How to look for a church? How to research and find a church? Some basic knowledge about membership covenants and church discipline. Learning to be aware of organizations like 9 Marks, or The Gospel Coalition. How to research a church on the internet to include using blogs, reviews, and sex offender registries. How you have to do the homework yourself so you wont get hurt.
“Going to church doesn’t make you any more a Christian than going to the garage makes you a car”
Lawrence J. Peter
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Acts 2:42-47 NIV
I am amazed as to how flippant many Christians are about selecting churches. Often they put more effort into finding a dentist, pediatrician, or another medical professional than a church. Why is that? When it comes to church you can never be too careful. There is a lot of garbage, and there is a lot of crap. There are a number of bad places, places that lack substance, places that aren’t transparent, and churches that hide their denominational affiliation. No one is going to look out for you…you have to look out for yourself. When it comes to looking at church you really need to do your homework, research, ask hard questions, and investigate. For me gone forever is going to a church based off someone else’s advice. Due to Mormonism earlier on in my life, my faith crisis, frustrations in many churches, as well as being invited and pressed to attend Sovereign Grace against the largest lawsuit in evangelical history for covering up child sex abuse I’ve learned that I need to press forward and ask questions. Each church I have attended from 2008 onward I have researched aggressively. This is what I have done in my research and in interacting with churches in figuring out if this is healthy, transparent, and open organization.
The Internet is Your Friend
Information on the internet lives forever, you just need to know how to find it. I use the Wayback Machine internet archive to go back and see if church’s have changed their information, denomination, affiliation, etc… In the process I could discover if churches edited their history, tried to hide their theology or previous associations and/or distanced themselves from questionable movements. Next in examining the website I ask the following questions:
- Who is the Pastor? Where did he go to seminary? What does he say about his denomination? Did he publish any works or a blog that gives insight into his thinking? Does he have a blog? What is he saying? Who does he recommend theologically?
- What is the denomination? Are they affiliated with the Evangelical Free, Assembly of God, or SBC?
- What are the online resources for the church? Who are they theologically pushing? Are they pushing someone like Greg Boyd or John Piper?
- Is the church open about its finances? Are they open about the Pastor’s salary? Are they open about their budget, and spending?
- Does the local police or law enforcement agencies have information about the church. I believe you can obtain police reports, if there are problems of incidents at the church you are looking into..that can help.
- Are there blogs or websites about the church? Are they affirmative of the organization or negative of the organization?
Let’s look at these in greater detail.
Who is the Pastor? Who is the ceremonial “head of state” so to say, and who is in the trenches? Who leads the church? How are the Elders appointed and put in place? Are the Elders a bunch of “Yes Men” who act like a rubber stamp to whatever the Pastor says and does? What theological influences does the Pastor have? Is he pushing John MacArthur, Mark Drisocll (yes some still do…isn’t that sick?), Steven Furtick, or John Piper? Or does he not recommend anyone at all and lead people to make their own decisions? What does this pastor say about his own denomination? Where did he attend seminary? Is it Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois? Is it another seminary? What do you know about the seminary? What does the pastor write about on his blog? Is he promoting Joyce Meyer? Is he talking about how much his wife loooooooves Joyce Meyer? Much of what I just written could help establish red flags about the church or have you find red flags.
Many churches are being very deceptive about their denomination. What does a church have to hide? Is the SBC so tainted that a church has to hide its affiliation with it? For example you have “non-denominational” churches affiliated with the Evangelical Free or Southern Baptist or other denominations. Last I checked the Nazarene denomination isn’t changing or going this route. When you got involved you know the denomination you are getting involved. One more point that I would like to make while I am discussing this issue…can we agree that non-denominational IS a denomination? Its kind of similar to the way some atheists claim atheism isn’t a faith system. Same kind of thinking applies here. Also are there news stories like this one in the Washington Post? Or are there stories like this one about Calvary Temple on Fox News? Or you can find a news story like this one which tells you something fascinating about a place you are considering?
The Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability
I have to tell you if you asked me about the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability (ECFA) back in 2006-2007 I would be singing it praises. Today I think a church advertising its ECFA rating is good basically for one thing only – toilet paper. There have been many financial scandals with ECFA that have revealed that it is not as sound or established as I once thought. It was really the Mars Hill scandal with Mark Driscoll that revealed that ECFA is largely worthless. First there was ECFA certifying Mars Hill Seattle despite Mars Hill using the Global Fund incorrectly, (if I am wrong please correct me) and then ECFA pulled a
Richard Nixon ugh, I mean a Mark Driscoll in purging information from its website while not being transparent. So what eventually happened? Did Dan Busby the head of Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability get angry with churches that are doing questionable and un-ethical behavior like Mars Hill Seattle did? No! Dan Busby blamed bloggers by saying that writing about questionable and un-ethical church financial issues makes God angry. You can read what Rob Smith wrote about this here. So I write this to say that if the church claims that it is using ECFA that is meaningless as ECFA was found to be worthless. That said there are other questions I would ask about your church to include the following:
- Does the church have their budget available to attenders/members?
- Does the church list how much tithes they have taken in each week? month? year?
- Does the church explain what its expenses are?
- How are financial decisions made? Is the purse in the power of a few people or are major financial decisions voted on by the congregation/members?
- Is the pastors salary open to where you can ask and request it? Now before some people get up in arms and say…”What business is it of yours to inquire how much a pastor makes?” There are many professions today where the salary is transparent. For example here are the salaries for teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Here are the salaries for the Federal Aviation Administration. Again here are the salaries for the Army Corps of Engineers. Here is the salary table for most US government positions. While we are at it…here is the salary table for the enlisted personnel and officiers in the United States Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and Army. So having listed all that…why can’t a Pastor’s salary be open and accessible?
Examine the Doctrine Statement Carefully and Church Breakaway?
When considering a church pay close attention to the doctrine statement. Read it carefully, and study it. Remember that many churches can and have use loaded or misleading language so keep that in mind as well. For example Calvinists will the term “doctrines of grace…” but that can be misleading as it implies “grace” from their perspective. When you consider how some of these groups use “grace” to describe shunning, cultic shepherding techniques, and “church discipline” for minor issues by people addicted to authority. Another thing to weigh is to find out the history of the church. Did it break away from Harvest Bible Chapel? Sovereign Grace? Acts 29? Maranatha? Are they being honest about that? You will learn a lot in asking questions.
The Gospel Coalition and Other Associations
There are many organizations out there that I would also be mindful of as well. Many of these organizations have penetrated, shifted and changed the balance of many aspects of both faith and church. For example you have associations like Association of Related Churches, 9 Marks, and The Gospel Coalition. (As of this writing the Gospel Coalition church directory is not working properly) Lets talk about The Gospel Coalition briefly. First as you know and as I have alluded to in the past I studied a lot of history both in college and the grad school level. I am a firm believer that history is a way to help teach people and help them learn. To look back at the mistakes of the past can help us avoid mistakes in the future. That is why I love and appreciate history. I grieve for the man or the nation that loses its appreciation and awareness of its past. That is tragic. That said…do you know what Tammany Hall is? Tammany Hall was a tool of the Democratic Party in the state and city of New York in the nineteen and twentieth centuries. It was known for forcing its will, and for is extravagant corruption. Boss Tweed was a Representative from the 5th District of the State of New York who was known for graft, and building a political machine based on his patronage. Tweed has often been referred to as one of the most corrupt politicians in US history. If you want to read more about Tammany Hall you can read it here. So why am I writing all this? To give you perspective for what I am about to say. I believe The Gospel Coalition (TGC) to be a spiritual version of Tammany Hall. Why do I saw that? The Sovereign Grace Ministry scandal. Jesus taught that whatever you do for the least of these you do for me. TGC has it backwards and says whatever you do for the “greatest of these” (celebrity pastors) you do for me. Jesus came to serve….leaders of TGC expect to be served. Amidst the largest lawsuit in evangelical church history which SGM’s leadership had created, TGC stood by and kept silent about the situation for a total of 178 days. Then there was this horrific statement when the lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality of statute of limitations. The reason why that happened is because Sovereign Grace trained and taught people NOT to report crimes to law enforcement. So given the deep, pervasive corruption why would any church want to be affiliated with TGC? What is even more disturbing is that there are churches you can find on TGC church locator who do not tell their members they are affiliated with TGC or do not disclose it on their website. For example here in the DC area McLean Bible is a member of TGC but the last I checked they have not disclosed it on its website or made members or attenders aware. This is why you need to do your homework…if a church is going to change its theology behind the scenes you need to be aware. This is what happened in the Evangelical Free Church of America and its why I kissed the Evangelical Free Church of America goodbye. So why is McLean Bible being dishonest and not forthcoming about its affiliations? When you are the largest church in the Washington, D.C. area and you move yourself into TGC and TGC is issuing statements like this? Why would a person who has been sexually abused want to go to a church like McLean Bible if its going to join organizations like TGC? The way I use church directories like TGC or 9 Marks is that I use them in an opposite direction. If a church I am looking at is on there then I stop looking into it. At that point it is over.
Do they Mandate Membership Covenants? And how do they Define Church Discipline?
Authority is on the upswing in evangelicalism today. Some churches are wielding authority and power in the same way a toddler finds a loaded handgun in their parents bedroom. In the future I plan on writing how much of this authority is actually a threat to Christianity. Give me time please…I am a one man show. Before I start to discuss to discuss church covenants let me start out by saying that I believe they are un-Biblical. I used to be a firm believer of joining a church but seeing churches use and abuse membership covenants have given me pause. Having a background in the Evangelical Free and seeing how many Evangelical Free are hijacked by Neo-Calvinism has also given me pause, and I keep that in the back of my mind as I proceed forward. First I believe that many membership covenants are nothing but legal documents. I believe that church covenants violate 1 Corinthians 6. How you ask? Do you honestly believe that in the end these
church covenants I mean legal documents haven’t been vetted by a lawyer or law firm? Here’s a Gospel Coalition article encouraging membership for legal reasons. Connect the dots, use your critical thinking skills. By making church covenants binding legal documents the church is showing how they are more into authority and less about following the Bible. Why? The church covenant is the first act, or the first step that the place you are considering is taking a legal action against you. What does the Bible say about lawsuits? Covenants fly against 1 Corinthians 6 and should be a major red flag. You can analyze a membership covenant here. You can read further problems with church covenants with this Wartburg Watch post here. Also what does the church say about church discipline? Any church that makes church discipline front and center should already be viewed with suspect. Do you know that there were members of Sovereign Grace who were disciplined for disagreeing with a pastor? Unable to make a community group due to work conflict? Not “submitting to church authority” over secondary doctrine or trite things. These are things you need to be aware of in today’s church environment. Ask hard questions about this before you are immersed in it.
Are There Blogs or Google/Yelp Reviews?
Are there blogs about the said church you are considering? For example put Sovereign Grace Ministries in the Google search engine and what pops up? You will find a lot of negative information that tells you a lot of red flags. Here in the northern Virginia area Google Calvary Temple and see what comes up? As they often say…where’s there’s smoke there is fire. And the same thinking applies to a questionable church. Likewise on the positive you can find also good comments and good blogs that can offer perspective on the programs or difficult situations that have been resolved. One other point to consider is to use Google, Yelp and other reviews. Read what reviews are being left and what people are saying. On a note of caution I have also learned that churches can and do remove negative reviews or hide stuff they are trying to keep under the carpet. Capital Hill Baptist Church under Mark Dever has done this. Plus when I was researching Fairfax Community Church while exploring it I noticed an item of concern left at Google Review that the church had removed later on. How a church handles negative information is going to be quite telling about who it is as a place of worship and how they handle things.
Using Sex Offender Registries
Another tool that you can use in investigating a church is the sex offender registries. For example here in the Washington, D.C. area you have the Virginia State Registry, the Maryland state registry, and the District of Columbia registry. Now before I continue I want to say a few words. First there are some people who get on there because the guy may by 18 and the girl 17. I get that, not everyone on there has a record of child sex crimes. Its also important to note that from time to time in the news you do hear about false accusations, which I get that also. Plus you run the risk of jumping to conclusions, so that is important to consider as well. Also please note I am not saying a sex offender should not be in church. I firmly believe they should be in church. The Gospel is for everyone…of all ranks or life from all backgrounds. That said the Sex Offender Registry can be a powerful tool to screen your church. What you can do is take the church staff and run it through the website. Are there church staff on there? Pastors or leaders on there? What are they on the registry for? Is the church you looking at following state and local laws and living in the awareness of what Paul wrote in Romans 13 or Titus 3? With this issue alone you will learn quite quickly how healthy your church is. Whether or not it is following the law and abiding by scripture as well.
In closing I have given you a lot to think about. What you learn about a church can be based on studying the internet, using internet search engines, internet archives, using reviews, and blogs. You can and should pay attention to doctrine and group affiliation. Ask about finances? Ask if you can see your pastor’s salary? How are Elders? Are they nothing but “Yes men” who act as a rubber stamp? Finally how do they treat issues like sexual abuse? Sexual abuse and similar problems can be an indictor of how unhealthy the organization is? How a church reacts to these questions will tell you volumes about how healthy it is. Being involved in a church is healthy and good but you need to do your homework. That will protect yourself and those you love and care about deeply. And with that I’ll leave you with this video.
BTW..If I am wrong in any information here please let me know.