I grew up mostly in non-denominational churches, with a Baptist church or two thrown in. For all intents and purposes, my understanding of the world was that there were two types of churches: Christian and non-Christian.
If you gave me a label maker, I could have visited every church in town and promptly placed “Christian” or “non-Christian” on each one based on my simplistic understanding.
The church has the word Bible in it? Christian.
The church has the word Christian in it? Of course Christian.
The church has the name of one of the major denominations in it? Christian.
The church has the name of one of the cults from my mom’s giant Kingdom of the Cults book? Definitely not Christian.
The church has a generic name like “[Town] Community Church” that doesn’t seem to be affiliated with any of the aforementioned cults? Probably Christian.
I’d venture to say that this is the understanding of churches that many, if not most, kids leave home with. And that’s a very dangerous thing.
Searching for a “Christian” Church
Like many kids who leave home with a nominal faith, I went off to college and didn’t bother to attend church at all. But after college, my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) and I decided we should find a church to attend together.
For us, picking a church was as arbitrary as picking a marble out of a jar. In retrospect, I think we had just two criteria: close and “Christian.” There was a beautiful old mainline denominational church down the street that seemed to qualify. We went, and eventually became members.
Over the next three years, I noticed a few teachings here and there that didn’t seem to be the same as what was taught in the churches I grew up in. But my husband and I didn’t realize it wasn’t a biblically sound church until the pastor told us one Easter that it didn’t really matter if Jesus was raised from the dead (you can read more about that problem here).
That was my first experience learning that “Christian” doesn’t always mean what I thought it meant. In many churches today, “Christian” means accepting a lowered view of the Bible, dismissing central tenets of the faith, minimizing the gravity of sin, questioning the need for the atonement, and even rejecting the divinity of Jesus.
My mental label maker was revealed to be naïve.
We moved soon after and again found a “close, Christian” church. We eventually realized that this was another church teaching liberal theology.
After a third move, we tried again and visited a church down the street. We only went once because there were no other young families there, but looking at their website today, it’s clear that this church was no different from the other two we attended.
By God’s grace, we then followed a recommendation for a large non-denominational church in our area. This time, the church had biblically sound teaching and it was in that church that our faith really grew. We attended there for 10 years before moving to our current (biblically sound) church closer to home.
Here’s what I want you to take from this story: Without even trying, I landed in three churches in a row that weren’t teaching the historic Christian faith.
This isn’t a warning about the existence of one or two extreme churches out there. This is a warning that there are numerous churches today that veer from the historic Christian faith. And if we don’t raise our kids to have discernment in church selection, they can easily fall into dangerous teachings—some of which can be a matter of salvation.
Here’s what you can do.
1. Have a conversation about the importance of thoughtful church selection.
This is basic, but I think it just doesn’t occur to most parents to have a conversation about discernment in choosing a church. This isn’t just for kids ready to move out on their own—kids of all ages should understand the importance of choosing a biblically sound church and how to do so (more on that in the next point). They should know that in today’s world, “Christian” can mean all kinds of things, and we must be vigilant about choosing a place to worship.
2. Explain what to look for when selecting a church.
As a fun way to get kids thinking about this, ask them to list as many things as they can that would be important to consider when choosing a church. This will probably include factors like proximity, size of youth group, the pastor, and so on. Then ask them to rank those things in importance. Use that as an opportunity to discuss what matters most and how selecting a church that adheres to biblically sound teaching should always be our first criteria.
If a church isn’t solid in doctrine, none of the other factors matter.
Finish your conversation by looking at a thorough statement of faith online from a trusted church so kids can see what they should consider.
3. Teach them about warning signs to watch for when evaluating churches.
A lot could be covered here, but some big red flags include:
- No statement of faith. This isn’t always true, but in my research, churches which veer from the historic Christian faith tend to not have a statement of faith on their website. Biblically sound churches usually have a menu item for “What We Believe” where you can clearly see their doctrine outlined.
- A statement of faith that doesn’t clearly identify Jesus as part of the Trinity. Many liberal churches skirt around identifying Jesus as God. They may not come out and say they don’t believe in the Trinity, but if the language doesn’t clearly state as much, there is a good chance they don’t. For example, one church says, “We believe that God’s will and way were revealed in Jesus of Nazareth” and then goes on to explain how they live as followers today. But there’s nothing about his deity, and it’s clear from the rest of the site that this is a church which has abandoned biblical teaching.
- A statement of faith that implies a lowered view of the Bible. One church, for example, says, “We believe that the Bible is a collection of books, letters, poetry, and other writings written by human beings in order to share their experience of God.” Yes, the Bible was written by humans, but if all a church can say about the Bible is that these writings shared people’s experience of God, they probably have a lowered view of the Bible’s divine inspiration (this is certainly true of this particular church).
- A list of “core values” that could be found in any organization—religious or secular. In lieu of a statement of faith, one church we attended features a “core values” list on their website that includes things like dedication to a nurturing community, accepting diversity, and service to others. If a church doesn’t explicitly tie their core values to who Jesus was, what the Bible says, and how we should live accordingly, it’s likely a bad sign.
- Any verbiage that indicates a belief such as, “The Christian faith is our way of being faithful to God, but it’s not the only way.” I took that wording directly from the statement of faith on one church’s website (a church with a very traditional sounding name). This is full blown religious pluralism—the idea that all roads lead to God—and is not consistent with biblical teaching.
The churches our kids attend as adults will have a major impact on their faith. If we’re not intentional in guiding them in this area, there’s a very real possibility they’ll end up a church that can actually harm their faith.
I know how easy it is…it happened to me three times.