our singing matters so little that to split a church on this basis is a terrible thing. It suggests to the community of unbelievers that there is no unity in the gospel as we cannot remain united over something trivial. Nevertheless, where several churches exist for reasons of stylistic difference (presuming they have not evolved from a single church split on this issue, of course) this seems eminently sensible as, to the unbeliever, it is not beyond comprehension that although we believe in the same God, the same gospel and actively enjoy fellowship with one another we may have different preferences over the way in which we express it. Unlike fundamental doctrinal differences and acute splits, fellowship between churches despite stylistic differences can serve as a point of strength in the unity of the gospel.
As already mentioned, both the issues of teaching and evangelism can be derived from other sources if somewhat lacking in our church. Nevertheless, these areas are both important. The issue is then the extent of their importance. In reality, as with all the other areas, this may depend on what is available to us. Indeed, it would seem silly to attend a church with whom we disagreed on several points of doctrine and struggled with their lack of evangelistic zeal if there were a church down the road with whom we agreed and felt were keen to reach people with the gospel. This, however, is rarely the situation. More often than not, the situation presented is one church with excellent evangelistic zeal but poor teaching and another with superb teaching but no heart for the gospel. Alternatively, we may find two churches with whom we disagree on two separate, but both seemingly important, points of doctrine. Ultimately, there is no point in trying to make hard and fast rules as to which is the more important. In such circumstances, all we can do is seek to determine how important each point of doctrine is to us and then apply the Richard Baxter principle: “Unity in things necessary, liberty in things unnecessary, and charity in all”.
So, if we define the church as the people of God then we must consider anywhere that meets the base criteria of love for the Father and love for each other as a true church. Moreover, if we recognise the church as the people, we must conclude that fellowship is central. The doctrine, evangelism and worship are not the church whereas fellowship is tied up exclusively with the people who are the church. As such, fellowship and friendship is far from a trivial reason to attend a church – it is indeed fundamental and of vital importance. All other considerations must be weighed up by the individual and determined how important they are according to circumstance. However, they are secondary considerations to fellowship because without true fellowship there is no real church.
- John also comments that fellowship with the Father is directly tied up in fellowship with the Son. See 1 John 1:3, 2:22-24
- See 1 John 2:9-11, 1 John 4:20-21
- That is not to say unimportant but rather to suggest that no consideration following can trump the basic criteria itself nor rule out a meeting as a non-church
- In the context of the church meeting i.e. the style of singing/songs and the manner in which some pray