All right, you’re new to our community — a visitor, or a new part-time or full-time resident. It happens you also are looking for a faith community where you can develop, sustain, and practice your spirituality. You may be confused with the many communities of faith from which to choose. It’s no longer a given that the faith of your youth — or previous place of residence — will sustain you. The religious environment in our country is undergoing some of the most radical change in over a century. Take nothing for granted. Be thorough in checking out your new church home. How do you proceed? Here are some general suggestions, and five specific questions to ask any church you visit, culled from my 15 years of visiting local churches, and seven years of writing about those visits.
Obviously some faiths, Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc., usually follow traditional liturgical patterns, so some observations noted here may not fully apply.
Looking for a church: essential observations
Start your search by looking for churches using the Internet. Note whether they have a functional, up-to-date, useful website, displaying service times and location on the first page. If it displays pictures of mountains, lakes and streams instead of key member activities, move on! Look for recent sermons and watch or listen to them. That is a great clue about ministerial communication style.
The church sign should be easily read at posted speed limits. A good church sign should also include an Internet address and service times. In a drive-by inspection, the church should be outwardly maintained, and clean. When you enter the parking lot, determine if adequate parking is provided for guests and the disabled. Upon entering for the first time, look for greeters who’ll extend warm welcomes and provide a bulletin or worship guide. If you have children, ask the greeters if the church provides meaningful programs for them. Look at the restrooms to determine their cleanliness. Unclean and inadequate women’s restrooms are a common complaint. Adequate and comfortable seating is important. A church 80 percent full appears completely full.
The music should be meaningful, tied to the service or liturgy, and proportional to the length of the service. If not, it is probably indicative of an entertainment culture in that church. Look for welcoming language from the people leading the service. Their language should imply a sense of inclusion. “We” is inclusionary; “I” is exclusionary. The pastor’s sermon is a key focus of church attendance. It should hold your interest, engaging your mind in a meaningful way. It should enhance your spirituality. Finally, observe if you were talked to after the service. These are all important hallmarks of a hospitable church.
Five important questions to ask during your first church visit
Will my family and I regularly encounter Scripture?
Church should be a place where better insight can be obtained from Scripture. It’s appropriate to expect this from churches. Unfortunately, some churches have agendas that include series of sermons based on popular books, or filled with interesting, but nonpertinent stories linked loosely, or not at all, to the theme for that day’s teaching. Ask a regular member if they feel they are being regularly fed there. (Of course, the church should not be the sole source of your Bible study; individual and small group study are critical, too.)
Will this church care for my soul, the souls of my family, and make it a priority?
The spiritual leadership team of a church should be vitally interested in the spirituality of each of the members entrusted to their care, including yours. It’s not an easy task, but one you should expect to be taken seriously. That does not mean expecting the pastor or team member will show up every time you call. Talking to members of the church will help you determine if this is actually happening at this church. They’ll know if it is or not.
Does this church invest in the needs of the local community?
Too many churches burden members with the needs of people on the other side of the world and neglect their neighbors. In Alaska, many churches send short-term missions teams to the far side of the world at great expense, often with no tangible outcomes but a nice vacation. Our local communities provide practical, countless opportunities for helping our neighbors. Is the neighborhood surrounding the church happy with its presence? You can ask. Does the church garden on behalf of hungry ones in the community? Ask about church involvement with the homeless, the sick, those in prison, victims of domestic abuse and violence, and those who are in need of food. You may be surprised at what you hear.
Can your particular gifts be used to further the mission of the church?
The worst thing to happen would be for you to possess many gifts — time, money, talent, etc. — and not have them used in the mission of the congregation. Cheerful givers need outlets; they should be put to use. Talk to members or the pastor about needs related to your specific gifts to determine if there may be potential fits for them.
Will the various programs of the church meet your and your family’s needs?
If you have children with special needs, does the church have programs to assist with them? Sunday school programs can be helpful providing Christian education for various age levels, including adults. Determine if they do a children’s church or let them know you’d prefer your children enjoy church as a family. If you are single, divorced, bereaved, or a new Christian, are there resources in place to address them?
Churches are growing dynamic entities that are God-, community- and person-focused. They provide unique opportunities to enable and support your spiritual growth, and that of your family. Most growing churches in our community embrace many of these elements. You can find an article posted earlier this summer about unusual church places at tinyurl.com/lxq4gqh.
God bless your church searching!
The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.