Six Questions to Ask When Choosing a Church
Maybe you’re thinking, “I should take my family [or myself] to church. But how do I pick one?”
If you’ve decided you want to go to a Christian congregation, you have over 175 choices in the Fremont area alone. Sorting through the subtle differences can be difficult. So in this essay, I offer you six questions that I think will help you clarify what congregation is right for you. Consider how you would answer them, take a look at my answers, and ask some folk at other churches. Any of us would welcome your inquiry.
Jeff Spencer, Senior Pastor
Niles Discovery Church
1. Would everyone in your church answer these questions the same way?
No. In the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – the two denominations our congregation is aligned with – we recognize the responsibility of the individual to make the faith his or her own. So my responses can’t speak for anyone else, but I think my answers will be close to how most people at Niles Discovery Church would answer them.
2. What do you believe about the Bible?
At Niles Discovery Church we take the Bible seriously but not literally. The Bible is a collection of stories about God reaching out to humanity and humanity reaching out to God. While inspired by God’s Spirit, we understand that the Bible was written by human beings at a certain time in history. So it needs to be read with an eye for cultural assumptions and biases that may not represent God’s love and desires for humanity.
An example of this is slavery. In his writings, St. Paul treats slavery as a normal part of his culture and fails to speak out against slavery. But I have no doubt that slavery does not reflect God’s love and God does not desire slavery to be part of human culture.
3. How important are my personal experiences of God and Jesus?
Our experiences of God and Jesus are very important. It is because of my experience that I know – not just in my head, but in my heart and my bones – of God’s love for me. But my faith is also based on scripture, tradition, science, and my God-given ability to question and think. I also believe it is important for us to share our experiences with other members of our faith communities so that we can better understanding their meaning.
4. Does modern science have anything to say to faith?
Yes. Scientific understandings of God’s creation can help us understand the Creator. They can help us better understand God’s timing (look how long it took God to create the world) and who we are as part of God’s creation (isn’t it amazing that DNA works?). Science can also help us identify cultural misconceptions in scripture and traditions.
5. What is the role of tradition in your church?
In some churches, tradition plays a very important role in understanding our relationship with God. In some, the role is much smaller. While the role at Niles Discovery Church is not especially important, we need to listen to the witness of previous generations, understanding it is their expression of faithfulness.
The Congregationalists (one of the major streams that make up the United Church of Christ) sent missionaries to Hawaii. In an attempt to be faithful, these missionaries shared Christianity and their European-American culture. The result was the decimation of the Hawaiian culture. While I honor their faithfulness, I won’t adopt the tradition of their methods when I share my faith.
On the other hand, the Disciples of Christ built many schools in the American South following the Civil War, recognizing that freedom without education was not real freedom. Some of these academies still exist as colleges and universities that continue to educate leaders of all races. This tradition of supporting education for all people is one that I am glad to have as part of my faith history.
6. How are decisions made in the church?
Churches organize themselves in many different ways. At Niles Discovery Church, the members have the authority to make decisions. Members are people who publicly affirm their baptisms (or who are baptized) and state their desire to be part of the ministry and mission of the church. Major decisions are made at congregational meetings. A church cabinet (a sort of board of directors) makes other decisions in between congregational meetings. There are also ministry teams who organize and lead programs in the church.