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JOE LAGUARDIA: Finding the right church takes time

Trying to find a new church can be a daunting, overwhelming, and exhausting task. Whether a person is new to the area or simply searching for a new place to worship, finding that "perfect" community takes time and prayer.

We pastors spend a lot of time with guests. Many people come and stay, while others come once or twice never to return again. I realized long ago that when a person finds the right church, he or she knows it's the right church -- there is very little doubt, and the chemistry is just right.

Nevertheless, finding a church does not have to be as complicated as it sometimes feels. Here are some tips to consider when looking for a church.

First, spend a lot of time in prayer before you start visiting churches. Make sure that God is the primary reason for joining a church in the first place.

If you want a social club or a group of people to spend time with, join a bowling league or hang out at Starbucks. Church attendance is, first and foremost, about meeting the same God in the midst of Christian community as you do in your prayer closet.

This is critical because there is no such thing as a perfect church. Certainly, some are better than others, and people will gravitate to the type of church with which they are familiar, but only a strong relationship with God will sustain a person for the long run.

If we are going because God wants us to be in church, then we will be better prepared to deal with the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies found in most churches.

If you are planning to visit churches with your family, then another logical tip would be to discuss what kind of church will best meet the family's spiritual needs. Bigger churches, for instance, tend to have many different programs; however, what a family gains in programming, they may lose in personal or close-knit relationships. But programs are important to some families.

Other families value family-friendly ministry over programs in which the whole family may participate in a particular ministry together. Smaller churches, for instance, tend to integrate various generations into like-minded ministry because there are not enough people to form separate groups. Organization and fancy marketing is sacrificed for broader opportunities for hands-on participation.

This all goes back to expectations, of course. I find that the more expectations a person has for church, realistic or unrealistic, the harder it is for that person to call a church home. We all have a basic set of expectations -- say, quality worship or the ability to shake the pastor's hand every Sunday -- but some expectations can actually derail our search for a healthy church.

The biggest unrealistic expectation is hoping that one church will be like a previous church in which positive experiences took place. I often hear guests say, "I'm looking for a church like my home church, which fed me and encouraged me so much." Every church is unique, so it's hard to replicate a "home church" for many a believer.

When such expectations exist, try using values to help alleviate disappointment or discouragement. This is how it works: List all of the things you valued about your "home church." Then, number those values, with number 1 being the most important to you personally.

Say you have about 10 values. If you visit a church, and that church only meets values numbered 4, 7, and 8, then that church may not be right for you.

You may have to decide what values are non-negotiable. Sure, you may value something as number 2, but it may still be negotiable if you find a church that meets values 1, 3 and 5. You get the idea.

These are only a few tips to help visitors discern what church is right for them. Tips or not, finding the right church takes time. Invest in visiting many churches, and make room for the Spirit to speak to you as you do so. If you're intentional and prayerful, things will eventually fall into place.

The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. Email him at trinitybc3@bellsouth.net or visit www.trinityconyers.org.