We’ve written this from a Christian point-of-view, for someone who wants to be part of a good Christian church.
For those of other religions, we hope that some of the general principles are still valid. You are always welcome to contact us to receive personal attention and advice. (See our “Contact Us” page for details.)
Before we talk about the positive things to look for in a church (or any organisation), here are some risk factors. We are not saying that any one of them is a problem by itself, but they can lead to issues later on that might be dangerous. Some are not necessarily bad, but have the potential to be negative.
As always, we recommend you investigate any group that you are considering joining.
Potential risk factors
No church or group is perfect. If you go in expecting perfection, you are going to be disappointed. Putting a group of imperfect people together, is not going to create a perfect church.
We need to balance any flaws in a church with the positive aspects they exhibit.
That said, here are a number of risk factors to be aware of. One or two may not be a problem. Some could also be due to general human frailties. For example, murky finances can be simply an incompetent or lazy financial manager and not something more sinister.
But bear them in mind when you attend and investigate a church.
Single charismatic leader. This is a major risk factor. Even if the leader is good, the followers can use this as an excuse to do evil things in their name. See the comment on finances below, but have a look at the leader’s lifestyle – do they have a big, expensive house/car/boat and yet continually ask the congregation to give more?
Bible teaching. How often do the teachers in the church, especially the leader, teach from the Bible? If they use a lot of stories or anecdotes about themselves to illustrate a point, be careful. If Bible verses seem taken out of context, and there is no consistent and thorough study of the Bible, then that’s a bad sign.
Happy people. People always seeming constantly happy and enthusiastic are putting on a show, and essentially lying to themselves and others. This is especially bad if you discover that they have been told to act that way for the potential new recruits. Jesus wept when a friend of His died, and that is a perfectly normal and human emotion. Christians should be joyful (in the sense of having joy in the hope of eternal life) but happiness depends on happenings, and come and goes.
Instant friends. While some people immediately get on with others, real and deep friendship usually takes a long time. If you suddenly have another ten friends who are always ringing you up, or inviting you to places (especially if others there are also in the church) be careful. It’s flattering to have so many friends so quickly, but ask yourself if it’s normal.
Hidden teachings. If they hide what they teach, this is a real concern. Jesus and His followers were open in what they believed, and in telling others.
The best. If they say they are the only true group, or the best so why go anywhere else then that’s a problem. There’s a difference between someone’s opinion that they like a church better than another one, and someone stating it as a fact. Especially if there is an undertone of superiority, or they are denigrating other churches for reasons that are not apparent.
Exclusivity. Related to being the best, if you are told who you can or cannot talk to or associate with this is a very bad sign. Jesus talked to everyone, from false religious leaders, to prostitutes, to the military, to the rich, the poor, and everyone in between. If someone in the church tells you whom you cannot talk to, they’d better have a pretty good reason.
Hyped meetings. If the group wants you to attend a lot of long, emotional meetings rather than actually share with you, then this is a problem. One version of this manipulation is to meet with you by yourself (and half a dozen others from the church) and focus in on you, and any bad experiences you’ve had. This is designed to bond you to them as fast as possible, and if they’re targeting you (so it’s not a general sharing session) then beware.
Absolute authority. The leader (or a small cadre of leaders) is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, and no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
Unreasonable intolerance. This can be related to Absolute Authority above (where the leader can’t be questioned), or be an unreasonable intolerance towards a group in society. For example, a leader who continually disparages a certain political party and sees things in absolutes is likely to have other issues going on.
Murky finances. This is where there is no meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement. Not only is this likely to be illegal for any registered charity (like a church) it is a sign that money is probably being funnelled elsewhere.
You can’t leave. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, and are negative or even evil. Pay attention to any comments about people who have left. If they are criticised for no apparent reason (other than they left) this is a bad sign.
Record of abuse. If former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances, you need to be very careful. Check for other records (books, news articles, or television programmes) about the group and leader(s).
To balance out the risks (which are potentially negative) here are some things we consider positive in a church.
Shared leadership. While there may be one main leader, do others take leadership roles when it’s required? Not only does this reduce the risk of burnout (thus throwing a church in disarray if they only had the one leader), it reduces the risk of the church going off the rails.
Wider authority. Independent churches have become a lot more common in the last few decades, but they have their risks. If there is no-one above the leader, then there may be no earthly accountability. The technical term for this is autocephalic, meaning they’re the head of a church and doesn’t report to any higher-ranking leader. At Cultwatch, we generally have more complaints and questions about this type of church. So if you have a choice, look for one that is part of some sort of structure. Baptists, for example. (None of the volunteers at Cultwatch attends or is affiliated with a Baptist church.)
Elders. There is a Biblical model for a church, and having elders is part of it. While there is some debate around who can be an elder (the divorced, women, and so on) it is a good sign if the church has some, and that they seem fairly competent. If the eldership hasn’t changed for a few years, that might be a bad sign as it could represent power in a few hands, but it could also represent maturity and stability.
No nepotism. Churches that have the leader’s wife, daughter or son in key roles may be perfectly fine, but we often find a church at-risk is run as a family affair. That may be fine for a business, but be cautious if the church you’re investigating has a lot of this.
Church accounts. If the accounts are fairly available and have been independently audited by a reputable organisation, this is a good sign. If you find out a relative or friend of the leader was the auditor, beware!
Church elections. Are the positions in the church filled by appointment, or are there elections? How long are the terms?
Annual meetings. Most registered charitable organisations have to hold annual general meetings. Are these being held, and if not, why not? (Elections are often held at these, and that may be the reason some leaders don’t want to have an AGM.)
Bible teaching. Count how often the Bible is mentioned in sermons. When a teachers mentions a verse, look it up in your own Bible. If it seems right, and in context, then that’s positive. (This is the reverse of the risk factor mentioned above.)
Outreach. Some churches focus on themselves and some focus more on the community. There needs to be a balance (Paul tells Timothy that believers are to look after their own households first, for example) but a church that does a lot for others is usually a good one.
Lack of focus on money. Many cults and even some mainstream churches spend a lot of time talking about money. They ask you to give more and more (and sometimes a fixed percentage – see our pages on “Tithing”) and you wonder where it goes. If the church hardly ever talks about money (except in a good way) then that’s a good sign.
Feels right. This is purely subjective, but an important one nonetheless. Do you feel right in the church, or does something seem odd? Ones that feel right, so often are. Especially when you’ve done the research and found they don’t have too many risk factors.
It is good and praiseworthy to test everything. In Acts the Bereans are called “noble” precisely because tested what Paul was saying against Scripture. Paul himself says in 1 Thessalonians 5 that while we shouldn’t treat prophecies with contempt, we are also to “test everything”.
Jesus warns us about false prophets: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” – Matthew 7:15
St Peter does the same in his second letter: “But there were also false prophets among the people [in the past], just as there will be false teachers among you.” – 2 Peter 2:1
St John warns us: “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.”
And St Paul warned his protégé Timothy that “…the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
False teachers and prophets are certainly present in the world, and we would say that when Jesus, Peter, John and Paul all warn us about false leaders, it’s probably something we should take seriously.
No church or group is perfect, but if you investigate any group that you are considering joining you may be saving yourself a lot of pain later on.