Posted by: Brian Musser | June 27, 2012

Finding a Church – Theologically

In two previous posts (10 Things about Your Home Church that You Won’t Find at a New Church and What Church Are You Searching For?) I have suggested a four step process for finding a church.

  1. Answer the logistical question.  Are you willing and able to be there when they meet?
  2. Answer theological questions.  Do you agree with what they believe?
  3. Find someone you actually like from the church and hang out with them.
  4. Eventually, find something to do in the church.

Relationships and responsibilities are the two things that keep individuals connected to churches.  But how do you know if it is a good church to connect with in the first place?  How do you answer the theological questions?  This is a very important issue.  How do know if the church you are thinking about is theologically sound?  Do they have to believe exactly like your home church?  How do you know that your home church was theologically sound?  Maybe this new church is actually better.  Do you have to agree with everything they teach?  Your theology should be continuously pushed, challenged and expanded by your church.  Your church should be telling you what to believe and not you telling it what to teach.  I remember hearing a quote from a prominent evangelical Christian leader that went something like, “I never read a book that I know I’m going to disagree with.”  That quote bothered me because it is based on the assumption that what you believe right now is right.  It is contrary to how I look at my beliefs.   So how do we evaluate the teachings of a church in light that what we believe may be open to growth and challenge from the very church we are evaluating?

I am not going to be able to answer that question entirely today.  I will try to give you a handle on what you believe so that it may be easier to make those judgments.  Augustine has been credited (although he most likely didn’t) with saying, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  (Check out this website for more information of the source of this quote) Robert Turner, Collegiate Director for the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey organizes theological concepts into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.  He says he learned it in seminary.  And my pastor at Bucks County Community Church, Ken Miller, organizes the same thing into categories of Absolutes, Conviction and Preferences.  He probably learned that from someone else as well.  Those are the categories that I think would actually give you a good way to evaluate whether or not you theologically agree with a church enough to attend regularly.

Absolutes:

Absolutes are those beliefs that are essential for one to truly be considered a Christian.  Absolutes are those things that if a church didn’t profess it immediately takes them off the list of possibilities.  Absolutes are what define us as believers.  Have you ever thought through what are the beliefs absolutely essential to be a Christian?  I believe thinking through this question is important step in the process of owning your faith.  It is one of the ways what believe changes from something we have been taught to something that we own.  Evaluating the absolute beliefs can be the moment Christianity changes from something that you do to part of who you are.

Although I don’t want to dictate from a blog what the absolutes should be.  Thinking through them and consciously developing them is an important part of the learning process.  (This is reminiscent of my post How the Church Teaches the Gospel Wrong.)  I also want to be of some use in this article as well.  I’ve seen some churches and ministries organize their absolutes around the ideas of:

Incarnation, Scripture, Trinity, Creation, Sin, Salvation and Culmination

Look through your home churches beliefs statements and several other ministries that you respect.  (You can find our basic belief statement here.) Read them carefully.  Study the Scripture references that they have.  Develop a good sense of what you absolutely believe is essential for Christianity.  Create a list of your primary beliefs.  If a potential church you are thinking about attending differs from the absolutes of Christianity then it would be a good idea to take them off the potential list.  You probably shouldn’t even bother with them.  There are plenty of good churches in the world that do agree with the absolutes that you could find.

Convictions:

The second tier of beliefs is called convictions.  I explain convictions this way:  Convictions are those Christian beliefs that there are right or wrong answers for but being wrong doesn’t exclude you from being a Christian.  Being wrong on a conviction doesn’t change the belief structure so much that you are essentially talking about a different religion.  The easy example of Christian convictions would be eschatology.  There is a definite way that Jesus Christ will return to earth.  There are definitive things we should study and know about his return.  There is a right answer about how this world will end, however; getting that answer wrong doesn’t so radically change the absolutes of the faith that you can’t be wrong and still be a Christian.  That is good news on some of these issues because of the level of disagreement would make a ton of us wrong.  I’m not saying being right or wrong about convictions doesn’t matter.  I’m saying that being right isn’t essential to being a Christian.

There are quite a few of these areas of convictions.  The following is a list from the top of my head:

eschatology, predestination/freewill, a woman’s role in the ministry, gay marriage, baptism, the sign-gifts (i.e. healings and speaking in tongues), etc.

I think each one of these topics about our faith has a right answer but I am able to fellowship with those who disagree with me on them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Going to a church that differs from one of your convictions may be a challenge.  I use the word challenge intentionally because challenges could be good or bad depending on how you react to them.  You may realize that you are the one on the wrong side of the issue and change you conviction.  You may also be strengthened in your conviction.  I have three pieces of advice when attending a church with convictions different than yours.

1)       I would not recommend attending a church that differs in several of your convictions.  That may be “challenge overload.”

2)      Never attend a church that differs in one of your convictions with the intention of changing the church.

3)      Only attend a church that differs in a conviction if you are willing to hear the other side of the argument.

Preferences:

Finally, we come to the area of preferences.  These are things that there are not right or wrong answers to.  There is freedom with them.  The easiest example is worship style.  The style of worship that most easily helps individuals connect with God varies greatly throughout cultures, countries, generations and millenniums.  There may be some styles that are better or worse but there are not styles that are right or wrong.  Unfortunately, many American Christians evaluate churches based on preferences instead of absolutes or convictions.  They are looking for environments that they can be comfortable in.  It is important to be comfortable in a church but not at the expense of solid beliefs.  With students I actually encourage them to have fun with this area.  Go to churches that may be outside of your comfort zone.  Go to churches with different worship styles, with different cultures, of different ethnic backgrounds.  You may find new joy in expanding your preferences.  If you are used to sitting in pews go to a church that has chairs, maybe even arranged around tables or if you really want to stretch yourself one that has couches!  (Hopefully, my readers are able to pick a slight hint of sarcasm in the exclamation point for last sentence.)  You may end up connecting best with a church that falls within the same preferences you had before but don’t chose solely because of the preferences.  And do not exclude considering fellowship at a church that may have something about it that you would not prefer.  It may not be exactly what you prefer but it might just be exactly what you need.

So in conclusion:

  • In absolutes look for agreement.
  • In convictions look for an appropriate level of challenge.
  • In preferences have fun.

 

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