Choosing a Church: One True Church or One Right Church?
Biblical quotation from Jeremiah 23.23
"Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off?"
Selecting a church:
What are the criteria for selecting a church to attend or join? You may be a new believer, or feel the need to return to your neglected Christian roots, or have recently moved into a new community from a distant place. This article should help you decide which congregation, and therefore which denomination, to affiliate yourself with. The following does not preach theology or doctrine, nor compare one dogma with another, or discuss current issues which divide one denomination from another. Instead, it provides you with practical advice in your own situation, in the local community where you reside.
First of all, consider the prime reason for a church fellowship. It is to nourish you spiritually and help you exercise your talents as a Christian, through worship sermons, teaching, voluntary groups, opportunity to see Christian behavior in others for you to emulate, and avenues to help other people.
To build up your soul, look for a church that functions as a Christian community all week, instead of existing as no more than a temporary group of strangers who happen to assemble in the same building once a week, or less often. A proper church will include people you meet face-to-face in your secular community all week. Avoid congregations that function primarily as ethnic clubs for immigrants, unless you are of the same ethnicity or wish to assimilate into it.
Also consider how many worship services it has each Sabbath or Lord’s Day, so that you can grow quicker, and can make up later if you could not avoid missing one earlier in the day.
It is important that such a church be in close proximity to your home, rather than in the next town or city. Blizzards and other adverse weather conditions may occasionally prevent you from attending worship. They may thwart or hamper you from discharging your duties if you become a parish councilor, choir member, or religion teacher. It is not enough that a believing neighbor gives you a motor vehicle ride to weekend services in the next town, for that person may be unavailable if you are on council or a choir member or teach and he does not, or you may feel uneasy about imposing on him. You will also be more inclined to go to the church building if it does not require substantial travel. If the church you join is in your own local area, there will be more occasions for mutual upbuilding when you meet other members face-to-face during the week. I recommend against small rural congregations which hold services only once or twice a month, if there is an every-week church located within a reasonable additional distance.
Consider the range of activities available through a congregation, both activities that serve you, and ones through which you can serve other people. The former include pastoral care. Does the clergyperson reside locally, or must you travel a significant distance, even through adverse weather, for him to help you in another town? Is there more than one minister? Is the sole pastor only part-time, and consequently difficult to contact or arrange an appointment? Additionally, do not let your decision to join a particular church be unduly influenced by the personality or good qualities of the present pastor. Be persuaded by the personalities, Christian commitment, and other good qualities of the lay members. Pastors come and go, but the laity remain and thus provide a continuing atmosphere for spiritual growth and beneficial fellowship. They are also the people whom you will encounter in your local community for weeks and years.
There are other programs that can benefit you in your Christian growth. They include Sunday or Sabbath schools for your children, Bible studies, and other learning opportunities for yourself, young parents’ groups, and men’s fellowships. Their existence reinforces the principles that the congregation you join should be near your home, and provide Christian community all week.
Also consider service opportunities open for you to perform for other people. They ought to be ones for which you are interested, capable, and feel a call to engage. Larger churches usually offer more volunteer activities, such as food banks, a range of religious education classes, youth groups, young mothers’ groups, prayer circles, and other activities limited only by the members’ vision and willingness. On the other hand, even the smallest congregations usually have a choir, a Sunday or Sabbath school for children, and a ladies’ auxiliary. All are good ways to meet members of your community.
Some people consider the format of the weekly worship service to be important, saying that God relates to them more in one format than another. It varies from the elaborate, choreographed, and lengthy Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, then through the similarly structured but much shorter formal interplay between the presiding minister and the congregation among the Lutherans and Anglicans, through to the worship of most Christian groups, with no structured oral dialogue, and marked by longer preaching. At the extreme is the Quaker Meeting, where everyone sits in silence except when a member feels called by God to speak. Pentecostal and Charismatic assemblies feature prophecy, speaking in tongues, healings, and other manifestations of the Spirit. The Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church would be the most appealing to efficiency buffs, because it uses the same formal mode as Episcopalians and Lutherans, but is more closely synchronized, with not even a split-second being lost from one part of the worship service to another, wrapping up the proceedings in half to three-quarters of the time.
The New Testament does not comment on formal (structured, liturgical) vs. informal worship format, and some Christians find one form more meaningful than another. If you are equally divided in your own heart between two congregations of two denominations after assessing opportunities for spiritual growth, volunteer programs, pastoral care, community, etc., the format can be the deciding factor. If you like the features of one congregation but are unsure in comparison to other churches, attend them for several weeks and ask yourself "Can I do this every Sunday or Sabbath for the rest of my life?"
There is also a wrong criterion for selecting a church, which should not be used, even though many denominations and ministries urge it upon us. This approach entails studying a variety of denominations to find which is "the one true church" and join its congregation in your part of the country, even if comparatively distant from your residence. Over the centuries, many people have tried this by making thorough investigations and weighing the merits, but have arrived at contrary results, and joined different denominations.
In our time, the mass of religious literature is too huge for any individual to study and compare all the denominations of Christendom, which are more numerous than ever before. In addition, the Internet and YouTube make the information more comprehensive and more easily accessible than previously. If you are inclined to study one particular Christian denomination for the correctness of its distinctive set of doctrines and practices, you need to study them all, because multitudes of churches have almost identical, overlapping packages of teachings. You can find any such true and perfect church only if your study includes ones that are close to each other in doctrine and practice, which means all of them, because of the shadings of differences on a continuum. If there is only one true church, there can be only one true and perfect package of doctrines and practices, without the least error. You can never be sure of that a particular denomination possesses the only and best gospel unless you also study overlapping ones.
It would take more than your lifetime to look into all thirty thousand denominations in Christendom to ascertain which is the uniquely true one. If you study two a day, it would take over forty-one years, which admittedly is within a human lifetime. However, denominations are coming into existence at the rate of two a day, stretching the time to eighty-two years. Even investigating two or four a day is an unrealistically conservative estimate, because there is simply too much material about each on the internet and in print media. A fair-minded investigation would take several days each. Do not forget that while studying a particular one, you need to compare and crosscheck with the others.
In the meantime, a Christian who spends over forty years looking for the one true church, instead of settling for one congregation already in his city or town, would go a lifetime without Christian fellowship, pastoral support, the grace of the sacraments, and doing good works through church auspices.
A middle ground is more feasible: research the denominations already established in your city or town. This may reduce the number of churches among those you have already selected as a result of following the advice in the early paragraphs of this article.
The problem remaining will be who is to decide which packages of doctrines and ethics are more correct than others. All cite Scripture in support of their beliefs, with the consequence that deliberating over Bible passages will produce only limited assistance. Can you read the original Hebrew and Greek well enough to discern among alleged shades of meaning in the original texts? Have you read all contrary literature and tried to work out a resolution? You might find that the truth is more likely somewhere in between the teachings of two denominations. What qualifications do you possess in deciding on doctrine and ethics other seekers do not?
God never commanded everyone to be theologians, or spend all one’s time in protracted study before taking the first step towards His kingdom, or to deprive oneself of the strength that comes through sacraments and fellowship. Finding the solution as to which is the one true doctrinal package is simple: accept the teachings of the organization you have decided to join on the basis of the above advice as to services a congregation can make available to you, and provide you opportunities through which you can serve others. The teachings of the various churches differ minimally or are on a continuum with overlapping beliefs. All of them must have some support in Scripture scholarship, or nobody would have believed them for very long.
The Bible never uses the expression "one true church." Many people have searched for it, and never found it, or found it in widely different places, it appears that there is no "one true church" for everyone. What exists is "one right church" for the particular individual. The test is what best nourishes a Christian spiritually and helps them exercise their talents as a disciple in their city, town, or village. After investigation and trials, hosts of people have successfully found the "one right church" for themselves, but have incorrectly called it the "one true church" for everybody.
There indeed exists "one perfect church," but it is perfect only for the needs and spiritual gifts of the individual it meets. Yes, there is "one true church" or "one right church," but it is not the same for every inquirer.