Church, Mailbag

The Mailbag: How can I tell if a church is doctrinally sound?

 

How do I know if a church is doctrinally sound? Do I base it off their statement of faith?

This is such a great question in a day when you can’t really trust that a building with the word “church” on the sign out front actually teaches and practices sound doctrine.

Because it would be impossible to cover every single aspect of doctrine that churches need to handle biblically, and because many of my readers are new to some of the deeper points of theology, what I want to do is give you some “signposts” to look for as you’re checking out a new church that will help indicate whether or not that particular church is likely to be one that handles those harder to understand points of theology in a doctrinally sound way.

First, check out these resources (and others) under my Searching for a new church? tab at the top of this page. These should be helpful if you’re unfamiliar with the biblical issues that a church should be handling correctly:

Looking for a Church Home? by Tim Challies

Church shopping? 35 Key Questions to Ask the Church at Berean Research

4 Questions to Ask Before Joining a Church by Brian Croft

How Can I Find a Good Church? 

Finding a New Church: Starting from Scratch

Six Questions for a Potential Church

If you are a brand new Christian and you aren’t sure what the answers to the questions in these articles should be, ask the person who led you to Christ, a pastor you know to be biblically trustworthy, or a friend who’s a mature Christian to help. You can also use the search bar at the top of this page to see if I’ve addressed your question. And, make liberal use of Got Questions? It’s a wonderful website that gives simple, biblical answers to all kinds of questions about the Bible, church, theology and other issues.

A church’s stance on many of these theological issues can be found in their statement of faith, which most churches post on their websites (often under the heading “What We Believe,” “Doctrinal Distinctives,” or something similar). While you’re on the church website, here are some other things to look for that can give you a fuller picture of whether or not the church is likely to be doctrinally sound.

⛪ Be wary of a church with no statement of faith on their website at all, and be cautious if they have a very simplistic statement of faith with few or no Bible verses cited to support it. Generally speaking, in my experience, the longer and more detailed a statement of faith is, and the more Scripture references it has, the more likely it is to be a doctrinally sound church. (Here and here are some typical, good statements of faith, and this one is particularly detailed.)

⛪ A few things to look for in the statement of faith:

•The Trinity: You’re looking for language along the lines of, “We believe in one God in three persons.” If you see three “modes” or three “manifestations,” that’s the language of modalism, and it is not a doctrinally sound church.

•Some churches have a section of their statement of faith on spiritual gifts or the Holy Spirit and include wording indicating whether they are a continuationist (ex: “we believe all the spiritual gifts are in operation in the church today”) or cessationist (ex: “we believe supernatural gifts such as healing and tongues have ceased”) church. Generally speaking, a church is more likely to be doctrinally sound if it holds the cessationist view. (No, I am not saying every continuationist church is heretical. I’m strictly talking probabilities here.) If there is anything in the statement of faith that indicates that a Believer will or must speak in tongues in order to be saved or as a result of salvation, or that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” occurs separately from salvation, it is not a doctrinally sound church.

•Some churches intentionally indicate that they are complementarian in the “Marriage and Family” or “Church Leadership” section of their statement of faith by stating that the husband leads the family and the wife submits to her husband, or by explaining that the roles of pastor and elder are limited to men. It’s usually a good sign when a church makes a point of saying these things.

⛪ If you find the pastor’s name listed here, it’s not a doctrinally sound church.

⛪ If a church subscribes to a creed/confession/catechism you know to be biblical (ex: 1689 London Baptist, Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) there’s a better chance they’re a doctrinally sound church. 

⛪ Some churches have a page on their website where they recommend books, blogs, and other resources. If they’re recommending doctrinally sound materials by trustworthy authors and teachers (click here for a few), that can be a good sign.

If they have a women’s ministry page, check out who’s speaking at the next conference they’re going to and who is the author of the Bible study materials they use.

⛪ Check the staff page and make sure they don’t have women serving as pastors/elders. (Be aware that some churches are now using titles like “Coach,” “Director,” “Facilitator,” etc. to disguise the fact that women are serving in unbiblical positions of leadership. Regardless of the way the position title is worded, women are not to serve in pastoral or elder offices or in any position in which they will be teaching or exercising authority over men.)

⛪ Check the sermon archives for a couple of things: 1) to see if they invite women or false teachers as guest preachers, and 2) does the pastor preach mainly expositorily or topically?

Keep in mind, however, that there are lots of churches out there who look perfectly doctrinally sound “on paper” but are not practicing what their website preaches. Take a look at these statements of faith for example: Lakewood (Joel Osteen), North Point (Andy Stanley), and Bethel (New Apostolic Reformation). (You can find out more about these churches/pastors here.) On the surface, and especially to those newly saved or not very familiar with the Bible, these statements of faith look fairly decent (although…notice that no Scriptures are listed, and they are short and/or somewhat vague), but the practices of these churches may be surprising in comparison.

Because churches’ practices and teachings often differ – sometimes significantly – from what you see in their statement of faith, you’ll have to dig deeper in order to get a better feel for the church’s doctrine. If the website posts the audio or video of their worship services, listen to several sermons. Make an appointment to go in and talk to the pastor about what the church teaches and ask any questions you might have. And visit the church for a while before joining to see how things actually go. The most a church website can do is help you weed out the churches that are definitely bad. The website cannot tell you that a church is definitely good.

If you’re looking for a new church but you aren’t sure where to start, check the church search engines and churches recommended by my readers at the Searching for a new church? tab at the top of this page.


If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

Church, Top 10

Top 10 Features Your Church Website Needs

One of my favorite parts of this ministry can be found at the Searching for a New Church? tab at the top of this blog. Whether you’re moving to an unfamiliar area or you’re forced to leave your current church due to false doctrine, it can be difficult to find a doctrinally sound church to join.

I’m trying, in my own small way, to make that easier. In addition to providing church search engines and biblical resources delineating the things you should look for in a church, I’ve asked my readers to recommend any doctrinally sound churches they’re familiar with. They have generously given of their time to respond, and I’m overjoyed to report that we’ve had many happy “matchmakings” of brothers and sisters in Christ to wonderful church families.

I recently culled through and organized the nearly 250 reader-recommended churches into an easily navigable master list. I wanted to make sure the list was as helpful as possible, so I provided the web site of every church on the list. Which means I’ve looked at a lot of church websites lately. Most have been very helpful and well-designed. A few, well… let’s just say there was room for improvement.

If you want your church’s website to be helpful to visitors considering your church, as well as to your members, here are ten features (in no particular order…well, except #1) that would be beneficial:

1.
A Website

In other words, your church needs to have a website. All of the 250 churches on my master list have a website (or at least a Facebook page), so I’m guessing that means the vast majority of churches have some sort of website. However, in the past, I have attempted to find information on a particular church only to discover that they had no online presence.

When somebody puts your church’s name into Google and the only hits they get are Yelp or Yellow Pages listings, that communicates something about your church: “We don’t really care whether outsiders can find out information about our church in order to visit.” or “We are stubbornly digging our heels in against technology, even though it would benefit others.” or “We are an elderly congregation that won’t make the effort to understand how to use technology.” (Please don’t try to tell me technology is too complicated for elderly folks. My 97-year-old grandmother has a Facebook page and understands computer guts better than I do.)

Also, while having a Facebook page for your church is great (see below), I would recommend that you also have a web site. Many people, for various reasons, are not on Facebook, and even if your page is public, they have no idea how to navigate a Facebook page if they land on it. There are many free and simple web site hosts out there with a wide variety of designs such as WordPress, Free Church Websites, Doodlekit, and others. Ask around at other churches, examine a variety of church websites, or just Google “website builder”, and play around with the results until you find something that works for your church.

Finally, make the web address for your church simple, logical, and as brief as possible. If the name of your church is First Baptist Church of Anytown, make it something like FBCA.com or FirstBaptistAnytown.org, not PleaseComeVisitOurChurch.com or John316.org.


2.
A Facebook Page

What? I thought you just said we needed a website! Right. It’s very helpful to have both, for potential visitors as well as members. For visitors, a Facebook page has a friendlier, more interactive feel to it than just a web page. On your website they get “Just the facts, ma’am”: your address, statement of faith, staff, etc. On your Facebook page, they get to see the day to day goings on that members are involved in, comments from members, pictures, and so forth. For members, a Facebook page means up to the minute announcements and prayer requests, and a way to stay connected with their church family between Sundays.

But just as having no website can send the wrong message, having only a Facebook page and no website can also send a negative message: “We’re a young, hip church. We don’t care enough about the non-tech savvy crowd to make our information easily available to them.” or “Senior citizens aren’t welcome here.”

And notice, I specifically said a “Facebook” page. Yes, there are problems with Facebook, but it is the platform the majority of people on social media use. Maybe you personally prefer Google+ or Twitter, but if you want to reach the greatest number of people, go with Facebook. And be sure to post your Facebook address on your website, and your website address on your Facebook page, so that anybody landing on one will easily be able to click over to the other.


3.
The Church’s Accurate, Specific Physical Address

“Off Highway 20, just past the tire factory” isn’t specific enough for people who aren’t familiar with the area and are trying to input your address into their GPS or maps app. Give the specific, correctly spelled, street name and number, and be sure to include Dr., Ave., St., etc., especially if there’s another street in your town with an identical name (ex: Oak Dr. and Oak St.). Then, if you want to give additional landmarks, that would be helpful. Also include the full, correctly spelled name of your city and state (believe it or not, I’ve run across a few church websites that never mention which state they’re located in). People unfamiliar with your area may not know what DFW, NOLA, or Jax means.

Be sure that if the address of your church has recently changed, or if you’re temporarily meeting in another location for some reason, that you immediately update this information on your website, social media, etc. If people make the effort to get up, get dressed, and visit your church, only to arrive at your abandoned, old location, that’s a surefire way to make a bad first impression and practically guarantee that they won’t come back.

Put your physical address on the home page in an easily visible spot. Most of the church websites I visited did this beautifully, but it was annoying that some of them required me to hunt around for the address for several minutes. Was it on the “contact” page? The “about” page? The “FAQ” page? Don’t you want people to be able to find your address so they can visit?

4.
The Church’s Contact Information

This should include the church e-mail address, phone number, and mailing address at a minimum. It’s preferable to have these on the home page, but if that’s absolutely impossible, at least put them under a clearly marked, easily accessible tab marked “contact information”. Not under something less specific like the “about”, “learn more”, or “Got questions?” tab. Not under something cutesy or vague like a “Walk the journey with us” tab. Contact information. If you don’t have your social media icons on your home page, this would be a good place for those as well. You want potential visitors as well as members to be able to get in touch with your church, and most people don’t use phone books anymore.

If you use a website contact form rather than providing an actual e-mail address, be sure somebody in the church office is assigned to check those messages daily and respond to them in a timely manner. I’ve had the misfortune of trying to contact several churches through their website forms and never receiving a response. Likewise, someone should be checking and returning voice mails in a timely manner. Failing to respond to messages makes a bad impression on potential visitors and aggravates your members.


5.
Statement of Faith And Denominational Affiliation

It disturbs me that so many churches seem to be trying to hide their denominational affiliation or are being vague about their statement of faith in order to be “seeker sensitive” and not “turn people off”. That foolishness needs to stop. It’s deceptive, which is another word for lying, which is a sin. Churches need to unashamedly tell people who they are and what they stand for. If you’re so ashamed of the denomination you’re affiliated with that you feel the need to hide it from people, you don’t need to be part of that denomination any more.

Don’t depend on your church’s name to state your denomination for you. “Calvary Baptist” could mean Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist, American Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Reformed Baptist, etc. You can offer any caveats or explanations you like, but be up front about which tribe you belong to. If I’m specifically looking for a Southern Baptist church, I want to know if that’s what you are before I waste a bunch of time slogging through your website in an attempt to find out. And the same holds true if I definitely don’t want a Southern Baptist church. Don’t bait-and-switch me.

Your statement of faith should be specific, biblical, and include Scripture references. I think the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is an excellent template to follow. And, indeed, if the denomination you belong to has a solid, specific statement of faith on its website, why reinvent the wheel? Just link to it and say, “this is what we believe.” The same goes for any creeds or confessions your church holds to. Give the text or link to a site that gives the full text.

Having no statement of faith or a flimsy statement faith on your website raises immediate red flags. Not having a statement of faith says you’re hiding what you believe, or what you believe is so unimportant that you forgot to put it on the website. A flimsy statement of faith (A handful of short, extremely broad statements with no Scripture references like, “We believe the Bible is God’s Word.” Yeah? So do about 80% of Americans, most of whom aren’t even Christians.) says your church is doctrinally flimsy or wishy-washy.


6.
A Gospel Presentation

Most of the time, people perusing church websites to find information on how to visit your church are already Christians, but sometimes a false convert or a run of the mill lost person will happen upon your site. Christians should seize every opportunity to share the gospel with the lost, and putting a gospel presentation on your website is an easy way to do so.

If it’s a written explanation of the plan of salvation, make sure it’s long enough to be specific and accurate, but short enough that people will actually read it. Or, you could post a video like the one to your upper left, or maybe one that your pastor has recorded. Or, if your denomination’s website has a good gospel presentation page, you could link to that.


7.
Sermons

Christians looking for a new church want to know what the preaching is like. Church members who are out sick or traveling want to listen to any sermons they might have missed. A lost person who “stumbles across” (hey, we all know that’s Providence, right?) your website could listen to your pastor preach and get saved.

If you have the technology to record your pastor’s sermons and put them on the church website, do it! It can only serve as a benefit and a blessing. And if you don’t have that recording technology, prayerfully consider investing in it.


8.
Staff

It helps potential visitors feel more at home if they can get to know a little bit about the pastor they’ll be listening to or the youth director who oversees their children’s Sunday School department. A little personal information is nice, but be sure to also include some “resume” type of information, such as where he went to seminary and how many years of experience he has. A few websites I’ve looked at have included  the names of well-known pastors and authors or books that have been influential on the pastor’s spiritual life or philosophy of ministry. I find those very insightful.

9.
What to Expect

Some churches include a page on their website that gives all the details a first time visitor would want to know. If you have a welcome center where they can meet someone who will show them around, explain where it is and which exterior door is closest to it. Do you have visitor parking? Give directions to it or post a diagram. What time and in which room(s) are the worship service, Sunday School classes, etc.? Where is the nursery? Are there special accommodations for disabled visitors? Is next Sunday the monthly potluck? How do people usually dress for the worship service? Is a map or directory of the campus available? Ask new members what information they found helpful on your church’s website and what improvements could be made.

10.
Updates

If your church website has the same interface it had in 1997, it’s time for an update. Get a more streamlined, user-friendly, contemporary looking layout. It doesn’t have to look like something out of Star Wars, but it shouldn’t look like the site you had when the internet was brand new and AOL was the hottest thing going, either.

Make sure that when people click on the “about” or “contact information” or “staff” tab that there’s actually something there once they get there, not a “404 Error. This page does not exist.” type of thing. Old looking websites with pages that don’t work are not the way to introduce your church to the world. They send the message that, “Nobody here really knows what they’re doing, technologically speaking. Somebody tried to put a web page together about 20 years ago, but it was too hard, or she got too busy, and she gave up, and nobody else cared enough to handle this project.”

Additionally, keep the information on your website up to date. Sermons should be posted within a week or two max. Your calendar page should be the current month with up to date events, not the calendar from last September. If a staff member has left, the staff page shouldn’t look like he’s still there. As previously mentioned, all of your contact information should be kept up to date.

Not Absolutely Necessary, But Extremely Helpful:
Recommended Resources

More and more churches are dedicating a section of their website to a list of recommended books (and sometimes, blogs, websites, and music, as well) on various theological topics such as salvation, eschatology, marriage, etc. I’m sure this is a wonderful resource for their own members who want to study up on these topics, but I’ve found it is the fastest and easiest way to tell where a church stands, theologically, depending on which authors’ materials are recommended. If I were looking for a new church, the book page of the church’s website is the first page I’d check out. It often says more, specifically, about the church’s theology than the statement of faith page.


Your church website can be wonderfully helpful to potential visitors and church members alike. Take some time to make it the best, most welcoming and informative introduction to your church you can.

What are some helpful things you think should be included
on church websites for potential visitors? For church members?

Church, Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday ~ Finding a New Church- Starting from Scratch

Originally published March 29, 2008

New ChurchWhen my husband and I have looked for a new church in the past, we’ve had our choices narrowed down for us because we are comfortable in our denomination and are not looking to change. When you’re starting from scratch, you have a lot more choices to wade through, so it can be more difficult. Here are a few guidelines I’d suggest.

1. The absolute most important thing is to find a church that preaches and teaches only what matches up with what the Bible says, and all of what the Bible says. In other words, they shouldn’t be teaching anything that’s clearly contrary to Scripture and they shouldn’t be leaving things out that are unpopular because they’re afraid they won’t attract as many people.

2. Pray about it. Ask God to lead you to exactly the right church in which to serve Him.

3. If you were raised in a particular denomination and felt comfortable in it, that might be a good place to start, either at the same church or a different church of the same denomination.

4. Ask around. Ask Christian friends about their churches and try visiting with them one Sunday. If you end up joining, you have the bonus of already knowing someone.

5. Do your homework. If there’s a particular church or denomination you’re interested in, chances are, they have a web site. There will probably be a section on the web site called “Our Statement of Faith” or something like that. Check that out and make sure all the tenets line up with Scripture. A lot of churches also have their pastor’s sermons and/or their music on line, so you can get a feel for how things go on Sundays. You’ll also be able to find out when services start, what kinds of programs are available, whether or not they have a nursery, etc.

6. “Interview” churches. Most pastors I know would be thrilled to death if a prospective visitor would call up and make an appointment to come in and talk to them about the church. Ask him whatever you want, find out what’s required for membership, share your concerns, etc. He should be able to answer your queries openly and honestly. I would be very leery about attending a church if the pastor seemed secretive about general doctrinal issues, his own background, or church activities. Sometimes just meeting with the pastor will give you an idea of whether or not you want to give the church a try.

7. Try it on for size. You might fall in love with the first church you try, or it might be like shoe shopping and you have to try several before you find one that fits.

Don’t give up. God has a place for you somewhere.