How to Go to Church
Becoming a genuine Christian is an indefinite process. But any inch toward truth is better than a pivot away from it.
If you, like me, are interested in Christianity, you may find yourself, like I did, wanting to start “going to church.” It is in fact quite simple; find a church near you, and go to it. The purpose of church establishments is to welcome visitors, make them comfortable, and to teach you the word of Christ, and many of them are equipped with defined procedures and programs to induct new members into their congregation.
Going to church is of course not the only element of what we call Christianity. What I term as spiritual practice encompasses three things: prayer, reading scripture, and finding fellowship. People typically begin praying when they run out of luck in their secular way of living. Reading scripture, likewise, starts with a somewhat superficial survey of verses, passages, and quotes, absorbed in a haphazard manner, usually without much instruction or context. And blindly walking into your local chapel can be a somewhat bumpy ride, although it's one that I recommend taking. (Although it is seemingly universally frowned upon, there is actually no law preventing you from “trying out” different congregations or denominations).
Becoming a genuine Christian rather than a nominal Christian is a much longer, perhaps indefinite process. These baby steps are intended as a practical description of how one might join in the body of Christ in the real world. Too many people are put off from seeking faith by the intimidation of their local church's 14,000-step program of achieving salvation. In my view, any inch toward truth is better than a pivot away from it, and even small tokens – a book from a religiously inclined author, a podcast, or just a friendly, respectful conversation with a believer – can do wonders to bridge the gap between a purely dogmatic approach and an authentic relationship with the Lord above.
For myself, and many others, the first step into a life full of faith is through prayer. Much can be said about prayer, but much should remain unsaid. Prayer is best in groups of two or three; excellent in a medium group of ten to forty; and extravagant in large groups and crowds. It can be somewhat synonymous with worship, which typically includes a sermon, plus some musical or oratory element. But you can, and probably should, pray by yourself as well. Don't worry about the “proper” method or anything; if you find yourself desperate enough, it will come as naturally as breathing.
The second piece of spiritual practice, and one universally ripe with contention, is reading scripture. I actually prefer the Baptist phrasing of this, which is spending time in the Word. Merely five minutes a day each morning is a fantastic start. Of course, if you set out to read the Bible on your own, you’ll almost immediately find yourself beset by a seemingly endless list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to actually interpreting scripture, like: Which translation of the Bible is best? Should I just read it alone, or follow some Bible study? Should I trust my own understanding of the text? (Short answer: sure, but just don't lean on it) Which of the original scriptures constitute the “real” Bible, and what on earth do any of these conflicting doctrines or denominations represent? Which one of these doctrines is true?
My honest and best advice is to worry about this stuff as little as possible. For people with a nerdy disposition, I recommend finding an ESV study Bible from Crossway; I was given one after graduating high school, and it has proven itself indispensable to me. What I appreciate most about it, having never had much parental guidance at all in the study of scripture, is that it approaches the Word and the development of the Christian tradition from a historical perspective as well as a didactic one. Whatever your doubts or questions about the truth-value of, say, the miracles that Jesus performed, or the prophetic visions of Daniel and John the Revelator, it undoubtedly true that there was a nation of Israel in antiquity, led by kings named David and Solomon, and that the best records we have of the Judeo-Christian tradition are described by the surviving documents and artifacts of the era, chief among them being the holy scriptures.
There are a few pitfalls I'd like to mention, especially if you're starting on your own. The first is the injunction to “Lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). It is nearly impossible to overcome the impulse to be obsessed with the first verse or paragraph of scripture that speaks heavily to you. The risk is that this one verse gets held up as paramount over all the other verses; or that you feel too content with finally absorbing a small piece of the purity of scriptural wisdom, and then jump in headlong to causing more trouble and confusion than if you’d stuck to secular wisdom.
And don’t get me wrong – finding verses that speak to you is exactly what we are shooting for! But the danger of drinking only half-deep into the well of wisdom is near-universally frowned upon, for reasons that become apparent as you continue on the inchward path toward Christ; it is these moments that offer the most peril to an adopted or aspiring believer.
The most surefire way to start learning scripture is to participate in a Bible study. If anyone in your life is willing to host one – ideally someone you're close to, but any evangelist in your neighborhood will do – take them up on it immediately. They are typically very low-pressure, and you're more than welcome to sit quietly, ask questions, or treat it as you would an ordinary book club or other meetup-like activity.
There are also lots of pre-packaged studies you can work through on your own (my personal favorite has to be Kierkegaard's Spiritual Writings), many of which will be of varying quality, but all of which contain a richness of study that surpasses any equivalent consumption of the secular self-help variety. As a rule of thumb, the more often a program references scripture directly, the better. But if you have an eye on a particular church or church body in your area, they will almost universally be happy to give recommendations, or at least point you in the right direction.
Finally, the subject of actually going to church; which ought to be the easiest, but is perhaps (strangely) the hardest part of the journey of a lifelong path into the Christian faith in this day and age. I won't deny that it can be daunting. You may feel a sense of cliqueishness: of being either in or out of the group, a status which can vary day-to-day or even hour-by-hour, although this feeling (as in all social situations) is mostly superficial. The best advice is to approach a church with humility, patience, and a real desire to listen and learn. Even if you don't become a full member, there is always something valuable you can learn, and you can take those teachings – a sermon, a conversation, or a biblical word – with you wherever you go.
Most churches have some kind of defined path toward membership, although this too varies wildly between traditions and denominations. Whether scriptural study among Protestants or Catechism and Confession among Catholics, you should expect to put in a lot of dedication toward involvement in various activities and functions over a long period of time. And in any tradition, you should gradually accumulate a felt sense of belonging to the wider church body, and to have some level of intimacy with not just your immediate fellowship and churchgoers, but also toward the wider community of believers across the globe; indeed, to your neighbors and nonbelievers as well, as the message of the New Testament bears out.
Lastly, and this too is general advice that applies to innumerable situations in life, one should approach a new church (or any organization) with a spirit of service and gratitude. The best question a newcomer can ask is: “Is there anything I can help with?” There are almost always menial tasks and duties that anyone can contribute, from sweeping floors, to child care, to helping out with security, or participating in a food drive or outreach ministry. That old yarn from JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is a good mindset to maintain here.
No one church is exactly identical, even within a single denomination. Some will welcome you with open arms, as you are, with no judgment or expectations. Some will keep you at arms' length for your entire tenure there. There is no perfect mix of people, doctrine, and liturgy; humans will always remain, despite their best efforts, entrenched in their own faults and imperfections. But if you are looking for a surefire way to make real progress on your own path through life, there is no single better recommendation I can make than going to church.