Some years ago, my wife and I took a week’s vacation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We made arrangements to meet my wife’s sister and her husband in Mackinaw City and travel together to a vacation rental on a remote U.P. lake. Unfortunately, I waited too long to book a hotel in Mackinaw and had to look outside of town.
I searched the internet for hotels and found a nice-looking mom and pop place about 30 miles away. I have a soft spot for mom and pop motels - that’s pretty much all there was when I was growing up. Besides, this place was half the price of the big chains. So what if it didn’t have a flat screen tv? I was getting a great deal.
We pulled into the motel’s gravel parking lot and my wife waited in the car while I went to check in before going in search of a restaurant. Behind a counter in the tiny front office I found a clerk. When I handed her my credit card, she asked: “Do you want to see it first?” The question surprised me but didn’t alert me to our danger. I said thoughtlessly: “No, it will be fine.”
After dinner we returned to our room and carried in our luggage. To say it was dated would be like finding the SS Edmund Fitzgerald at the bottom of Lake Superior and complaining that it is old. The carpet was frayed. The bathroom sink was stained with decades of rust and gunk. There was a hole in the bathroom floor which might have opened up in an alternate universe, for all I know. It was pitch black and, as far as I could see, bottomless.
We pulled the bed covers back quickly in search of bugs. We didn’t see bugs, but we did notice used tissues on the floor behind the nightstand. I asked my wife: “Do you want to find someplace else.” She courageously answered, “No, it’s okay,” but I knew the right thing to do was to call it a loss and find better shelter.
Some people approach finding a church like I approached finding a room. They do a quick search, focus on one issue they consider important (my one issue in selecting the motel was price), then commit. It is not the best way to select a church.
Churches, like people, have strengths and weaknesses. One church’s strength might be its preaching, another’s might be its music, still another might be its strong sense of community. The church that is strong in preaching might be weak in community, the one with great music might have a watered-down theology.
Choosing a church on the basis of a particular strength could lead to regret. Better to look for the presence of certain core strengths that are important to church health. One of those core strengths is a love and respect for the Bible. A lack of dependence on the Bible might point to an unhealthy dependence on the latest trend or a hidebound reliance on an ancient tradition.
Look to see if the church’s pursuit of God extends beyond Sunday mornings. Are there Bible studies, discipleship-style groups, and spiritual formation opportunities happening during the week? Is the church active in the community? A church is not a church, no matter how dynamic Sunday mornings are, unless its love for God extends to the rest of the week.
Friendships and loving relationships are another distinguishing mark of a good church. How many cars are in the parking lot a half-hour after the last amen? Are people talking and laughing and praying together? Do they spend time with each other during the week?
A strong, healthy church uses time and resources to help people outside the church. If the church’s budget, which is a theological document, only includes items that directly benefit the church, something is out of balance. A good church follows Jesus’ example of service to others.
I often suggest people spend a month or more before they decide whether a church is for them. With churches, as with motels rooms, if someone asks, “Do you want to see it first?” answer “Yes.”
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.