How Do We Look For The Theology of A Church? Part III

Many of us have visited multiple churches in our lives, some stand out more and other’s we probably don’t remember much about.  For many people what stands out most is what happens during the service, the kind of preaching, what was preached, the music, how the sacraments were handled.  These parts of the service are the content of why many gather for worship, without these parts we could be a “community??? and do mission anywhere.

Questions concerning the pastor and sermon will often be one of the most important aspects of church hunting.  I know many people who look for a church based on how well the pastor preaches and who the pastor is.  Is the pastor a man or a woman, is their faith evident, what kind of education do they have, how do they talk about their relationship with God and to the Bible, and what’s their preaching style like are implicit questions many of us may never verbalize but evaluate churches on.  This being the case it will be hard to know a lot about a pastor and his or her preaching and leadership after only one visit but here are some things to keep in mind.

The Sermon
76558311 200484F8F0What is the structure of the sermon?  Is topic oriented, based on one particular verse or group of verses in the same passage of Scripture, does is used various verses throughout the Bible, does it use the Bible at all? Is the message useful, challenging, directed at the spiritual life only or does help you understand how to live as well?  What kind of rhetoric does he or she use?  Look for words, phrases and topics that get repreated.  Is the life and death of Jesus addressed in the message – good sermons always include the “Christ event??? and point the congregation back to Christ as our model of living (and dying).
What are you looking to find when you are consider good preaching?

Preachers all have their school of thought, and have a way they like to structure their sermons.  I don’t think there is one right way (so long as the Bible is being used in some capacity) and that it’s more based on preference.  That’s why you have to consider many questions if you’re not sure.  An assumption I think is safe is that most preachers tend to stick to one style, and may do something different from time to time, but if you don’t like my preaching style this sunday, you probably won’t like it next week either. 

Thinking About The Worship Service
Concerning the worship part of the service, this could include music, liturgy, art, plays and more. Good questions to ask are: What forms of worship does this community use to enter into praise of God?  Who is involved in the worship? Is it the same people who you’ve seen do other things, or are these different people.  Were they helpful in leading you and the congregation into a prayerful, centered spirit?  What is the message presented through the lyrics, liturgy, and other words offered?  What kind of God is this church worshipping can be guessed by the way worship is talked about, and the way God is addressed through these various mediums.

The Sacraments
The sacraments are a very important part of church life, whether they are handled by a priest or shared as a common meal in someone’s home it generates the life of the church as it fellowships with Christ.  You may or may not have the opportunity to be at a church when they participate in the Lord’s Supper, baptize or do other sacramental practices (including silence), but if you are this will give you a great peek into their theology of how they understand how we are to interact personally with God.  Is it something done with seriousness, prayerfully, communally?  Who is allowed to participate in the sacrament?  How often do they do this practice?  All of this will help you see how this important aspect of church life is handled.   

The Tradition
Finally, I would ask what is this church’s relationship to a tradition?  Is it a denomination with a long history, if so what is that general church history (you could start out at wikipedia).  If it’s a denominational church see if you can tell whether it’s proud to be in that tradition, is it indifferent, or is it a maverick group that’s rejected the larger denomination?
Is it a stand-alone “non-denominational??? group of Christians? If so it may be much harder to get at what their theology is (if they are not found in the history books it will be harder to understand their origins etc), but you may be able to find out how the church was started and what caused it to be started.  It’s also important to question it’s interaction with other traditions within and outside of Christianity.  Is this a church that’s got it all figured out, and everybody else is wrong?  Are they pretty nice about other Christian groups but hostile to other religious groups?  Or are they looking for relationships with groups of people different than themselves?

You will not be able to get answers to all these questions in one day, maybe not even in a few months, but some places you will be able to discover a lot about the people there, how they treat strangers, and the God they worship by keeping these considerations in mind.  And then wait and pray that God will guide you to the right place. 

This concludes the series of posts meant to be a guide for people who are looking to find a new church or have just moved to a new area and are lots with the long list of churches in the yellow pages.  Part I – is on “How do we look for a theology of a church????  and part II is on  “More questions to ask when church shopping.???

13 responses to “How Do We Look For The Theology of A Church? Part III”

  1. To search for a church, shouldn’t we look to the early church as a model? The closer we are to the head of a stream, the purer the water. Hence the way the early the church gathered and worshipped in the first generations of christianity provides the way we too should worship.
    Justin Martyr 150’s AD
    “We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).

  2. Tiber, thanks for your comment here. Understanding the early church and its relationship to us today is always an important factor for Christians as we shape the way we practice faith. But I would also say that it’s not completely possible to get back to those things in the way we often hope or desire. The world has changed drastically from the time of Justin Martyr, Tertullian and others. We have to adjust the way we live and understand accordingly this is why the study of contextualization is so important.

    Of course this is my point of view, if you feel this is possible to find a church like that, and you add that part to your own questions and categories good for you, go for it. And I hope that you find a community that follows Christ faithful in a way that you fit in with.

  3. Is it possible to return theologically and liturgically to the model set forth by the Early Church?

  4. I like your guide to church shopping; it is similar to the recommendation to new teachers to scout out the neighborhood their school draws from. Look at the houses, the cars; see if people have fishing boats in the driveway, or tennis courts in the local parks, or drinking establishments…what kind of houses or apartments are there, what does the library look like? Read the local paper. Does everyone work at the lumber mill, or is this where all the doctors live? What sort of animals are around–cows? Mutts? Arabian stallions? Good common-sense advice on getting an initial feel for a community. You can’t stop with these sorts of observations, of course, but they are a good starting point.

    The question raised about the early church being a model, though, is an interesting problem. The apostles thought Jesus was going to lead an army and overthrow the Roman government; they were shocked when he was crucified. Then when he reappeared and promised to return, they thought he meant right away–probably with a legion of angels at his back. Paul said something about “we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed…” because he expected the end of history within his lifetime. He was wrong.

    They thought Jesus came exclusively to the Jews, and declined to talk to gentiles. Even after Paul was forcefully directed to the gentiles, some of the apostles insisted that the gentiles had to convert to Judaism. Many of Paul’s letters to the early church were corrections to their poor practices–“oh you foolish Galations, who has bewitched you!?”

    In summary, the early church was clueless and stumbling about trying to figure out how to proceed when all their initial assumptions turned out to be wrong. In that sense, emulating the early church is probably a good idea–we too are clueless and struggling to proceed to give birth to a new way of relating to God, and we don’t really know where we are going. (Of course, people sometimes want to emulate the early church in particular practices–having a service before sunrise in the catacombs so the Romans won’t catch you, or making women wear scarves on their heads, or something. That seems to be less useful, and possibly even a distraction–the temptation would be to say that since we know the right time and location to hold church, and how to dress for the occasion, we have arrived at true Christianity and can stop looking.)

  5. David, thanks for the feedback. It’s a great point you bring up and I’d like to add that when we assume we can and should go back to the beginning, that seems to assume the church hasn’t grown or done much good since then. I am personally not all that interested in going back, though I am interested in learning how to be faithful like those who have gone before us.

    But I think that church has done all kinds of good things, and learned a lot about the world and it’s interactions with it over the past 2000 years. I would hate to loose all that. Even the bad stuff, we’ve screwed up a lot, but I think we’ve learned from it that stuff (I hope we have anyways).

  6. David said “The early church was clueless and stumbling” Certainly the epistles from Peter and Paul tell us that the early church was not perfect and needed letters of correction to prevent heresies (judaizers etc), but it was still this clueless stumbling bunch that Jesus said he would build his church on and the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against. Then 360 some years after the resurrection, this bunch of folks discerned for us what we believe is the inspired Word of God, the Bible. If we trust the Scriptures to be inspired, we are accepting the work of these early pioneers of our faith, stumbling and clueless, but yet able to be lead by the spirit of God. just some thoughts
    God bless

  7. Camassia,
    Great idea – something very simple that got overlooked. Of course if people looked at our church’s website they would be able to know much of anything…maybe we should do something about that?

  8. It would probably help to revamp the website if we want to diversify beyond our current combination of Fuller people and ethnic Mennonites. Hugo and I are the only people I know of who actually showed up because we’d been reading Mennonite theology.

  9. […] Wess has written a thoughtful three-part series on what to look for when shopping for a church: one, two, and three. Rilina is starting a series on the same subject, since she is looking for a church herself. […]

  10. An assumption I think is safe is that most preachers tend to stick to one style, and may do something different from time to time, but if you don’t like my preaching style this sunday, you probably won’t like it next week either.

    It’s interesting that you say that, because I’d say the exact opposite. I’d hate to think that someone would come to check us out and decide on the basis of one sermon. 1 week we mightbe straight expositional, the next we can be dialogically to the point of a big rambling chat. Another week, someone might preach who is still learning the ropes and so on. And then there’s the recognition that we sometimes just have off-weeks.

    Am I making sense, or just missing your point?

  11. Hey Graham – nice to see you on here.

    I totally understand what you mean and no you’re not missing my point. I am making an assumption based on my own experience, there’s not statistical data invovled here.

    One reason I said what I did is because a majority of churches operate on a signal pastorate model, which lessens the likely hood of a variety of styles represented (though it’s certainly not impossible by any means).

    But then again, I think if you’re church is like that (as is mine) then that’s wonderful. I think it should be like that, and I am certainly not endorsing the other way.

    The other problem is if you only have one day to visit a church, there is hardly enough chance to let people know the variety you offer in the way of teaching the Scriptures. I know I’ve had friends come to my different churches at some of the most inopportune times (accidentally), you know, that week we had the ceo of some board come and talk to us about tithing, the hiring of a new staff member, or about a change in pastorates or something. Those friends didn’t get the opportunity to see what the normal routine was. I think that’s where we have to just leave it up to God and the grace of people understanding that every week can (and probably should) be different.

    Forgive me if I painted to broadly with my statement.