Choosing a Church

I’ve been thinking a lot about the characteristics of a good church lately, now that we have left our old church and withdrawn our membership. We’ve been trying out several of the churches in our area and have noticed a few trends.

First, let me say that I have attended many different churches. As an Army brat and the son of a Chaplain, I accompanied my parents to chapel and church throughout my childhood and, except for a brief hiatus during my freshman year in college, I have been a faithful church attender all of my life. I’ve sat under teaching from pastors of nearly every denomination and stripe; I’ve worshipped with those who dance in the aisles and those who sit up straight with their hands folded in their laps. I’ve come to one definite conclusion: there are no perfect churches.

So, setting our sights a little lower, what do we look for in a good church?

FortLewisMainPostChapel.jpg mainpostmd.jpg

These are two of my favorite Army Main Post Chapels — on the left, Fort Lewis, and on the right, Fort Bragg.

First and perhaps foremost is the quality of the teaching or preaching. If a pastor has a high reverence for the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, and is willing to lead the congregation in dynamic study and personal application, a lot of the other problems that can plague a church are nipped in the bud.

Sadly, this quality in pastors is fairly rare. Many lack the ability to effectively communicate, while others shy away from applying their teaching to themselves (or revealing that to their congregations, which amounts to the same thing). Some have shipwrecked their faith by turning away from (or never holding) a firm conviction with regard to the inerrancy of scripture. Many, like politicians, have fallen prey to the relentless attrition of compromise and have nullified the scriptures to keep peace or avoid offending their congregations.

Second in my list of criteria is the quality of worship … that unique and precious combination of music, prayer, enthusiasm, restraint and charisma on the part of the worship leaders. The tone of the worship experience is largely set by the congregation, although leadership is critical here, as well. Some churches err on the conservative side, barely moving their lips and groaning out praise songs in a somber monotone. Others worship God with commendable abandon but err in an excess of emotion without engaging the mind.

This seems largely to be a matter of preference. Personally, I look for a church that can sing out a lively praise chorus with enthusiasm, yet keeps a tight rein on the selection of songs to ensure that the lyrics are Biblically accurate and “theologically correct”. I tend to dislike excessive repetition in choruses, and I resent being manipulated or coerced by the worship leaders. I’m uncomfortable with an appeal solely to my emotions … I mistrust worship that does not engage my mind.


Thirdly we consider the conduct of the congregation itself; do they behave in a loving manner to each other, to visitors? After the service, do they huddle into tight cliques, or are they open to receiving strangers? Are the majority of the members actively using their gifts to serve the church, or are a few doing the work of the many?

Before I go any further, I think it is important to explore why we go to church at all. Each Sunday I ask my children why we go to church … it is a little ritual we have to while away part of the drive. They shout out a bunch of the conventional answers:

  • “To learn about God!”
  • “To worship!”
  • “To sing!”
  • “To see our friends!”
  • “Because the Bible tells us to!”

But Daniel has learned the answer that really sums up all of the other reasons. He waits until a quiet moment, and then (whether someone has already said it or not) he shouts out, loud and clearly: “Because we love God!”


There are those who go to church out of duty and those who go because they have the chance to serve (pastors and teachers often fall into this category). There are those who attend for the social opportunities, or out of fear of social consequences (although not so much these days). There are those who thrive on the joy that comes from a good worship service, and others who count on the challenge of a thoughtful sermon. These are all good reasons to gather together as a local part of the body of Christ.

But I have found that sometimes the teaching or the fellowship or the worship experience fails. Sometimes the opportunity to use your gift is denied to you in a particular church. Sometimes people hurt you or fail you. In such cases, should you stop going to church? No. You go to church because the depth of your relationship with God requires it … whether your experience at that particular church on that particular Sunday is rewarding or not. Ultimately, if you’re not going to church, you are faced with this passage:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another … and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” — Hebrews 10:25
… and this passage:
“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” — John 14:15
If you persist in disobeying the clear command to continue in fellowship, then you are forced to re-evaluate your love of God, which is displayed by your obedience.

I must sound pretty glib for a guy who has recently left a church. But let me defend myself in two ways:

  • 1. After I parted ways with the church leadership, I remained at that church for another full year, during which time I was not permitted to use my spiritual gift. Due to relational issues, I experienced diminished enjoyment in the preaching, fellowship and worship experience.
  • 2. Since I left, I have not missed a Sunday but am actively seeking a new church home, attending various churches in the area.

Fourth (and this may be primary for some) is the question of what programs the church offers. As a husband and a father, I am the spiritual leader in my family. This doesn’t mean that I am holier-than-thou (or even holier-than-them) but simply means that God holds me responsible for the spiritual growth and well-being of my family. I need to find a church that offers programs for my wife and children that will promote their growth. A church can have great preaching, fellowship and worship, but if it doesn’t reach my child at some critical stage, then I’m not doing my job. It is for this reason that you will sometimes see a family suddenly pull up stakes and move to a new church when their children become teenagers … finding a church with a vibrant youth program is, in my opinion, a necessity for most parents of teens.

One element that has recently elevated itself in my thinking is that of church government. While some would argue that this, too, is a matter of preference, I am mindful of some errors I have seen in this area.

The scriptural model for church government seems clearly to require the plurality of ruling elders. Beginning with the Church in Jerusalem and extending throughout the New Testament churches, there is no Biblically recorded case where a church was governed by any other arrangement than elders, bishops or overseers (always more than one). Generally these elders were initially appointed by someone with apostolic authority, but provision for the ongoing selection of elders was made in Paul’s writings to Timothy and Titus.

At the same time, there seems to be some level at which the congregation as a whole can govern, as demonstrated in the election of Deacons in Acts 7.

Some churches err by placing all of their trust in a single leader, often a pastor, without protecting him or themselves through tight accountability. Others retain all authority at the congregational level, wrangling for hours in monthly meetings that fail to achieve any consistent purpose.

Each model is prone to abuse in different ways; none will always be perfect. But it seems to me that a church ought to stay as close to the scriptural model as possible, if only for the following practical reasons:

1)A church governed entirely by the congregation seems likely to suffer from a lack of consistent vision. It will often spend a large amount of time making the simplest of administrative decisions. It runs the risk of embroiling its members in political disputes and maneuvering for power; sadly the aggressive and self-important will tend to rise to the top under such a system, if only by attrition. It seems unlikely that this kind of church will be able to attract good spiritual leaders or even teachers. I once attended a congregational church that spent more than six weeks in nightly meetings debating a minor change to the name of the church … even after they had already agreed to change the name.

2)A church governed by a single ‘elder’ or pastor seems likely to fall into doctrinal error. Rather than losing its vision in the babble of many voices, it can become dependent upon a single person for whatever guidance it receives. In the event that the leader falls into a public sin, the church is particularly vulnerable to being badly damaged or even destroyed. If the pastor is deficient in a particular area (and all pastors are), that arm of the church is likely to be sadly neglected unless vigorous steps are taken to compensate for that weakness.

3)A church that is run by a board of elders seems inherently better prepared to meet several challenges. It will possess sufficient plurality of views to protect against doctrinal error and narrow vision. It is well-equipped to correct public (and even private) sin on the part of one of its members, including the pastor. It is small and agile enough to represent the needs of the congregation without becoming administratively ineffective. Most of all, it lines up with scriptural teaching.

I should note at this point that the scripture is clear with regard to elders being male, and of high character and maturity. I Timothy 2:11-12 spells this out clearly, if the all-male precedent in the book of Acts and the other Epistles doesn’t convince you. Once you start to pick and choose within the scriptures, saying, “Well, but THIS doesn’t apply to me”, there is no reasonable place to stop. Any difficult teaching can be dismissed as being intended only for its immediate recipients … much to the surprise of those responsible for establishing the Canon of scripture. This particular doctrine has been accepted by church leaders for more than 1900 years and only recently has come under fire, due, in part, to the spread of feminist teachings in the church. Please excuse the tirade, but I assure you, this is very mild compared to how I feel on this topic. I take it very personally when people try to elevate social opinion above what the scriptures literally say.

I was very impressed with the Liberty Bay Presbyterian Church in Poulsbo, WA. As a PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) church, they are governed by a small group of elders, among whom the pastor serves as a ‘teaching elder’. When we visited them several weeks ago, we slipped into the back, having underestimated the time required to get to the church, and arriving more than 10 minutes late. Afterwards, I was immediately approached by a man who identified himself as a Deacon. He engaged me in conversation until another Deacon appeared, to whom he smoothly handed me off. Within a minute, the first man was back with the pastor in tow … it was all done with the ease of much practice and communicated very clearly to me that I was welcome and honored as a visitor.


We have twice attended the Crossroads Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) Church, a large, bustling congregation with about 400 attending their primary service. Kathy has really been enjoying the lively worship style, led by a “Worship Pastor” who is definitely not afraid of looking foolish in the cause of Christ. I have found the teaching there to be like a refreshing cool breeze … thoughtful, challenging and courageous. The children’s programs seem to be well-organized and dynamic. There is a relational solace in being anonymous in that church, especially after the way fellowship has been broken with some in our former church. Unfortunately the church is more than an hour away from our home, which is hard, particularly given the amount of time I spend commuting during the week.

One possible choice is the Quilcene Bible Church, where several of our friends attend. It is a small church, not much larger than our former church, but it is organized under a board of male elders. The pastor tends toward teaching more than preaching, but I appreciate that in any case. One concern is that the church doesn’t seem to have many families with infants or toddlers, which generally means that less resources are devoted to the nursery program. Then again, with Sarah approaching the two-year mark, and David passing that important potty-training milestone, our reliance upon the nursery program is beginning to diminish. Still, it is hard to serve in the nursery multiple Sundays in a given month — not uncommon in a small church when the resources are used by only a few families.

One thing I know for sure: I will not choose a church lightly without carefully exploring all of these criteria. I will scrutinize the doctrinal statements and the constitutions of these churches, learning from the mistakes I made when we started attending our former church.

I’ll keep you posted. :)

Share or follow

Related posts:

Divorce and a Biscuit

This morning I followed my usual routine as we arrived in Seattle. I waited until the crowd had thinned a little and exited the ferry. I made my way to the McDonalds at the end of the terminal, and caught the eye of the manager who always runs the register at that time of the morning: “One egg and cheese biscuit, please.” It is my only line of the morning, and I have it down. The manager already knows my request, since I never vary my breakfast selection, but so far he hasn’t felt it desirable to pre-fill my order. “One dollar and fifty-two cents,” he tells me. Today I gave him $2.05 just to spice it up a little … he made the proper change without the flicker of an eyelid.

After waiting for the signal to cross Alaskan Way, I scurry across the road and stand under the viaduct (I think that is what they call it) next to my usual pillar and devour my biscuit, dropping crumbs and usually finishing before my shuttle arrives.

Today I noticed a little Subaru parked in the spot where my shuttle generally stops to pick us up. A thirty-something man with long hair and a large diaper bag was talking with the driver of the Subaru, a petite woman in business clothes. She eventually rounded the car to help a little girl (perhaps three years old) out of her carseat. She entrusted the little girl into the arms of the man, who walked across the street and into the ferry terminal. The little girl, facing back toward the woman, held out her arms and cried pitifully as long as they were in view.

I’m guessing that I was privy to one of those ugly little scenes that spring up in the aftermath of a divorce. The man was clearly not the primary caretaker of the little girl, yet he was obviously taking charge of her for an extended period of time. It made me very sad, to think of the life that this girl will lead, routinely torn between two people who couldn’t or wouldn’t get along.

It took the man several minutes to cross Alaskan Way and ride the elevator to the upper level of the terminal. I think the saddest part of the whole scene was the way that the woman watched and watched. She waited, oblivious to the rush of traffic, until they had come out of the elevator on the upper level and were entirely out of sight; the man and little girl did not seem aware of her scrutiny. Her hands on the steering wheel as she finally drove away were empty of a ring, and her face wore a sad, and strangely guilty expression.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand how people who have children can permanently separate. I wish I had taken a video of that little scene, and could make it required viewing for anyone filing for divorce. I think I’d rather die than have to go through what that woman probably experiences every week.

Share or follow

Related posts:


A strange thing happened to me last week, as I traveled between my home in the Duckabush and my office in Seattle.

I brought my camera along that day, and I decided to take a few pictures, including one of the commuters as they exited the ferry terminal, shown below.

April 2004 Pictures 099.jpg

I noticed a Hispanic woman traveling with a small girl … I remember wondering if she had chosen a day-care facility in Seattle so that she and her daughter could spend the commute together. By chance, I captured the daughter in the bottom right corner of the picture I took of the commuting horde.

That evening, as I boarded the homeward ferry, I noticed the unusual duo again. I was intrigued by the appearance of the little girl, who reminded me of my own little sister, adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam some 32 years ago.

I left the ferry and boarded the bus, taking a seat in the back. As always, I checked with the driver to ensure I had selected the correct #90 bus (there are three, and they vary their destinations and departure times from hour to hour in maddening confusion). Toward the end of the ride, I moved forward to the seats usually reserved for the elderly and handicapped … it is always a good idea to remind the driver that I am still there, since my stop is the last on the line.

I noticed the woman and her daughter still on the bus, about the same time as the driver. He asked her where she was going.

“I need to connect with the bus to Port Townsend,” she told him in a thick Central American accent.

“Oh,” he answered. “You wanted the 90 express bus that connects with Jefferson Transit.” After a little more discussion they established that the bus to Port Townsend had already left, and that it was the last bus of the evening heading in that direction. It was already late, and I was very tired. Port Townsend, while in the same general direction as my destination, would take me at least 30 minutes out of my path each way. I struggled with my conscience and lost.

“Where, exactly, are you going?” I asked her.

It transpired that she was going to Port Hadlock … a mere 15 minutes off my usual route. Since I had already lost a fight with my conscience over losing an hour, I knew better than to attempt a “best 2 out of 3″ for a mere half-hour. I presented some identification to her and to the bus driver, leaving a witness behind in case I turned out to be an axe murderer or something sinister.

It turned out that she had been closing up an apartment in Bellevue (cleaning & such); she and her husband & daughter were moving to Port Hadlock to help a relative run a new Mexican Restaurant there. Her daughter had wet through her clothes (leaving a large wet mark on her mother’s lap) and had to be changed in the parking lot beside my car. From all accounts, this was icing on the cake of a horrible day.

We began somehow to talk about spiritual things … she was raised in an unlikely cross between a Baptist and a Jehovah’s Witness, adding Pentacostalism to the mix as an adult. I had a chance to tell her a little about what Jesus meant to me and how He had made a difference in my life. I was glad that I had offered to take her home … I don’t think she had any transportation alternatives and would likely have ended up paying $40 for a cab.

So was it a coincidence that I saw her in the morning, out of all those people? I think probably not. Sometimes an opportunity to help comes along so quickly that I miss it out of indecision. I think that God knew I would need some time for my compassion to build and so he planted this lady in my path in the morning, for His purposes. Funny to think of God planning this whole event 8 hours before she took the wrong bus. You or I, if we were God, would probably just take the simplest approach of ensuring that she chose the correct bus … but God doesn’t do things the way we expect. And maybe the point was not only helping her, but God changing me.

Share or follow

Related posts:

Waiting on the Lord

I was excited today to try out my new travel bible, purchased from CBD (Christian Book Distributor) online. It is only a little larger than a package of Pop-Tarts and contains the entire Bible, NIV translation. With a conservative blue leather cover and a metal snap, it fits neatly in my pocket or laptop bag. I had time on the bus to read Psalms 108-110, and to read over Ephesians 1 twice.

One of the things I think about a lot is the length of my commute, and the seeming waste of hours upon hours of my time. Over the weekend, I was whining about this topic to a friend, and I started thinking about how God perceives time and its waste.

First of all, the very concept of waste is, by definition, bound up with a finite perspective. To test this, find any child below the age of 6 and give them a bottle of bubbles (the kind that comes with a bubble-wand and a screw-on top.

Nearly any child will enjoy the bubbles, but at some point, well inside 30 minutes, most children will either accidentally spill or deliberately pour the bubbles out on the ground, totally insensitive to the waste involved. As a grown-up (at least in age), I am frequently irritated by this failure in my children to understand the finite nature of things.

“Now all your bubbles are gone,” I lecture severely. “Why did you pour them on the ground? Why weren’t you more careful? Now yours are all gone and you’ll have to just sit and watch your sister play with her bubbles.” My children are always very impressed with my lectures.

Let’s face it … life is finite. The brown sugar Pop-Tarts I am nibbling will soon be gone. The Diet Coke (breakfast of also-rans) I am sipping will vanish, probably before the Pop-Tarts. This day, whether it is seized, throttled, savored, hoarded, or allowed to trickle through my fingers, will pass away, never to be reclaimed, except in memory or blog journalling.

I must say, I find the loss of six hours a day in commuting to be deeply offensive … I’ve always had a high view of my time, since early childhood. My Mom once assigned me a cleaning chore that I found particularly tedious; I announced to her in no uncertain terms, “I was meant for more than this!”

In the words of the Psalmist:
“You have made my days a mere handbreadth, the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” –Psalm 39:5

Life is finite. Or is it? Look at the way that God treats the ones He loves:

  • Moses, the leader of Israel, the greatest prophet (with the exception of John the Baptist and, possibly, Elijah) spent 40 years herding sheep on the back side of Midian and another 40 years expiating the rebelliousness of his people and his own temper.
  • David, possibly the greatest king Israel ever knew, spent years in exile and being chased throughout the badlands of Israel by his vindictive predecessor. Even when he finally became king at the age of 30, he spent another 7 years waiting in Hebron for the rest of the country to recognize him.
  • Abraham, God’s chosen friend and founder of His people, spent 99 years as a nomadic herder before God’s promise of a son was redeemed.
  • Noah, the only righteous man on the planet in his day, was assigned to a 100-year-long marine construction project.
  • Jesus, God’s own Son, fully God and fully Man, spent the majority of his time on this earth working as a carpenter (or possibly a carpenter’s assistant). It wasn’t until the last 3 of His 33 years that he began to actively pursue His ministry. Even during that time, he spent most of his time commuting.

The list goes on. God’s view of time is notoriously different from ours — “a day is like a thousand years” and so on. For Him, neither time nor matter are finite — He probably has a different perspective on ‘waste’. I wonder if we, in our fast talking, multi-tasking, hyper-scheduled rush to seize and exploit every moment, fail to accurately discern the mind and purposes of God? Perhaps God’s will for me on this commute is to ‘waste’ this time, learning to wait on Him in a positive, active way. Maybe this travel time is a golden opportunity for me to renew a daily habit of Bible study … indeed, even the drive time can be used constructively in prayer and (with the windows rolled up) singing along with praise songs on the local Christian radio station.

Share or follow

Related posts:

A Birthday Party

May04 094.jpg

Today we celebrated Daniel’s 7th birthday. We’re almost a month late! Oh dear! The weeks do slip by. Daniel’s birthday fell two days after we returned from Michigan. That weekend Joshua and I were away at a homeschooling conference. The next weekend the little ones were sick (not a good recipe for a party). The following Saturday the neighbors, who make up 3 of the party’s guests, were out of town. We couldn’t have a party without them!

Thankfully, while we were in Michigan we had a party for Daniel. So, although his big party was delayed, he hasn’t been suffering. The neighbor children were here in force this morning and made up a goodly crowd, as you can see by the picture. A friend stopped by with his grandson who was thrilled to find a party going on. Ha! He joined right in.

In a delightful turn of weather the sun was out for the entire length of the party. At the close of our Edgren Lego Island party the rain began and continued for the rest of the day. I love birthday parties and somehow have managed to share the enthusiasm with the older children. Joshua planned the entire party, helped me with invitations. organized the games and then proceeded to implement them. Yay! Rachel handled the decorations. She made posters and signs and hung an assortment of streamers. It’s fun (and touching) to see the children take on (and copy) some of the party traditions I began with them. Joshua even made the cakes (with some help from David and Sarah).

Here is a picture of my devoted Cake Bakers:

May04 077.jpg

It’s wonderful to see the children work together, especially when the older ones show patience and kindness to their younger siblings. David loved working with Joshua on the birthday cake so when I asked Joshua to make cookies for a neighbor he quickly asked if he could go and get David to help him. They had a great time creaming the butter and sugars, mixing the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and so on. Finally it was time to combine the wet and dry ingredients. I helped David add in the flour mixture and then in a moment of complete insanity told him to turn on the Kitchen Aid. Aieeee! He flipped the switch on and flour and sugar went everywhere! I rushed and turned it off but not before a mess covered the counter and other appliances. Joshua, David and I stood there in a moment of silence. Finally David looked at me, with his adorable blond hair, brown eyes and irresistable three year old face and said,

“That was too hard!”

Joshua and I burst out laughing. Ah, the joys of cooking with children.

Here’s a picture of the Lego Birthday Cake. I don’t have a picture of the ill fated chocolate chip cookies. You’ll just have to take my word for it that they were DELICIOUS even with a little bit of missing flour, salt and baking soda. :)

May04 085.jpg

Happy Birthday Daniel!! We love you and are so glad God placed you in our family.


Share or follow

Related posts: