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Friday, June 23, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Choosing A Church

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Woodcrest Church has a helpful “Denomination Selector”. No, really, I’m not kidding.

The survey* asks the user to agree or disagree with a series of 24 statements along the lines of the following:
  1. There is one God
  2. Godhead exists as three distinct Persons
  3. The Bible is free from error
                       |
  1. There a literal Heaven and Hell
  2. The preferred day of worship (or Sabbath) is Sunday
  3. People receive charismatic gifts today (tongues, prophesy)
  4. A woman can serve as a pastor or a church minister
                       |
and so on.

It also asks the user to indicate the perceived importance of each issue. It then directs them to somebody’s idea of a denomination that will suit the user’s expressed preferences. Some of these 24 statements concern issues that most Christians would agree are critically important, others less so.

I tried it and came out Southern Baptist. You can stop laughing now.

Tom: Immanuel Can, let’s carry on from last week’s discussion of “The Correct Church”, in which we concluded there isn’t one, although obviously some churches are closer to both the truth and/or right Christian living than others. Assuming that doesn’t make you give up on churches altogether, it follows logically that any believer looking for like-minded Christians with whom to fellowship has to go through some sort of weeding-out process.

The Woodcrest Church Post-Millennial Approach

What do you think of the Woodcrest Church approach?

Immanuel Can: What do I think? Well, obviously any information is good information, so knowing the answers to some of those items might be helpful in a limited way. But if you’re a Southern Baptist, I’ll eat my hat. So something’s desperately wrong with how they’re adding things up.

Tom: To be truly useful, it would help if they were familiar with all of Apolonio Latar’s “30,000 Protestant denominations”.

No, but seriously, the Woodcrest folks are working with a very limited palette here. Given the options from which they were choosing in selecting a denomination for me, Southern Baptist isn’t as crazy as it sounds. That’s one problem with their Denomination Selector, but it speaks to an issue most people will inevitably encounter in trying to find a church: even if they know exactly what they’re looking for, how do they know everything that’s out there?

IC: They don’t, obviously. Finding the right church can involve a bit of a process. We start with some basics, such as the position the church takes on the nature of God, the deity and humanity of Christ, the way of salvation, and so on. But among churches that hold to some of these basic doctrines, there are still varieties: some add unnecessary rules, some leave important things out and some have compromised in some way. And some have their creed all worked out, but may not be very loving or committed in practice — rather like a couple of the churches mentioned in Revelation. So there’s a lot to take into account.

To say you have to search may seem hard, but the only way to avoid such a process is simply to take for granted that whatever calls itself a “church” really is one and to buy in without checking at all. That seems to me to be a very bad way to go.

The Internet as a Starting Point

Tom: Realistically, we do have a very basic starting point that didn’t exist thirty years ago, and that’s the Internet. In 1975, if I was looking for somewhere to fellowship, I had word of mouth and shoe leather. That’s it. In 2014, I can look up almost every single local church in Canada on its web page and see exactly what they say they believe. The number of churches that don’t have a web presence is microscopically small.

That doesn’t mean every local gathering is always exactly what it says it is. You may go there and be disappointed by a lack of love, or by a departure from what their website says they believe. But it does provide you with a very quick way to eliminate unsuitable congregations that tell you right up front, “Hey, we’re KJV-only Hyper-Calvinist Feminist Snake Handlers”.

I’m not meaning to be trivial about something important, but it’s a tool that shouldn’t be ignored, I think.

IC: Certainly. But as you say, when it comes to checking churches, the Internet is only a first tool.

It’s a little like Internet dating in that way, actually — more useful to eliminate glaringly bad options than to guarantee a good one. After the initial screening, there is still lots of due diligence to be done to reassure yourself you’re getting into the right relationship.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Tom: Without a doubt. But one thing that jumped out at me about the Denomination Selector is also true of any manual screening process I can think of, and that is that the end result is only as good as the criteria you start with in the first place. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. Now of course, if we’re searching prayerfully the Lord may well graciously overrule the potential negative consequences of our inattentiveness, but I think we have an obligation to use the intelligence and experience he has given us responsibly, rather than just expect him to actively intervene on our behalf when we are careless.

After all, the consequences of committing to a local church and then changing our minds can be quite serious for all concerned.

By the way, did you notice what was missing from those 24 questions Woodcrest Church uses to evaluate where you are coming from?

IC: Well, it’s largely about what one believes, not about what one does; so there’s nothing in particular requiring holy living, for one … and in regards to how one reads the Bible, no eschatology … and in the practical realm, no ecclesiology I can detect, beyond possibly the “can women serve” item.

(By the way, I also note that Woodcrest is Southern Baptist … and since we both ended up having that recommended, I wonder how broad the “net” their criteria produces is, and how quickly it channels everyone to Woodcrest.)

What caught your eye?

What Isn’t On the List of Criteria

Tom: Nothing about worship — not a sausage — which, considering it’s pretty much the reason the church exists in the first place, seems pretty odd to me.

Maybe they imagine everybody agrees on that subject.

IC: Wow. Right. Huge, huge oversight. 

Well, the Modern Church doesn’t take worship seriously at all these days … for most, it’s a catch-all label for “religiously or emotionally-intense activity”. Since it’s nothing specific, they can’t put it in as a criterion. (Well, that and the fact that they have no clue as to what it really is.) So I guess that’s just par for the course. Sad, though.

Tom: I remember asking a friend once whether her church was basically a social club (I was, sadly, being really, really sarcastic at the time), and she actually thought that was a pretty good description. Like joining the Elks or something.

There are vastly different levels of importance to some of these criteria. How do you compare the necessity, say, of believing the Bible is free from error with the necessity of believing that the preferred day of worship is Sunday? In terms of relative significance, who cares about the latter? So people can have some very strange things mean quite a lot to them in the selection process.

IC: They might have put the “Sunday” thing in there to separate out the Adventists, I would guess, or else some other sabbatarians. In fairness to them, I don’t think they promised that all criteria would be of equal seriousness … but the worship oversight, that’s a big one.

Another area they didn’t clear up is pre-millennial, post-millennial, amillennial differences — which can be very substantial, depending on how consistently their implications are weighed in a congregation. These might seem obscure, academic and irrelevant at first glance, but bad theology in this area can lead a congregation into mistakes about the gospel, about human responsibility, about eternal security, and about the status of Israel. When you look at it that way, it’s also a pretty big oversight.

Anything else?

You and Your Convictions

Tom: I’m sure we could find quite a bit if we looked hard enough, but I think the main point to be observed from all of this is that nobody can tell you what is important to you in your search for like-minded believers. Anyone else’s compilation of significant criteria will almost surely fall short of what you’re looking for. It needs to be you and your personal set of convictions on your knees before the Lord.

But let me ask you this: Say you end up in the “wrong” church. You pray, you eliminate possibilities, you go and sit and observe, and with the best will in the world, you pick a place and enter into fellowship with the believers there and then … a year later, you’re thinking “What have I done?”

It happens. What do you do? Can the Lord use somebody in the “wrong” church?

IC: Yes, of course he can: that’s one of the advantages of being all-powerful. The Lord can use you in a strong church or a troubled church. But the ideal is the healthy church, of course, so seek it or make it.

Tom: Aw, see, I was going to go with that and wrap it up, and you went and opened the proverbial can of worms.

So let me ask the question since you raised it: You can seek it, of course, but can you really “make it”? If the entity you’ve joined is really bonkers, can you make that church healthier by staying, praying and fighting the good fight?

IC: I think it depends. Some churches are hard and dead, some are merely in trouble. A church may even be “bonkers”, as you put it, but there may be salvage work to do. And the Head of the Church Himself speaks in Revelation to churches that have gone off the rails and says, “Repent.”

Now, what sense would that make if a church couldn’t repent? And if that’s the work the Great Shepherd is doing, then roll up your sleeves and get in there, I say.

____________________
* Be advised the web page is so loaded with ads that it’s a task just to locate the selection tool — and also that right at the end of the survey I got a pop-up asking if I was interested in becoming a witch, or alternatively in earning a Bachelor’s degree in accounting — so, you know, fair warning and all. I’m still debating which fate is worse.

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