I think that I have found a church where I would like to worship. But first, I think that I should have a meeting with the elders before I place my membership there. I was wondering what questions I should ask the elders to make sure that they and the church are following the pattern of a New Testament church? What are some of the things that I should look for to make certain that it is a healthy church?
I guess I approach things a bit differently, but that is generally because I've always been in areas where there is no choice of congregations because there is only one in the area. Before moving to an area, I look to find the nearest sound congregation. And then I ask them how I can be of service to them while I'm in the area.
When looking for a congregation, I want to know their attitude toward the Scriptures. If I see an musical instrument, I'm out the door before services even begin. I know these people are careless in seeking God's approval for the things that they do.
If I see a kitchen in the building, then I already know that they take a liberal approach to the Bible. I'm not using this as a label, but as a descriptor. A liberal approach basically sees everything can be allowed that is not specifically forbidden by God. I know without asking a question that this isn't the right place for me.
I also will ask to see the budget. I would like to know where the congregation spends its money before I add my contributions to support those works. I remember telling this to one man decades ago and it got him curious. He had never seen a financial report from the congregation in which he grew up, so when he went back to visit his parents he asked the elders if he could see a copy. They refused his request. Eventually he found out why. Turns out that the elders bought the apartment complex next to the building so they would have room to expand the building as the congregation grew. But since they didn't need the space at the time, they were renting out the apartments and putting the money in church's funds. Thus the congregation was involved in rental properties, though most of the members didn't know it. Money was being raised for the church in a way that God did not authorize. And the elders knew it because they kept the financial report hidden. If I saw a church supporting institutions, such as colleges, old folks homes, or foster homes, I would not join that group.
Then I pay attention to the sermons and the classes. I want to know how often the Bible is cited as the reason for things said by the preacher, the teacher, and those in the class. Is there meat being offered or only feel-good platitudes? Is more emphasis placed on reading from class books and "scholarly" writings or are the people really delving into the word of God? Do they take the word of God as authority or do they look for loopholes? One of my brothers has been known to visit congregations and when the class seems inactive and dead purposely state something that is ambiguous enough that it could be taken the wrong way, just to see if folks will defend the truth or whether they will only defend their traditions.
After services, I talk to the people, paying attention to how many just run out the door and how many stick around to enjoy chatting with other people. I'll ask about the area, what industries are there, where are the good restaurants, etc. Basically small talk about things people know, but what I want to know is do they care about strangers. Are they hospitable? I might not eliminate a group if they are not, but I mark it down that I've got work to do in that area if I stay.
And I haven't even asked the elders any direct questions, but that is because I realize that actions speak louder than words. "You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:16-17). I've gone to congregations where I was asked to preach and I was put up in hotels and taken to area restaurants for meals. I remember one place that I spent an entire week there and was only invited into one family's home! Those congregations have severe problems! One of my brothers told me of visiting a congregation. He stayed with one elder's family while there, but another elder had invited him over for dinner. The elder he was with wasn't certain how to get to the other elder's house and mentioned that he had never been there personally. "Oh, did he just recently moved?" "Oh, no, he's been in the same house for decades." That place has problems (Acts 2:46)! Once I visited a congregation. It seemed to be a friendly group until the local preacher asked if I noticed that the people one side of the building didn't talk to people on the other side -- and this was a very small group! I hadn't noticed because I was in the middle and both sides were willing to talk to me. Turns out there was a feud going on that had lasted for several years. That congregation had problems!
What I would suggest doing is finding out what the congregation is doing to reach out into the community. How many baptisms were there in the last two years? Are there Bible studies going on in the member's homes? Do people get together often just for the chance of being with each other? And ask the elders how you might serve the group if you do join. The elders ought to have their fingers on the pulse of the congregation. They should be aware of what is going on and who needs helps. They ought to be asking you all sorts of questions to find out what you will need and to figure out how you can fit into the congregation. An eldership that has little clue as to what the members are doing isn't doing its job.
Thank you so much for your response. It was very helpful. It gave me a lot to pray and think about. As I was reading your response, I was doing a mental checklist of all the things that you mentioned, and so far, this church seems to be a scriptural, New Testament church. No kitchen, bible studies in homes, and they are really concerned with helping each other during times of illness and other difficult times. Once again, thank you.