In order to know what to look for in a local church, we must first understand God’s purpose for the church—the body of Christ—in general. There are two outstanding truths about the church. First, "the church of the living God [is] the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). Second, Christ alone is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; Colossians 1:18).
In regard to the truth, the local church is a place where the Bible (God’s only Truth) has complete authority. The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Therefore, when seeking a church to attend, we should find one where, according to biblical standards, the gospel is preached, sin is condemned, worship is from the heart, the teaching is biblical, and opportunities to minister to others exist. Consider the model of the early church found in Acts 2:42-47, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
In regard to the second truth about the church, Christians should attend a local fellowship that declares Christ’s headship in all matters of doctrine and practice. No man, whether pastor, priest, or pope, is the head of the church. All men die. How can the living church of the living God have a dead head? It cannot. Christ is the church’s one supreme authority, and all church leadership, gifts, order, discipline, and worship are appointed through His sovereignty, as found in the Scriptures.
Once these two fundamental truths are set, the rest of the factors (buildings, worship styles, activities, programs, location, etc.) are merely a matter of personal preference. Before attending a church, some research is necessary. Doctrinal statements, purpose statements, mission statements, or anything that will give insight into what a church believes should be carefully examined. Many churches have websites where one can determine what they believe regarding the Bible, God, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, sin, and salvation.
Next should be visits to the churches that seem to have the fundamentals in place. Attendance at two or three services at each church will be helpful. Any literature they have for visitors should be scrutinized, paying close attention to belief statements. Church evaluation should be based on the principles outlined above. Is the Bible held as the only authority? Is Christ exalted as head of the church? Does the church focus on discipleship? Were you led to worship God? What types of ministries does the church involve itself in? Was the message biblical and evangelical? How was the fellowship? You also need to feel comfortable. Were you made to feel welcome? Is the congregation comprised of true worshipers?
Finally, remember that no church is perfect. At best, it is still filled with saved sinners whose flesh and spirits are continually at war. Also, do not forget the importance of prayer. Praying about the church God would have you attend is crucial throughout the decision-making process.
You may also find our church finder helpful.