How to Find the Right Church for You

The way to go about finding the church that’s right for you is by doing the same thing you do when you’re searching for the right pair of shoes or a new car: you go shopping. Shoes have to fit just right; you’ve got to test drive a car to know if you really like it; and you’ve got to try a church out a few times before you can tell whether or not it’s the right church for you.

Churches are like people: they have distinct and unique personalities. And just like you don’t automatically get along with every person you meet, you’re not automatically going to like every church you visit. And if you visit a church that you don’t feel comfortable in, that’s perfectly fine. It just means that’s not the church for you.

When I first became a Christian (at thirty-eight years old), I figured all Christians worshipped in just about the same way: they sat in their pews; their pastor made a speech and read some of the Bible to them; they all sang a little; they went home. Insofar as I’d ever given it any thought at all, I had no sense that there was much if any variation on that basic procedure.

So on the first Sunday morning following my newfound desire to attend church, I climbed into my car, started driving, and figured I’d pull into the first church I came across. They were all the same, weren’t they?

As it happened, the first church I came across that morning was a Lutheran church. Now I am a huge fan of the Lutheran service; back then, though, I wasn’t sure what to think of a service that started with a man in a full-length white gown swinging a big metal incense ball at the end of a chain slowly making his way up the church’s center aisle, while behind him came a long and stately procession of somber, long-robed clergymen. Bringing up the rear of this curious parade was a man in a thick, high-necked, gold brocaded robe who, as he walked, held high above his head an outsized book bound in silver that I guessed was the Bible, or some other kind of very important holy book. At that point, though, I was so confounded by what I was seeing that I wouldn’t have been all that surprised to learn that the book the priest was holding over his head was an ancient tome imbued with the talismanic powers necessary to appease the ancient Mesopotamian god Rah.

Okay, I’d have been a little surprised to learn that. But it’s safe to say I was out of my element in church that day.

The following Sunday morning I tried out another church, which I also did the Sunday following that—until, ala’ Goldilocks, I found a church that fit me just right. (Today I am an Episcopalian–which is to say, I now worship in a service that is almost identical to the Lutheran service that, lo these many years now gone by, so confused me. I am also now proud possessor of the knowledge that the metal swinging incense ball on the chain often used during the worship service at liturgical churches is called a thurible.)

Before setting out to find a church, you would be wise to ask yourself the sorts of questions that back then I didn’t know enough to ask myself. For instance, do you tend to be more of an extrovert, or an introvert? Are you more conservative, or liberal? Do you think you might be more comfortable with a formal, structured, traditional sort of worship, or with a looser, more modern style of worship? Do you think you’d feel more comfortable worshiping in a smaller, more intimate setting, or in a giant building packed with hundreds or even thousands of people?

In other words, before setting out to find a church for yourself, take some time to consider what sort of person you are, and what sort of church you might then naturally prefer. Because no matter what your individual needs or preferences might be, chances are outstanding there’s a church within a few miles of where you now live right now that will meet or exceed those needs.

Also, don’t overlook the power of the Internet as a means to help you in your church search. Most every church keeps a website of some sort on which it presents a wealth of information about itself. From a church’s website you can get a sense of that church’s size, the programs it runs or emphasizes, its core beliefs (usually found under “Mission Statement,” or “Statement of Faith”), its history, the missions it supports or sponsors, the activities it offers, some background or insight into its staff, etc. The Internet is really a wonderful tool to get you headed toward just the kind of church you’d like.

Once you’ve attended two or three services at a church that you think might be the right church for you, don’t be shy about finding out anything you might want to know about that church. Definitely make an appointment to speak with its pastor, who should be glad to give you that time. Make sure you bring with you to that chat a list of questions you’d like the pastor to enlighten you on. Ask him about the church’s philosophy, its theology; ask for its stance on whatever political or social issues you think are important. Whatever seems to you a thing worth knowing is a thing worth asking about. Pastors are usually proud of their churches, and proud of the work their churches are doing. Rare is the pastor who won’t want to share with you whatever it is you’d care to know (and, we hope, rare is the would-be parishioner who sticks around any church whose pastor is not entirely forthcoming about everything his church is and is doing). Helping people learn about his church is a vital part of any pastor’s job, so don’t be hesitant about asking a pastor to do that with you. Trust that pastors love those sorts of conversations. Who, after all, doesn’t like to talk about their job?

Finally, be surprised to be surprised. My wife Catherine and I were still looking for the right church for us when one Sunday morning, for no particular reason, we decided to visit an Episcopalian church a mile or so from our house. Within the first five minutes of that morning’s service, Catherine turned to me, with tears in her eyes. I, too, had experienced a great welling in my heart.

And just like that, out of nowhere, we both knew that we’d found our church.

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  • Mike

    You are so “right on” about all that goes in to selecting a church . . . . . . my partner and I have found one that suits us perfectly. We had even looked at it on-line several times, thinking it was stiff and formal and avoided it . . . but then decided to try it anyway. What we found is a welcoming, inclusive, friendly imperfect church full of imperfect people . . . . . . our priest is a Harvard grad, and from England, and she adds an incredible dimension to the parish. What we lack in monetary gifts is made up five-fold in enthusiasm, acceptance and Christian love . . . . we could not have been happier. In addition to John’s recommendations, I’d suggest allowing one’s self the opportunity to try something that may not initially be within your comfort zone, with the thought that if what you’ve done before isn’t quite working for you, try something different. The initially odd religious practices you are observing may one day come to be significant and meaningful to you, like the thurible and incense, for example. It’s not to make the church smell good. It’s a preparation ceremony to make welcome the Holy Spirit. Thanks for all your continued viewpoints, John. We love reading your blog.

  • Thanks for these very kind words, Mike. And how right you are, about being sure to try out churches that on first blush (if that’s how you say that) you might not think would be right for you. That’s how Cat and I ended up even going to the Episcopal church we did. We went out of sheer curiosity, and then found it the right place for us.

  • Ray Collins

    To John Shore and commenters: Have you ever attended a church that spent more money on mission than they spent on themselves? One of my criteria, just curious about what others might have found.

  • textjunkie

    I have. It sounded good, in reality it wasn’t.

  • textjunkie

    I loved the quiet assumption of “after you’ve attended two or three services”–that is so right. One service is like a quick glimpse that tells you not a whole lot; with three services you can see more of what stays the same and what may vary, maybe hear a couple of preachers and hear announcements about a few things in the communal life. I’m usually a lurker, myself; I’ll attend a church for up to a year, slowly working my way up to hanging out at coffee hour and starting to introduce myself. Then I start volunteering for stuff. 😉 (But I’m not a shopper; the one city I lived in where I was looking longer than a month for a church, I never found one in the two years we lived there. These days I tend to pick the closest liberal Episcopal church and stick with it.)

    The question re: who you are is valid too–there was a point in my life where if a church wasn’t full of people with lots of things going on all the time, I knew it wasn’t for me. Now I’m at a point where I can appreciate a smaller, quieter, older congregation with a more meditative environment.

    If you are a new Christian, and you have other local friends who are Christians, you could certainly ask them about their experiences and choices and recommendations. If you’re a new Christian all on your own, that’s more tricky. But John’s advice is excellent–use the Web, try things out, talk to people.

    Also: churches change, just like you do. The church that was awesome the first N years you were there may have become a completely different congregation with a completely different philosophy over that time, which may not fit with where you’re at by the same time. A lot of people change churches at the drop of a hat, the minute the preacher says one thing they disagree with or someone fails to say hello after the service; that’s a bit extreme. But there are others who treat changing churches like going through a divorce, and consider it a point of honor to “go down with the ship” even if it wastes several years of time that could been better spent elsewhere. Somewhere in the middle, not walking away over a triviality but also not being blind to your own needs and your family’s needs, is probably the healthiest.

    Either way, being part of a church community can be a fantastic experience. 🙂 I hope you can find one that works with you!

  • Boy, there’s a lot of wisdom and experience here. Thanks, Text.

  • Dan Wilkinson

    I tend to be a very critical person, so for me, it has been important to remember that there isn’t necessarily a “perfect” church waiting out there. Rarely have I been to a church service where there hasn’t been something I could complain about, if I chose to: whether it’s the music (“all 5 verses of that boring hymn!” or “that silly praise and worship song again, bleh!”) or the sermon (“wow that put me to sleep, way to choose an irrelevant Old Testament passage to drone on about for two hours” or “did he even mention the Bible in that trying-to-be-hip-and-relevant ‘talk’?”) or the people (“gee, no one even said hello to me, what a bunch of exclusive snobs” or “everyone is a little too friendly, it’s like they want me to join a cult”).

    What I’m trying to say is that there are countless aspects that make a church what it is, and it’s important to realize that some are more important than others. Some things are deal-breakers for me, some things I can live with because they are easily overshadowed by much more positive aspects. In the end, what one brings TO a church in terms of attitude and intent can be just as important as what one GETS from a church.

    To return to John’s car analogy: it’s important to find the right car for you: something that’s safe and reliable and fits with who you are. But no car is perfect and there’s always a car that’s “better” than the one you have: one with more horsepower or better gas mileage or a sunroof or a better sound system or a leather interior that would make my 4-year-old Honda Civic look pretty shabby. But for now my Civic meets all of my car-driving needs (and it has a sunroof!), so I’m sticking with it.

  • This is so, so, so true. Great job, Dan. Exactly as you say.

  • Allen

    I do attend such a church. That philosophy is a luxury for churches with plenty of income. Our small congregation’s tendency to give of ourselves over-and-above has in fact come back to bite us; the pastor is now on quarter-time since we can’t afford to pay his salary. We gave it all away to excellent causes, without keeping any aside for our own future. We’re not sorry about a single penny we gave away, but we are sorry that over the years we didn’t pay attention to our own needs better.

  • Allen

    And, something that’s implied in your excellent article bears emphasis: churches are not logical products. The shopping analogy is somewhat useful, but it’s more like finding a neighborhood restaurant you like to patronize than comparing specs on a flatsceen TV. You know, there may be a better pizza somewhere else, but you’ve chatted with the wait staff and worried about the owner’s daughter’s cancer diagnosis, and you tip well. They are glad to see you, even if you’re surly after a bad week. My disagreement with the “shopping for a car” idea is that the car doesn’t care about you, you don’t contribute to its well-being and reason for existence beyond what you get out if it (change the oil so it doesn’t break down and inconvenience you or compromise what you spent to buy it, that sort of thing.) A church is not really a product, it’s a community. You want to find one that not only provides something you need, but one that needs what only you can provide.

  • EXCELLENT, Allen. Fantastic points. Boy, if I rewrote this piece, and worked into it all the fantastic things being said in this comment thread, we’d have a really superb document on our hands, something that would really be of benefit to people.

  • Danny

    Although I understand the Western cultural emphasis on “selecting a church” and “going to church”, these terms seem to be very revealing about our paradigm we hold about the church. There is no doubt about the importance of getting together with other believers to encourage each other and to bear each others’ burdens. I think both scripture and common sense bear witness to that. However, the Western model of “going to church” is a far cry from what the early church…and Jesus desire…was all about. If my last name were “Smith”…I wouldn’t “go to Smith” because I am Smith.

    Having said all of that, I think the closest thing that I have seen that reflects the “spirit” of real church is the AA meetings and/or the local bar where “everyone knows your name”….(I know putting AA and the local bar in the same sentence is anathema)…you get my drift. So, whether the milieu is the Roman Catholic service with liturgy, the formal Episcopalian service…or the stoic Brethren Assembly…or even the emotionally charged Charismatic service…or even the formulaic Southern Baptist service…the spirit of “church” has to be the mystical presence of Jesus and his love expressed in his people….with out that, we will just be “doing church”.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    First, GREAT comments here today!!!

    John, where you wrote, “Insofar as he’d…”

    I suppose you mean “Insofar as I’d…”

    “He” would seem to refer to “pastor”, but in that case I’m not following the train of thought here, so I figured it’s just a mistake and thought I’d bring it to your attention.

    Oh, also, there’s “I now worships…”

  • Good eyes! Corrected. Thank you!

  • Diana A.

    Also, ask your friends. This may seem a strange suggestion, but there are a lot of closet Christians running around…people who hold their faith deeply but who don’t want to shove it down other people’s throats, so they just don’t talk about it. I seem to remember a story I heard once at my church (it may have been in a book we were studying) in which a woman became a Christian and decided that she wanted to go to church. She went to a neighborhood church and discovered several of her neighbors there…turned out they’d been going to church there for years and had never mentioned it to her because they thought she wouldn’t be interested. Anyway, what works for your friends may not work for you, but it’s worth a shot.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Isn’t it interesting how, in the modern Western world, the churches with the most “old-fashioned” practices (such as the use of the thurible that you mention) tend to have the most “modern” theologies?

    It’s as though, to sustain a sense of community (and establish community identity) you have to maintain some sort of formal adherence to something, be it a way of doing or a way of thinking. But if you’re too demanding of both simultaneously, you’ve become a cult, and are rejected by the mainstream until you implode from within or undergo “liberalization”. But get too “liberal”, and the spiritual bonds that bind people together and keep them coming back are loosed as people lose a sense of needing to belong to a church/the Church. Then the meme of “You must join us: it’s a matter of life or death—*eternal* life or death,” increases in vitality, providing the sense of need through dogma, though the better way, having greater long term sustainability, is having established communal communal practices. (Yes, “communal” was intentionally used twice.)

    It is better because, as St. Paul mentions (cf. 1 Cor. 12:31-13:8), better than all the gifts of prophesy—of interpreting what ought and ought not be believed—is that of love—of coming together; not breaking up in camps, chanting “my way or the highway”, but building up in community, chanting “let’s build that new thruway”.

    It’s a question of what proves one’s faith: words or works? Many of the words spoken by a typical evangelical minister as well as many of the works performed by a typical liturgical minister may well be basically vanities, but they need not be if they are taken as symbolic of what really matters: of the things upon which we should focus. Such ought to be the things wherein we should take great care, and certainly it’s important to be careful in both word *and* deed. Yet both “liberal” and “conservative” Christians tend to be least carful with their words: the words of many liberals compromise the common faith, while the words of many conservatives compromise the common reality. So if we’re going to be careless in our words in either case, how ought we to demonstrate faith? Again, I suggest that the better way is by what we do, as St. James affirms (cf. Jms. 2:18)

    Of course, this has little to do with what church one ought to attend: there are wonderful communities of believers of all sorts, as well as all sorts of church communities that, well, just aren’t for you (in general—I’m not strictly addressing the person who wrote in to John in any sense). I’m just offering up a somewhat tangential but related observation. I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of evangelicals actually *doing* very much, and to the glory of God; but I do suggest that they’d be well-advised to maintain such an emphasis when it comes to how one enters into God’s presence in worship of Him.

  • Don Rappe

    I like to worship in a place where I seem to feel the presence of God. I also like it if my wife is happy there.

  • Idon’tknow

    John, I was drawn to your article and appreciate all that you suggested. My question is from a different angle – I already have a church I have been a part of for many years. I considered them my family because my blood family members are far away and not all are Christians. However, when it came to supporting me in escaping a violent marriage, my blood family were far more pro-active and protective than the church family, who in spite of knowing me as a committed, serving Christians, have stood afar, with some sympathizing but not wanting to get involved, and others wanting to rescue our marriage at all costs. Some new people have been taken in by his sob stories. You would think that they would be happy that my children and I are getting out after being abused for over 20 years.

    My dilemma is whether to stay at my church, where the pastors know me well, and have shown support, even if it is from afar and with the appearance of neutrality to appease him, or to find another church. When I told the church leaders my discomfort at his ability to harass me and smear me at every type of meeting, they told me not to leave the church, but to attend a different service. This does not solve the problem of combined events, or the awkwardness of not being able to be myself because of the negative perceptions of some. The pastors told me not to worry about what people say to me or their gossip among each other.

    If I stay, I won’t have to disrupt the kids who love their childrens program. He may also leave if he finds that he can’t get the leaders to persuade me into reconciliation. But while he is still there, I am hampered in how much I can get involved. Is it worth uprooting ourselves from a place that has been our community and family for a long time?

  • Meghan

    Thank you, Text, I was getting to this comment myself. I am a cradle Episcopalian, and have attended several different parishes over my lifetime. It is important not to hang on too tightly, if a church community is not providing what you need for your spiritual journey, moving on might can the best decision.

  • Jill

    Dan, I’m in your thought process exactly like that. I LIKE old beat-up cars (only just traded up from my ’92 Corolla!) — I like what I like, and just as John said, I am best served to first have an inner dialog about what do I need from a church.

    The challenge I think for me here is understanding what a church can (and should) offer, and what it cannot (no matter how much you beg :).

    This slow ‘n steady search for me is about keeping my expectations realistic and fair. I’ve started on the internet, and I just have to screw up the courage to actually SHOW UP. I’m a WIP.

  • Dalina

    HAHA! Your parentheses are exactly my thoughts! I want somewhere that is in between those two. I love the “Trying to be too hip and relevant” statement. Sooo true for all these modern nondenominational churches, it really does feel more like a talk than a Christian sermon.