There are a lot of churches out there, even in just the heart of Austin. We’re glad you are checking out our St. Paul Lutheran Church website, especially if you are doing what they call “church shopping”! Some object to the phrase “church shopping” and what it might convey about the process of selecting a church home. But if you carefully shop for major purchases such as cars or houses, which have a relatively limited lifespan, how much more should you carefully investigate a potential church home, which has implications for eternal life? Recognizing that you may be new to Christianity, new to Lutheranism, new to the Missouri Synod, or just new to Austin, this page provides some background for your “shopping”, as well as listing some things you may want to consider as you “shop.”
First, in the way of background, let’s consider the term “church.” Depending on the context, the word “church” can refer to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ, to a denomination, or to a local congregation. (The word “church” can also refer to a house of worship, the building in which a local congregation meets.)
Church in the sense of “everyone who believes in Jesus Christ” is an article of faith. This Church we confess to be one, holy, Christian or “catholic” (that is, universal, bigger than one place and time), and apostolic. When we refer to the Church in the sense of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ, we sometimes say the Church is “invisible” or “hidden” in the world, since we can’t see people’s faith that essentially makes them members of the Church. At the same time, that use of the word “Church” has “visible” or “revealed” aspects in the world, as those people who believe gather around the purely preached Word of God and the Sacraments administered according to the Gospel. In such assemblies, usually local congregations, believers and unbelievers may be mixed together, although it is on account of the presence of true believers that such assemblies are called “church.” Those who truly believe in Jesus Christ could be in any denomination, but we would expect to find them in a denomination that believes, teaches, and confesses the truth of the Word of God.
Church in the sense of “denomination” is a group of congregations that have their own organization and distinctive confession of faith. This group may or may not have its own name, and may or may nor identify itself as a denomination. So, we can refer to the Lutheran Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, or even a non-denominational church, which may still be part of a group with its own organization and distinctive confession of faith. Those denominations just mentioned at least all claim to be part of the Christian religion. Other well-known religions are such things as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Basically, though, the world essentially has only two religions: one that teaches we must save ourselves by our good works, and the other that teaches God saves us by His mercy and grace, sending Jesus Christ to be born, suffer, die, and rise again. Some denominations that inaccurately identify themselves as Christian, and all other religions of the world, falsely teach the former, that we must save ourselves, while a true, orthodox Christian denomination teaches the reality: that God saves us.
As mentioned above, “church” can also refer to local congregations because it is in those places that believers gather around God’s Word and Sacraments, even though unbelievers may be mixed in with believers. The Bible gives us examples of such congregations as the churches in the city of Rome, in the province of Galatia, and in the region of Asia Minor. Such congregations are really where the rubber hits the road, as it were, and where all the senses or definitions of “church” come together. So, in our time, we usually find the Church in the sense of true believers in Christ visible in the form of a local congregation, usually belonging to a denomination and worshipping in a specific building that may or may not resemble a traditional church. With that background on the church in mind, let us turn to things you might consider in choosing your church home.
Church Shopping Checklist
- Purely preached Gospel
- Rightly administered Sacraments
- Historic Christian liturgy
- Timeless Christian hymns
- Supports mission work
- Trains future pastors
- Opportunities for Bible study
- Opportunities for service
- Social activities
- Friendly people
- Close to home (worth the drive)
The external form of the church building may be one of the first things you notice as you “shop” for a church, but there are lots of others, as the adjacent listing suggests. Without going through each of them individually, let’s touch on some of the major ones. It may not be the one has the most-attractive building or is the closest to your home, but the right church will be worth the drive. All churches are not alike, nor are they equally good, nor do they all lead to the same place.
As described above, the purely preached Gospel and Sacraments administered according to the Gospel are the visible marks of the Church, so those are important if that is the Church of which you want to be a part. You want a denomination and local congregation that interprets the Bible correctly and so teaches the truth about God, sin, salvation, and the like. Of course, determining which denomination or local congregation interprets the Bible correctly is complicated by the fact that many will likely claim to do so. Still, the task is not impossible. Consider the following passage from the Bible:
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, Whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6 ESV).
That passage gives a great summary of the Gospel, which is the central teaching of the whole Bible. When you visit a church, listen carefully to the hymns, to the order of worship, and especially to the sermon. Ask yourself if the Gospel is central to all those things. Specifically, you might consider the following.
Does the church believe the whole Bible is God’s revelation to man?
(See 2 Timothy 3:16.)
Does the church believe in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
(See Matthew 28:19.)
Does the church believe that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God and the only Savior of the world?
(See 1 John 4:14.)
Does the church believe that Christ died for the sins of the whole world?
(See 1 Corinthians 15:3 and 1 John 2:2.)
Does the church believe everyone is saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ’s atonement?
(See Ephesians 2:8.)
Does the church believe that in Baptism God washes away all sins?
(See Acts 22:16.)
Does the church literally believe the words Jesus spoke when He instituted the Lord’s Supper?
(See Matthew 26:26-28.)
Faithful teaching of the Gospel is usually preceded by faithful teaching of God’s Law, which shows us that we are sinful. No one really likes to hear that they are sinful, so feeling a little uncomfortable during the service is for that reason to be expected. However, the Gospel that those sins are forgiven by grace through faith in Jesus Christ should comfort you! The service of the church should not be about your doing something for God, but about God doing something for you, namely, giving you the forgiveness of sins in Word and Sacrament.
The Gospel is properly the focus of the historic Christian liturgy (the order of service with all its elements) and of the timeless Christian hymns. Much as someone may not follow a football game or other athletic competition the first time he or she views it, you may not follow the liturgy and hymns the first time you participate in the Divine Service. Familiarity with the order of service, terminology that is used, the musical tunes, and the like will come in time with repetition. Parts of the liturgy stay the same from week to week (the “Ordinaries”), so that once you learn the pattern there is always familiarity. Other parts of the liturgy change weekly (the “Propers”) so that there is always variety, too. Note that musical forms used in the church, ancient and modern, are different from musical forms used in the secular world; the difference helps make a distinction between the world and the church. The church is to be in the world, but not of the world. Worship should be our time to separate ourselves from the the world to be reached, renewed, and refreshed by God in a unique way–not just more of what we confront in our daily lives.
The Gospel, that good news of Jesus Christ, is for the world, so we at St. Paul support the work of the church at large spreading the Gospel throughout the world, including the educating of pastors to serve the church today and into the future.
The Gospel is also for you, as God wants all people to be saved by coming to knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). In all our talk about choosing a church, we do well to remember that we, who are dead in transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1), do not choose Him, but He chooses us (John 15:16)! Even as Jesus graciously calls you to come to Him (Matthew 11:28), with St. James we can say, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8 NASB).
We reiterate our invitation for you to receive with us God’s gift of forgiveness, hearing and studying His Word and, as appropriate, receiving the Sacraments in faith. Join our community for its social activities and opportunities for service, too. We pray that you will find St. Paul Lutheran Church as welcoming as we did when we joined and as others do still today!
Portions adapted from “How to Choose Your Church,” Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, MO, 2004.