Looking for a new church can be an exciting process, but it can also be discouraging and even frustrating. Here are 10 questions that may help you work through that process – 5 you should ask before you leave your current fellowship, and 5 you should ask before you arrive at the new one.
5 Questions to Ask Before You Leave
Why am I leaving the church I am at now?
The grass is always greener on the other side. We can always find somewhere else we think we might rather be. But before we leave a fellowship, we need to prayerfully consider our true motivation. If we are motivated simply by self-interest, that is a good indicator that we may be missing the point entirely. If our priorities aren't right (biblical), then no matter what church we are part of, we will be dissatisfied and maybe even frustrated. Often times fixing relationships is about fixing me, not the other person. If we simply consider how we can encourage one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), and if we focus on being who we need to be in Christ, then perhaps God can use us to make a difference in the overall health of the local fellowship.
Am I being a consumer rather than an active member of the body?
This is very much related to the first question, but it is more specific. There is nothing about the church that is designed to placate my self-interests. The church is designed for Him and for His interests. He has fashioned the whole thing in such a way that we should be "considering each other as worthy of more honor than ourselves" (Php 2:3). We are being equipped to serve others (1 Cor 12:7), and are expected to do so (1 Pet 4:10-11). If my selfishness is a problem at the church I am leaving, it will still be a problem at the new church I choose.
Am I abandoning people and a work that needs me?
God doesn't need us. That is a reality we need to face. If we have a messiah complex then we need to let God do some serious work in our hearts. God doesn't need us, but He has designed His church to utilize us, and He values what we do (1 Cor 12:14-26). So while we shouldn't ever feel indispensable, we ought to have a strong sense of responsibility in accomplishing the tasks He has put before us. Has God put you in a ministry in which He is using you? Are you honoring Him by serving others? Is there a need that He is using you to fill? It may be wise to remain and continue. Making a difference is hard work and it takes time. But do you value the people around you enough to persevere in serving them?
Have I talked with leadership to share concerns and make myself available as part of the solution?
Dissatisfaction and frustration are normal parts of life on earth, and church life is no different. Because we are flawed and we are working with other flawed people, there will never be a problem-free situation in this life. When those challenges inevitably arise, it is an easy thing to keep concerns and frustrations bottled up inside, and when we aren't communicating with others and seeking counsel, it is easy to quit. But sometimes getting another perspective can be very helpful and can even help refocus us on Him. Rather than just leaving at the first sign of discontent, it is important to communicate – especially with leaders, so that they understand our concern, and can help to address questions. Oftentimes they will have a broader perspective and can help resolve some of those challenges. They might be able to suggest ways we can get involved and help, or they might be able to point us to some passages that will help strengthen us in difficult circumstances, or they might be able to connect us with other brothers and sisters who can walk with us. The point here is that in any relationship it is easy to quit, but communicating well and listening well makes it much easier to persevere (1 Thes 5:14).
Does it most honor God for me to leave?
Ultimately, this is the key question to answer. If we are motivated by anything other than honoring God, then we need to reevaluate. God can use us in many different contexts, and we can honor and glorify Him in many arenas (while I believe wholeheartedly in the total sovereignty of God, I am not one who subscribes to the idea that God doesn't give us choices in life). He gives us great freedom in the Christian life, and one of those areas of freedom is in choosing with whom we will spend the time He has entrusted to us. But just because He gives us the freedom to leave, that doesn't mean it is always the best thing (1 Cor 6:12 illustrates that principle). While it is sometimes difficult to assess what might most honor God, by thinking in those terms and being motivated by that desired outcome, we will better position ourselves to make wise choices. There is a time to leave and a time to stay. Evaluate your situation through the lens of His word, and with His interests in mind, and you can have confidence that He will help you with the direction you are seeking (e.g., Jam 1:5).
5 Questions to Ask Before You Arrive
What priority is put on the word of God, and how is it handled by leaders?
It is the word of God that equips us and makes us adequate for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). We have been "created in Christ Jesus for good works which He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10). Once we are positionally in Christ, we are remade and designed to walk in good works, and we can only be made adequate to fulfill that design by being immersed in His word. If a church's leadership puts little emphasis on the word or assigns it a low value, then that church will struggle with immaturity, inadequacy, and will be easily led astray. The Bible should be taught faithfully. You should expect a teaching approach that handles biblical passages in context and with a sound understanding of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation).
What is the doctrinal statement, and are there doctrinal differences?
Doctrine may not be the first thing you think of when considering a new church fellowship, but it ought to be a high priority. All of the faith and practice for believers is to be rooted in sound doctrine. Doctrine is just another word for teaching, and if "the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5), then we better make sure the teaching is right (biblical). Paul warns of "other" doctrine (1:3, 6:3) and "deceitful" doctrines (4:1), and urges believers to be nourished on sound doctrine (4:6) – sound teaching is part of a believer's sustenance. It is not something to be taken for granted or handled with apathy. If, for example, a local church has a different understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer, then their entire model of sanctification – how a believer grows – will look different in practice. If a local church has a different teaching of the doctrine of salvation, they may be holding to a "different gospel" – something Paul critiques sternly (Gal 1:6-8). Doctrine matters immensely. It isn't just hypothetical – it is core stuff.
What are key values and philosophies, and are those in agreement with Scripture?
It is not unusual to find local churches that have particular and distinct priorities and values. Sometimes those values come from the pet projects or passions of leaders, sometimes those come from traditions established in the church long ago, and in other cases they are simply recognizable as coming from the Bible. Some churches will emphasize discipleship, or missions, or community outreach and evangelism, or community participation. These things are all good – and ideally a church should emphasize each of these appropriately. But look for imbalances and signs of unhealthiness (another application of 1 Cor 6:12). Obviously you shouldn't expect to find perfection (because you won't, this side of heaven), but you should be aware of where the challenges are.
What are some of the needs that are apparent, and do I see opportunities to serve?
We need to beware of the consumer mentality that is simply focused on self and on using a product. As members of the body of Christ we are each "given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor 12:7). God has designed for us to serve each other, not simply to look for how we can be served. Is there a receptiveness in the church to people serving, or is there a reluctance (on the part of leadership) to involve people in the work of service? Of course, we shouldn't expect to be put into service immediately (though we should be willing), as we need to give people time to get to know us. Patience is important, and so is using what God has given us to serve others and glorify Him (1 Pet 4:10-11).
Would I be able to invite others to be involved in this church?
Again, no assembly of people is going to be without its problems. While our standard should be Christlikeness (perfection), we need to understand that none of us are there yet. And when we gather together, we come as flawed people seeking to grow together. As long as there is a demonstrated commitment to Him, to His truth, and to growth in Him, then we should be able to reach out and invite others to connect with that local fellowship of believers. But if there are issues evident (poor doctrine or teaching, lovelessness, arrogance) that are crippling and that you won't have opportunity to help resolve, then you might find it difficult to (in good conscience) invite others in. If so, that might be an indicator that this is not the fellowship for you. Ultimately, we need to be careful not to be excessively critical in assessing a fellowship or other believers individually. We do not want to be focused on the speck in the eye of someone else, when we have a log in our own eye (Mt 7:3). As Paul encouraged Timothy, we ought to "pay attention to [ourselves] and [our] teaching" (1 Tim 4:16). Let's be who God has designed us to be, and be gracious with those around us.
—Dr. Christopher Cone, Th.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, serves as President of Calvary University and as Research Professor of Bible and Theology. He has formerly served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology, and at Tyndale Theological Seminary as President and Professor of Bible and Theology. He has served in several pastoral roles and has also held teaching positions at the University of North Texas, North Central Texas College, and Southern Bible Institute. He is the author and general editor of more than a dozen books, and his articles are published at http://www.drcone.com. Christopher lives in the Kansas City area with his wife Cathy, and their two daughters, Christiana, and Cara Grace.