This past Sunday, we had two guests who drove a good distance to be with us for worship. One drove from the Stone Mountain area while the other drove from Lagrange, Georgia—both are right about one hour from our church campus. As they discussed their situations, each of them are looking for a healthy church where they can grow in God’s Word. As I considered the fact that two different visitors drove an hour to be with us for worship as they’re looking for a church—what exactly should we look for if we find ourselves looking for a new church home?
As we engage in a church search, there are specific things that must be prioritized in the life of the church or it should be crossed off the list quickly. Some lists will look differently depending on specific needs, but there are certain elements that cannot be optional and I’ve listed a few non-negotiable categories below.
Transcending above cultural preferences must come biblical preaching. If we truly want our families to grow in grace, that necessitates a steady diet of biblical preaching. While topical preaching can certainly feed the hearts and minds of people on occasion, the steady practice of the preaching must be centered on consistent sequential verse-by-verse preaching through books of the Bible. Without faithful expository preaching, the church will be left with a superficial understanding of the whole of God’s Word. It was D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who wrote the following in his classic book, Preaching and Preachers:
The big difference…between a lecture and a sermon is that a sermon does not start with a subject; a sermon should always be expository. In a sermon the theme or the doctrine is something that arises out of the text and its context, it is something which is illustrated by that text and context. 
How well would you understand any book on your bookshelf if a friend came over to your home and read to you out of random pages – explaining one central message about how the book ends, but not allowing you to hear how the plot and themes develop through each chapter? It would leave you a bit frustrated and disconnected from the central message of the book—right? Why is the Bible any different? Why would we be led to believe that a random approach to preaching would cause the church to grow deep and wide spiritually?
God Centered Worship
We have a worship crisis within evangelicalism today. It’s not that we aren’t worshipping, but rather, who and what we’re worshipping that is indicative of serious problems. Some churches are worshipping themselves as they gather to have their own cultural desires met in the worship service. Others are worshipping a specific pastor or personality who leads the church. Still others are centering their affections on the church campus or building itself. Far too often people in evangelical circles find themselves much like the Ethiopian Eunuch who was returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem with a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecy—yet completely disengaged from biblical worship. Far too often evangelicals arrive home from church on Sunday without having worshipped God in the slightest degree.
When looking for a church, we must focus on how the worship service places God at the center. Some churches worship one member of the Trinity rather than our Triune God. Some focus on Jesus while others focus on the Spirit and still others focus on the Father. We have so segmented the Trinity that we fail to worship God as he desires. The calling of God’s people is to worship God—which involves an intentional effort to worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
When searching for a church home, pay close attention to how the worship service approaches the public reading of Scripture. How much Scripture is read and is there a balance from Old to New Testament each week? How do the songs point your mind and direct your emotions to engage in worship of our Triune God? This is critically important in order to avoid a severe imbalance and deficient understanding of who God really is and how he desires to be worshipped.
Faithful Administration of the Ordinances
If you visit a church on the Lord’s Day and they’re showing slides of the youth pastor baptizing football players at the local high school in a feeding trough for cows on Friday afternoon—it’s probably a good sign that this is not the church for you. All throughout history, if a church did not have the right administration of the ordinances, they were not considered to be a true church. This is one reason why youth group baptisms in the ocean at summer camp should not be practiced. This is why we shouldn’t encourage members to get rebaptized in the Jordan River when they visit Jerusalem.
It’s critically important for the local church to practice the ordinances within the context of the local church under the oversight of the elders who lead the church. This assures both organization, accountability, and intentionality as to what we are communicating as we engage in worship as a gathered church. This is why observing the Lord’s Supper in your living room on Friday evening with your small group is forbidden. How does such a practice honor God and encourage the local church as a whole? How does a person know if they’re welcomed to the Table? Who fences the Table before engaging in worship if the Lord’s Supper is practiced in a college dormitory at the local college? We must be firmly committed to the right practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Practice of Loving Church Discipline
Would you lead your family to join a church that did not practice loving biblical church discipline? When you talk to people about how they came to the decision about membership in a specific church, you will often hear about how good a specific program is in the church that attracted them or you might hear that their church was closer to their job—or perhaps other pragmatic reasoning. When was the last time you heard someone say they chose a church because they practice biblical church discipline? Jay Adams argues that if a church refuses to practice church discipline, we “should declare them to be ‘no church’ since they will not draw a line between the world and the church by exercising discipline.” 
Several years ago a family went through our membership class and became members in our church. However, within a year of their joining, they left our church after hearing a presentation on the errors of Roman Catholicism. I went to the church where they were visiting and met with the pastor in his office. I encouraged he and his staff to point them back to us and not to receive them as members because this was a gospel issue that required corrective discipline. The pastor ignored our request and accepted their family as members. Within a short season, the family completely derailed into horrible sin resulting in the husband’s picture appearing on the front page of the newspaper. To this day, their family has never been disciplined by the church who took them in as members.
Church discipline is not a debatable issue. Jesus has commanded that we practice it and that we do so in the manner and with the motives that he has charged us in Matthew 18:15-20. Consider these helpful words from Alexander Strauch:
Love is not just happy smiles or pleasant words. A critical test of genuine love is whether we are willing to confront and discipline those we care for. Nothing is more difficult than disciplining a brother or sister in Christ who is trapped in sin. It is always agonizing work – messy, complicated, often unsuccessful, emotionally exhausting, and potentially divisive. This is why most church leaders avoid discipline at all costs. But that is not love. It is lack of courage and disobedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself laid down instructions for the discipline of an unrepentant believer (Matt. 18:17-18). 
When you find yourself searching for a new church home, don’t compromise in the process. You may find a church that meets your needs on many different levels, but yet fails in one of the non-negotiable areas. Always remember a church that hasn’t practiced corrective church discipline in the last 25 years will certainly not begin with you and your family when you wander off the path of righteousness. You need the church, and you need a healthy church for you and your family.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 71.
- Jay Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 103.
- Alexander Strauch, Leading With Love, (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 2006), 152.