This is one of the biggest decisions you can make, and it will affect your life as a follower of Christ. There’s no getting around that: get into a great church, and you have a social-network-morph-into-family in the new city, and one that helps you grow in your faith and become more like Christ. Get into a so-so church and you can end up just coasting. Get into a church with unseen power dynamics or a bunch of skeletons, and you can be hurt and possibly grow cold in your faith.
My friend was counseled to watch for 3 things as he visited the church. Obviously, this is not “do you agree with the doctrine or philosophy of ministry?”… you just wouldn’t visit a church you had fundamental difficulties with on those levels. But of all the churches that you could go to, how do you know if you should?
First, how alive is their singing? Does the congregation want to worship, get into it, seem to put themselves into the music? It has nothing to do with the style—I’ve been part of solemn high eucharist services with some awesome worship, and I’ve been part of campfires with horrible atmosphere. Has nothing to do with how “polished / professional” is the worship team. It has to do with the gang filling the sanctuary: do they seem like they want to be there approaching God? Are they singing, or attending a concert? Are they interacting or just receiving? As you sing God’s praise, see if you (the visitor) are more into it than the regulars! If so, might be a bad sign.
Second, how long do they stay after the service is over? A church that empties out in 10 minutes is a congregation that doesn’t necessarily love being together. If it’s crickets 20 minutes after the benediction, those folks aren’t family to each other. You don’t have to have a pot-luck every week, but is there laughter, and people crossing the sanctuary to see others, and do you overhear folks making plans to have lunch together? Basically, do they seem like they want to hang out with each other? This is a good sign that they are family to each other.
Third, how do they treat their pastor? Is it stiff and formal? Is it condescending and “why don’t you talk to those people over there”? Is it heartfelt? Does he seem like a friend? A shepherd? A fellow-journeyman through life? Or does he seem like the guru, holy one, the spiritual-expert-that-we-could-never-attain-to-because-we-aren’t-clergy? Might be hard to tell how folks really treat him… or it may be all to easy to tell. Do they relate to him in affected tones, with feigned interest? Does he share their stories or take over their conversations. Watch for all of this.
These are three simple observations you can make as you visit with a new church body. They are, actually, what we all should take with us to church this Sunday and see how our church stacks up: would I start coming to my church?