8 tests a church needs to pass before we’ll call it home

Most people will move churches at least once in their life. Now before you freak out about transfer growth and rearranging deck chairs on the titanic, just think about it. How many churches have you attended?


Image courtesy of Flickr 

So it got me thinking. What goes on in the mind of your average “church shopper”? I know most of you will (rightfully) hate the term, but I use it for convenience. In the same way that most people shop for a house to live in, most Christians will eventually end up shopping for a church to call home.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing! There are actually some legitimate reasons to leave a church. At least for the moment, however, these are not what I want to touch on.

Instead, in this post I want to briefly address 8 tests that I think many Christians will apply before deciding to join a new church. Now whether or not you think they’re the “right” tests is another matter, but from what I can tell most people will probably at least consider them before laying down roots.

So what are they?

1. Leader- According to Rick Warren, most people choose a church based on the senior pastor. Interestingly, most people then choose to stay because of their community. I put leader first because usually he will influence the rest.

2. Teaching- is it faithful and engaging or dull and boring. Is it froth and bubble but no substance? Do they preach exegetically or topically or both? Different people will have different preferences when it comes to teaching.

3. Experience- this includes but is not limited to the music. Do people leave your service feeling energized and built up or tired and depressed? What’s the overall impact of your service on those who attend?

4. Community- do people have friends at your church? How are guests welcomed? Can they imagine themselves belonging there and see it as their new home? I’ve been astonished at how important this is for most people.

5. Involvement- many people want a place to serve and feel needed. Feeling needed and valued is a felt need for most humans. Lots of Christians will want a church in which they can serve and feel valued.

6. Convenience- what time is your service? Does it fit with my kids sleeping patterns? And how far do I have to travel to get there? What about parking? All these sorts of things will influence whether someone decides to join your church.

7. Direction– most people want to know where the church is headed. What’s the vision and is this something I can get on board with? Recently I’ve noticed that more and more people are looking for churches that have a vision for mission.

8. Tradition– some people will only be willing to attend a certain denomination. Others, however, just want to know that what this church stands for is largely consistent with what they believe.

Some of these tests will be more important to some than others. For example, the classic stereotype in Sydney is that the Anglicans only care about teaching and the Pentecostals only care about experience. I don’t think either is correct.

Whatever the case, it might be worth reflecting on how your church scores on each of these tests. Once you’ve done that, you then need to figure out which ones you actually care about. Only then will you know whether you need to make changes.

Question: if you were looking for a new church, which of the above tests would be most important to you? Leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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12 thoughts on “8 tests a church needs to pass before we’ll call it home

  1. Fascinating…

    The church shopper thing puts the church leader/planter on the horns of a dilemma somewhat. The church shopper is usually a person who is already a Christian and who has an expectation of what church should look like and what church should provide. They come from within the Christian subculture. Often what the Christian subculture says is ‘missional’ and ‘outsider friendly’ isn’t at all – it is just as tribal and ‘insider friendly’ as anything else.

    Yet you really want church shoppers to choose your church because they are more likely to be solid members and potential leaders, and because numbers grow numbers. The more that a ‘buzz’ develops that your church is an interesting place to be, the better the experience will be.

    The genuine outsider is not a church shopper because they are choosing, not between different churches, but whether to go to church or not at all. What they think church should be is completely at variance with what the church shopper thinks it should be. The outsider where I am has often had a church school background and so knows some old hymns, and used to have a chaplain. They have had positive associations with this.

    In my context, the genuine outsider is less troubled by traditional aspects of church (liturgy, hymns, collars for clergy) than the insider, who tends to come from a Sydney evangelical church where those things were consciously dropped. So: we are traditional-ish for MISSIONAL reasons, but the church shopper finds this a jarring note, because they think that missional = informal.

    So: do we change to suit the church shopper (and we need them) or do we change to suit the outsider (who needs the gospel)?

    It’s a bind.

    • Michael thanks for dropping by. You articulate the “bind” and the tension between them incredibly well. One point of agreement and one question:

      1. Particularly in relation to the music that a church sings, most Christians from the evangelical subculture want something entirely different to what the outsider wants. Insiders love to debate things like how emotionally expressive to be, as if emotional expressiveness is the test of orthodoxy. My reflections are that most secular outsiders think the whole singing thing is weird anyway, and when you get everyone being super emotional and hand-wavy it just puts them off even further. Bit of a generalization, but you get the point. That’s one element where I think Redeemer NYC has it nailed… they sing classical hymns in the morning and have a jazz thing in the evening cause they think it will be best for the skeptic.

      2. I find the “traditional” approach to mission intriguing. Church Hill obviously has a similar approach (which is where i’m at). Which type of outsider are you hoping to come to church? a) the random off the street? or b) the friend of a regular person? If a) then the traditional approach works well. If b) then presumably you need your regular Christians to actually agree with the strategy, and not feel too weirded out by the whole traditional thing. I don’t think we’ve nailed this just yet.
      So I’d be curious to know how you guys are trying to do it. Do you articulate the “traditionally missional” approach to your regulars? If so how?

  2. Hi Tim,

    Interesting article. Did you rank these 8 in terms of importance or is it just a listing of 8 tests? One comment/question regarding what you said in your comment below:

    “My reflections are that most secular outsiders think the whole singing thing is weird anyway, and when you get everyone being super emotional and hand-wavy it just puts them off even further.”

    I know you said that it was a generalization – but how did you arrive at this conclusion? Some massive pentecostal churches attract a LOT of non-Christians on a regular basis and they don’t seem to be put off by the emotive/expressiveness of the praise and worship. On the contrary I think that rigid, awkward singing can be more off-putting because it combines the 1) singing is weird thing with 2) singing is weird and it’s even WORSE when the atmosphere is one where people feel like they are being watched with every overt or subtle physical movement they make. These are just my individual thoughts, but I’d be interested to know how you arrived at yours?

    • Thanks James. Certainly not listing them in order of importance. That implies I think these 8 are even the right (i.e. theologically correct) things that we should look for in a church. That’s not what this article is about (though there would be some overlap). These are just 8 things that I think most Christians will usually consider when choosing a new church. I’m not saying whether they’re right or wrong, just making an observation.

      Re: your question… it’s entirely a matter of context. In terms of where i get it from, it’s exclusively a comment about friends of mine who would not call themselves Christians and how they feel about Christian music. Not a blanket rule (I probably needed to rephrase my comment… that’s the problem with my comments… never as well thought out as a post).

      All of that being said… many of the “massive pentecostal churches” create a context and atmosphere in which people are used to expressing emotions and signing loudly. I.e. the lights are down, there’s thousands of people in an auditorium and they’ve got a cool band. What does that remind you of? I was at John Mayer last week and I was signing my heart out along with bunch of other people who would never step foot in a church. Sometimes we try to mimic the pentecostals with 30 people in a old hall with a set of glaring halogen lights on. At that point i think you’ve missed something contextually.

      As i said, longer discussion but there’s a few stream-of-consciousness thoughts…

      • Thanks for clarifying Tim. I wasn’t thinking about context before, so viewing it through that lens and thinking of a best-fit model based on what you have to work with certainly makes sense. Cheers!

  3. I think I found the demographic of a church to be an important factor. Moving to a different city for uni, and only knowing christians from the uni christian group and from my church which was made up of uni students and young workers I realised that I really missed the relationships I had with older christians back home. I missed their wisdom and the kind of mentoring that they gave me. So I wanted to move to a church where I could talk to someone older than 22, who wasn’t just the minister.

  4. Thanks for this Tim – another thought provoking post.

    This might not make sense (just warning you in advance!), but I wonder if church shoppers “shop” more intuitively than we often articulate. What I mean is, do church shoppers evaluate a church according to some sort of criteria (such as the 8 tests you’ve listed) and then make a decision, OR do they make the decision (based on a gut feeling or something less tangible) and then go about justifying it with specific criteria (such as the 8 tests) afterwards? After all, it can be pretty hard to discern what a church is really like, especially if you’ve only been a few times.

    What do you think?

    • Thanks Nath, fair point. Though some may, I don’t think very many people would actually have a list of 8 things (or some other number) that they are consciously working through. Far from it! As you say, I do think that for many people it’s a “gut” thing or a “intuitive” decision. I suppose my argument would be that their gut and intuition is probably shaped in a large degree by these 8 things whether or not they could articulate that fact.

      Having chosen a church, they may well say… “Oh yeah well i just really liked the preaching” or “I had some friends here already” and that’s why I came. At the time they may well not know those things are influencing their decisions, but I’d be very surprised if none of these influenced their “gut”.

      Come back?

      • No, I totally agree with you Tim! Gut feelings come from somewhere, and it’s worth taking the time to unpack them. I guess I’m just wary of how easy it is to talk ourselves into things and then rationalise them. Especially when making decisions we’re anticipating we’ll have to justify to others.

  5. Your article is enlightening. To me the community within the church is important. All people, whether Christians, non- Christians, atheist…. welcome a polite, warm and friendly relationship with their church people, especially those in the front line of the church – the workers (voluntary or employed) and certainly your #1 item “Leader” is extremely important. I worship at KL’s St Mary’s Cathedral and our Lady Group is now doing “Six Steps to Loving Your Church”. Whenever I come into a church, I think of the Body of Christ, I tell myself I can’t use my hand to slap my face. It helps because I am extremely conscious of people’s behaviour or manners having lived all life with the virtues of Confucius, one is Li 禮 meaning good refine manners!