21.1.1 How Americans Pick Churches in the Early 21st Century

On this site we have many articles about how the original Christians believed and acted.  We also have articles on the many doctrinal disputes that divide the many Christian churches and denominations today.

But how does the Christian on the street decide how to go to a church?  Is all the doctrine on these pages so important really?  And if not, how much is that a problem?

K-Love is a nationwide network of Christian radio stations featuring up “positive, encouraging” music, news, and banter. I was listening the other day and the topic was how people picked churches.  They talked about this on their website and referred to an article on crosswalk.com.  Here are some of the reasons people say they use in picking a church.

  • people are friendly and speak to me.
  • I see signs of mission involvement and evangelism.
  • there’s an air of expectancy.
  • the church has children.
  • people are carrying their Bibles.
  • warmth.
  • a variety of age groups.
  • in the parking lot and at the front door, servants are showing me Jesus in their very actions.[i]

As a regular listener to various Christian radio programs as well as a regular reader of all kinds of books and in just talking to people, my own experience, however limited and unscientific, is that I hear people saying that they choose a church for reasons like:

  • I grew up going to that church/denomination
  • my family (or friend) goes to that church
  • I really feel the spirit when I go to that church
  • They’re are a well-balanced church, they teach about Christ as well as have great kids’ and adults’ Sunday school programs
  • I love the pastor, he/she speaks right to me when he/she preaches
  • it’s a place where I can connect
  • I feel fed spiritually there
  • they teach the Bible there

In looking at all the disputes and differences between churches, what is still surprising to me is how little people talk about doctrine in choosing a church. While I have known people that have left one church for another, or even been part of splits in a church over this doctrine or that, my experience is that most people are what I would call “flexible” on doctrinal matters. By flexible I mean I know people who have left churches that practiced manifestations of the Spirit to go to a church that taught against manifestations of the Spirit.  I know people who have left churches with a covenant theology to go to churches with the dispensational theology. I even know people who have left churches that teach the Trinity to attend services that don’t, and vice versa. And a lot of these people made these changes quite easily because the criteria that they used were in the above lists. If the church is loving, and preaches Christ, then they have been able to go there despite the fact that people have split over the issues that divide their former and current church.  In fact, the deciding criteria between former and current churches may be the kids program for young parents, the singles program for young adults, the divorce ministry for recent divorcees, or the worship style for younger/older generations.

Don’t get me wrong, I have known people who are fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and dispensational, or Baptists who want to hear King James only Bible preaching, speaking in tongues is wrong, and only Baptists get it right or mainline Catholic/Presbyterian/Methodists  who will only rely the clergy from that denomination who will tell them what is correct and they won’t dispute it even if they don’t fully understand it.  There are lots of people who for one reason or another are locked into one theological viewpoint and they won’t budge on it.  But my experience is that is that there are more of these “flexible” people in the various denominations who easily move from one church to another even if they are on different poles theologically.

Criteria for picking a church is a subject that is taught. Christian radio programs and Christian authors regularly promote guidelines for picking a church.  The author of the above article, Joe McKeever (and a pastor), said he had a different criteria for picking a church.

“If I could choose one moment, one sliver of time, that would tell the story on a church and allow me to decide on the health-status of the congregation, it would be: How they handle a conflict.” [ii]

Joe explains this comment by referring to the record in Acts chapter 6, verses 1-7.   There was dissent in the congregation because the widows were being neglected in the distribution of food.  The leaders were decisive and moved quickly to remedy the situation. They let the congregation select seven good men to oversee the daily distribution. There was no problem after that. In fact, the church flourished and the number of disciples greatly increased.  Joe says that we should look for this kind of leadership in the church acting together in unison with the congregation to move forward prosperously as a sign of the church we would want to go to.

Gregory Koukl at www.str.org discusses criteria that is in line with some Christian teachers in Media about this topic of choosing a church:

  • “ a church that has a high view of the Scriptures…the Bible is the word of God, and what they mean by that is word by word the word of God”
  • “go to a church where you can be useful…Find a church where you can practice your gifts.”
  • “ find someplace where you can be accountable.” …Other people must have visibility of your life because then you are really part of the life of a community of faith.
  • “go to a church where you feel you can be fed spiritually. This would entail the notion of teaching the Bible, but it goes beyond that.  It’s not just what you do for two hours on Sunday and then do what you want the rest of the week. You want a church that sees Christianity as a full-orbed, full life and will help meet that need in your life. “[iii]

The above  criteria  are reiterated by numerous speakers, especially the last one; go to a church where you can grow spiritually.

What isn’t said but is usually implied in the criteria taught by media online preachers is that the church needs to be orthodox.  That means avoiding cults (think Mormons, Jehovahs’ Witnesses) and heretics.   Concerning heretics, this can vary wildly but first and foremost is acceptance of the Trinity and Deity of Christ issues as well as rejection of homosexuality.  Most of the media Christian teachers I have heard will adamantly speak on these few issues.  Concerning the rest of the differences between the churches it looks like “find a place where you can grow spiritually” is more important than any doctrinal differences on the remaining issues to these teachers.

In practical reality heresy (which just means “divisive issue”) appears to  weigh in to decisions on a minor basis so preaching manifestations of the spirit, requiring water baptism, ordaining women, and many others (see Division on the Table of Contents for more) factor in on church selection decisions, but again for most, it appears the above criteria are more important.  Even the trinity, which some orthodox institutions have made the most critical doctrine in Christianity to the point of (historically) killing opponents to it does not appear to be as important as the above criteria of the people in choosing a church.  I have known people who have gone from trinitarian to unitarian churches and vice versa making the position on the trinity a non-issue compared to spiritual growth and fellowship.  When I say Unitarian I do not mean the Unitarian Universalist church, but rather, christian churches that teach salvation in Christ but  do not teach the classic Trinitarian doctrine of three persons in one God, or that Jesus is a God-Man. The Unitarian view is that is Jesus Christ is the unique human son of Mary impregnated by means of the holy spirit to create a human capable living free from sin who chose to do so and because he, unlike us, was not worthy of death, and died for us, he paid the price of sin for all of us, and thus made eternal life with God available for all that choose to accept him as Lord.

Importance of Doctrine

There certainly is the risk that people are just acting in an undisciplined manner, or are even being misled.  But, if the body of Christ is acting in a manner, perhaps that is the spirit of God leading and speaking. The spiritual life for most people is much simpler than all the complex theology discussed on  this website, or in denominational materials.  If the way that people are picking churches  is the spirit of God working in the lives of people then the message looks like this:

  • Accept Christ as your Savior, not just one time but as your day by day leader by learning to be directed by the Spirit of Christ.
  • Learn to walk as a simple, loving follower of Christ following the spirit, and learning from the Word of God especially what Jesus taught.
  • Find a place with other believers were you can grow to do these things with others
  • Give back by using your gifts to help this process
  • Ignore the rest.  The importance placed by all these complex doctrines is wrong.

There are certainly some concerns in the above list.  Just following the spirit has led many people on diverse paths.  Not making Scripture the absolute guideline eliminates what appears to a common standard.  But eliminating the spirit as a guide for people is non-biblical.  According John 14:26 Jesus didn’t say that he would send a bible that would teach us all things he said the holy spirit would teach us all things.  Making all these doctrines so important with all the resulting divisions has not worked out and is not the model of primitive, original Christianity.


Despite all the theologies promoted by so many churches and denominations, in many cases people seem to follow a different drummer.  In looking at the how people choose churches many look very flexible when it comes to doctrine.  The Christianity of the people who are the body of Christ appears, in many cases, to be much simpler, and more spirit-led than the complex theologies that compete in a very complex Christian marketplace.  Methinks there is a big message here.

[i] http://www.crosswalk.com/pastors/11644009/page0/

[ii] http://www.crosswalk.com/pastors/11644009/page0/

[iii] http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5307

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

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