Can’t Find a Church?
By T. A. McMahon
“Dear Brothers and Sisters at The Berean Call, I’m at wit’s end. We recently moved to a new community, and we can’t find a church that is teaching God’s Word without adding to it or subtracting from it. Do you know of any good churches in our area?”
This is the most common request we receive here at TBC, and it has been for more than two decades. Sadly, we’ve been reluctant to recommend any specific churches, and it’s not because there aren’t any good Bible-teaching churches around. It’s because doctrinally we don’t know where they stand today! We’ve seen even good churches change overnight. The hope of this article is to give those who are presently seeking fellowship with believers who love God’s Word and who want to grow in “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) some suggestions that we believe will be helpful in their circumstance.
Before I begin with some suggestions regarding what to do when looking for a church, let’s start with the qualities of a church worth seeking—in general. The most important attribute is a church’s view of the Bible. Do the leaders believe that the Scriptures are God’s inerrant communication to mankind, which were received and written down by God’s chosen prophets? Do they believe that all the words of the Bible are inspired of God with nothing added to them by the Scriptures’ original transcribers? “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 hessalonians:2:13). Any deviation from the belief in the inerrancy of God’s Word, no matter how small, is akin to a puncture in a life raft. At some point, sooner or later, the raft will deflate, ceasing to preserve life.
A fellowship that teaches the Scriptures expositionally, i.e., verse by verse, offers a more effective situation for learning God’s Word than a church that features only topical preaching. Certainly both approaches can be abused, but topical preaching has many inherent problems that are difficult to avoid. Too often, topical preaching substitutes what God has said with man’s thoughts no matter how sincere the intention. How does that happen? 1) Rarely is the correct context of the verses explained; 2) The preacher has leeway to avoid difficult and even controversial words or passages by skipping over them; 3) Due to the first two points above, it’s more difficult for the listener to follow the message in a biblically discerning way as a Berean (Acts:17:10-11), and 4) It can readily take the listener away from what should be the main focus of any sermon, which is, “What is God Himself telling us directly through His Word?”
Bible study programs are important. Sometimes, when I’ve inquired among some as to whether or not they were involved in a Bible study at their church, the enthusiastic response is “yes!” When I ask what book they’re studying, an all-too-common response is that they are using the latest book by a popular Christian author. To call that a “Bible study” is more than a misnomer, no matter how edifying the book might seem. We need to make sure that the Bible is what’s actually being studied. Does a prospective church have a youth program that has the teaching of God’s Word as its primary objective? Entertainment used in youth groups has ruled for decades, all but eliminating true discipleship of young people. Paul’s words to Timothy should show us what’s valuable as a church’s youth-oriented objective: “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy:3:15).
The vital qualities of worship and the importance of serious collective prayer should also be a consideration in joining a fellowship. Outreach is another significant characteristic to be weighed when selecting a church, whether that means supporting missionaries abroad or believers within the community, and sharing the witness and love of Christ in serving.
Some, especially those who’ve been actively seeking to find a “good church,” may be thinking at this point, “Great! Point me to the church with the qualities you mentioned, and I’ll be there next Sunday!” I have little doubt that there are churches that even exceed the few things that I’ve outlined, but I also know that most don’t measure up. When Jesus addressed the seven churches in the first three chapters of Revelation, only two of the seven were commended without reservation. The rest had issues that needed to be corrected, and if they didn’t comply, Jesus said, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Revelation:2:5). The “candlestick” is the church that is to represent the light of God’s Word, and that light is getting dimmer. On the other hand, there are many churches today that are at least maintaining a flicker of God’s light. But what good is that?
Someone might respond, “I’m not interested in attending a church where God’s light only flickers!” That would be my first inclination as well. But then, as the old saying goes, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” In other words, all the wishing in the world won’t turn the majority of churches into what has been described above. The reality of the situation for many church-seeking believers today is that they have only “flickering churches” available to them.
Let me define what I would refer to as a flickering church. It’s one that has overloaded its fellowship with the debris of man’s programs and practices, but beneath that spiritually adulterated and doctrinally confused pile there’s a spark of the light of Christ (the biblical Jesus) and the true gospel. As a veteran camper, one thing I know is that a spark found buried in the ashes of a recently used fire pit can sometimes be fanned into a flame.
With that in mind, here are my further suggestions when the churches in one’s community reflect little or almost none of the criteria mentioned at the beginning of this article. When the only reasonably close churches seem repugnant to one’s biblical sensibilities, sometimes the reaction is, “No way, Tom! I’m not setting foot in any of those churches. I’ll just stay at home, read my Bible, and listen to you on your TBC broadcasts.”
Okay, I just threw that last comment in to underscore what a bad option that is. Reading the Bible is okay, but not doing what it says is completely counterproductive. The Bible tells us, “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews:10:24-25).
Why would I encourage someone to set foot in a church that has multiple issues that are of man’s making and his delusions, some of which are deceptions and seductions of the Adversary, and, all things considered, have led to much unfruitfulness as a body? I can hear someone saying, “Dave Hunt would be rolling over in his grave if he could read this!” I think not. Hear me out as I give some reasons why I know Dave would support what I’m saying.
In my forty years of observing Christendom, I have witnessed the activities of the church at large (including both nominal and true believers) devolve into what is essentially a consumer operation. Whether through the covetousness that pervades the hearts of individuals, or methods like the church-growth movement (spawned by a worldly marketing scheme), church seekers have been making decisions based primarily upon a “feed me” mentality. Yes, believers need to be fed, especially the Word (Luke:4:4). But a believer’s approach to church life that’s primarily a one-way “serve me” process loses sight of the necessity of one’s own service to the body and is missing what the Christian life is all about, not to mention the loss of the fruit and blessings that are won by selfless ministry. It doesn’t take a terribly deep personal evaluation for any of us to recognize our own self-serving culpability. If in doubt, check your “complaint gage” and service record concerning your involvement in your present fellowship.
What I’m getting at here—what is really necessary—is having a heart to serve. It shouldn’t require a huge transformation for any honest person who claims to be a biblical Christian but fails to support the service ministries in one’s church. If this isn’t happening in your life, you need to get back in line with what a Christian’s life in Christ is all about. Apply that to the person quoted at the top of this article who doesn’t have a church and is crying out for help to find a good one.
Now, let’s consider a scenario that’s more difficult and distressing and is becoming more and more common for believers. They have no church and no fellowship, period. Why? Because they disagree with all the churches they’ve visited.
If a church holds to the biblical gospel and the biblical Jesus, even if they are buried beneath a heap of worldly teachings and programs, my recommendation is to attend that fellowship. What? Wouldn’t such a church lead a believer into teachings and programs that aren’t biblically sound? It could, but those who are struggling to find a good church very likely have enough biblical discernment to recognize what doesn’t match up with sound doctrine. It’s also very likely that they could be a blessing to such a church if they were to attend with a servant’s heart. I know of a very discerning person who, when questioned as to why he decided to attend a church that offered programs that weren’t supported by Scripture, replied, “I was thinking that I might be able to help the church biblically.”
I also know a young couple who are making a wonderful contribution to a church that probably wouldn’t allow me to teach, given the number of programs they endorse about which I’ve written unfavorably. Yet this couple’s ministry to young adults (involving a Bible study and personal discipleship) in the church has been praised by the leadership. They established right up front with the leaders that when they serve within the body, the Word of God would be their guide and authority. Their heart’s desire is to encourage young adult believers (their own peers) to learn and to apply the Scriptures in their own lives. They don’t address the programs in the church in which they’re not in agreement, unless asked. When that happens, their response is, “We just want to go by what the Bible says and to teach what it teaches”—and they’ve yet to receive a complaint. They don’t want to compromise their beliefs or be regarded as divisive. Others like them have this in common: they simply want to serve the body of Christ in any capacity they can, and wherever they can. They believe that the Holy Spirit will help them to strengthen their brothers and sisters in Christ no matter how much a church has been weakened by unbiblical programs and practices.
There’s another situation regarding seeking a church, or rather not seeking, that we hear about more and more these days. The claim is that the seekers can’t find like-minded believers in a community, so the individual or family makes the choice to isolate themselves due to their circumstance. They end up with no church, no fellowship with other believers, no one outside themselves to serve, or with whom to pray. They’ve shut themselves off from the diverse gifting of fellow believers for the edifying and building up of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians:12:12-27, 14:2-5, 12, 26; Ephesians:4:11-16; 1 Peter:4:10). They rely mostly on preachers who teach over radio, TV, or other communication devices for biblical instruction. For these, servanthood and fellowship are among the most important components that are lost.
For believers in that detached condition, I have a few questions and thoughts. Is it possible for the Lord to help you to find other believers? My guess is that, among all the people attending churches in a community, there must be a potential believer, or perhaps even a true believer, or two or three. Maybe they’re not mature in the faith but are genuinely seeking to know God in truth. Churches, therefore, would seem to offer the best opportunity for meeting other believers in Christ. Finding another believer could lead to fellowship that begins by simply praying for one another. Or it could lead to helping one another out by meeting a need. Eventually, it might even open the door for a Bible study. I believe that Jesus will help those who are actively seeking fellowship to find fellowship—by His grace. Fellowship doesn’t involve merely the comfort of being with like-minded believers, but it is the setting to best carry out the Lord’s instructions for living out the Christian life.
The last scenario is the most extreme, yet some believers are in this situation today. It may be that, should the Lord not return soon for His bride, true believers won’t have the option of assembling together in churches. Nevertheless, they won’t stop gathering together privately. Why? That’s the exhortation and the instruction for believers that is given continually throughout the New Testament. Believers desperately need fellowship, especially as the days grow darker the nearer we get to Jesus’ return for His bride, His body. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Corinthians:12:27). One among a host of instances of instruction related to the necessary interaction of the saints is 1 Thessalonians:5:11-14: “Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do. And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” All those things are best—and perhaps only—accomplished as we assemble ourselves together with brothers and sisters in obedience to our Lord and Savior. That’s what Christ commands for our good, and for His good pleasure.