Last week, I wrote about some of the principles behind “congregation exploration,” so this week, I figured I’d give some tips on what to put in your backpack, how to read your map, and whether you should go with a monkey or a jaguar as your primary companion. There are three basic, practical things you should be looking for in a church:

1. A place that worships God in spirit and Truth. They should be focused on God in their songs, their prayers, and their preaching on important topics like heaven and hell. Ideally, they should have the spirit of God as seen by their love. Jesus tells us in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” At the same time, Buddhists are pretty nice people, too. You should look at churches that are sound doctrinally (tips on how to make sure of this will be coming in later posts).

2. A place that will feed you spiritually and meet your needs. You’ll have a variety of needs throughout your spiritual walk. To list just a few:

“Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Make sure that you are getting your soul food! Seriously, it’s delicious.

a. Good, Biblically-based preaching – to feed you the Word and challenge you
b. A peer Bible study – as recommended by Anne
c. An older mentor who can give you wiser advice (than your peer group)
d. A program to serve the poor (although you need not necessarily be active through the church if you get involved in other programs like PBHA, it is important that the church focus on helping those in need).
e. A frequent challenge to evangelize and love the lost

These things are all very important for your personal relationship with God to make sure that you don’t lose sight of the truth, that you don’t feel lonely, that you don’t get bogged down by immaturity, that you don’t become selfish or lukewarm in your faith. You want a congregation that will strengthen your walk with God. Granted, Paul says in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” A congregation cannot do the walk for you. Yet they should be helping your journey and not hindering your steps, edifying your faith and not extinguishing your fire.

3. A place where you can contribute to meet the spiritual needs of others. Figure out what your spiritual gifts are and how you can use them to benefit the church. Maybe you are good at organizing things and could help run a food drive. Maybe you can play an instrument in the band. Maybe you know how to run AV systems. Maybe you are great with kids. Maybe you have some extra time and could help fill the communion cups. Maybe you are friendly and could greet visitors. Your gifts don’t have to be big for you to help serve. You don’t have to have a lot of time to serve, even a spare 30 minutes before a service can be a great help to a congregation. Remember that as a Christian, you are fundamentally called to be a servant. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2:3-7,

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, butmade himself nothing, taking the form of aservant, being born in the likeness of men.”

As you think about these things, recall what the church should look like as a whole. A good guideline is the church after Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’teaching and thefellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles…”

A congregation should be devoted to the teachings of the Bible, to each other, to communion, and to prayer. A congregation should be filled with awe at the glory of God.

“…And all who believed were together andhad all things in common.Andthey were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need…”

The members of a congregation should be generous and open their homes to other members. (The early church often met in the disciples’ houses.) They should care about serving the poor and helping the needy.

“…And day by day,attending the temple together andbreaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their numberday by day those whowere being saved.”

A congregation should meet often and be thankful for what God has given them. They should be evangelistic (though not necessarily evangelical) and growing. These are the sorts of things to look for in a healthy branch of the church. Stay tuned for some more tips on how to find out if a congregation is strong in these areas.