I've offered that reverence and courtesy are the underlying criteria and the baseline rubrics with which we ought to approach the conduct of the Liturgy. Pastor Cwirla has written of "relaxed dignity," and another colleague has referenced the "evangelical decorum" of the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration, Article X). These several ways of speaking summarize the intersection of faith and love in the broad consideration of liturgical practice. They are general principles, which provide helpful perspective and guidance to pastors and congregations who seek to be faithful in receiving and handing over the Gospel of Christ Jesus. The specifics of a particular case, and the actual practices of a congregation, depend upon pastoral discernment, discretion and care. Such pastoral care belongs to the stewardship of the Mysteries of God.
Now, then, to speak more concretely to the receiving of those sacred Mysteries: What should a Christian look for in a congregation of the Church? If you are moving to a new location, or if you are sending your daughter or son off to college, how do you decide where you or they should be on the Lord's Day? This way of asking the question presses for a tangible and realistic response. As my children have grown up, moved away from home and gotten married, hardly anything has been more important to me than their continued hearing and receiving of the Gospel. And as the young people of my congregation graduate and leave for college, I have similar concerns.
It's not as easy as it ought to be to find the ideal congregation, if there is such a thing anywhere. If the Gospel is being preached faithfully, and if the Sacrament of the Altar is being administered regularly and reverently, there is true Paradise on earth for the pastor and people of God in that place. But words like "faithfully" and "reverently" still beg the question. What is the measure of faithfulness and reverence? We understandably and rightly grow attached to the congregation in which we have been hearing and receiving Christ Jesus, but, when we move to a new place, finding another congregation just like that one is unlikely if not impossible. In many parts of the country, there may be nothing at all that looks or sounds or smells or seems even remotely like the familiar church "back home" that we have known and loved. So what is a Christian to do?
Here are the ten most important things that a Christian ought to look for in a church, more or less in order of significance:
1. Faithful Preaching: Pastor Petersen has recently posted an excellent summary of what such preaching ought to be, and in his usual fashion he has said it clearly, succinctly and well. For my part, I have also commented on what I prefer to describe as "liturgical preaching." I still believe that, "if the preaching is liturgical and right, then everything else will follow as it should." Not every sermon will be great; nor should every sermon be the same. But you should be able to tell within a few weeks or a month whether the preaching is consistently faithful or not. If not, then you should look elsewhere; because, if the preaching is not right, everything will languish.
Faithful preaching will take up the readings of the day, especially the Word and works of Jesus from the Holy Gospel, and proclaim that to the people as the speaking of God to them. The sermon will not only talk about the Law and the Gospel, but will command what God commands, forbid what God forbids, and forgive sins in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It will thus be the preaching of repentance, unto faith in the forgiveness of the Cross: preaching to and from Holy Baptism, to and from the Holy Communion. Such preaching is not a break in the midst of the Liturgy, but a fundamental and constitutive part of the Liturgy. It moves from the lectern to the Altar, from the Word of the Holy Scriptures to the Word-made-Flesh in the Sacrament.
2. The Regular and Reverent Administration of the Holy Communion: Look for a congregation where you will be given the opportunity to receive the Lord's Supper every week. There may not be any such congregation in some areas, but that is the benchmark. Frequency by itself is not the sole criteria, however. Look for a congregation that clearly practices "closed Communion," because that is the catholic and evangelical practice of the Church. Look for a prominent use of the chalice, even if individual cups are also offered as an option. Look for a congregation in which the younger children are being catechized and communed. In general, ask yourself whether the Sacrament is being administered with care and dignity. That's a judgment call, obviously, but you should be able to tell whether the Sacrament is being handled as the very body and blood of Christ, or as though it were little more than fish 'n' chips at the pub.
3. Hymnody: Not every hymn will say everything, but every hymn should say something, and what it says should be a faithful confession of the Word of God. Look for a predominance of strong, solid hymns, which fit the season of the Church Year, touch upon the readings of the day, and serve the liturgical purpose of their place in the Service. A few weaker hymns in the course of the Service are not necessarily a problem, so long as the larger context bolsters them with a real meat-and-potatos diet. If the majority of the hymns are mediocre fluff-and-stuff, and if the stongest hymns in the Service are typically those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, then look for another church. Look instead for the hymns of Luther, Nicolai, Gerhardt and Heermann. Rarely should there be a Service in a Lutheran congregation that does not include at least one hymn by at least one of these men.
4. Catechesis: Look for a church in which the pastor is personally and actively involved in the ongoing catechesis of the young and the old. Along with that, look for a congregation in which the parents are seeking ongoing pastoral catechesis for themselves and participating in the ongoing catechesis of their children.
5. Confession and Absolution: Look for a church where regular opportunities for Individual Confession and Absolution are provided and publicized. If you are not able to find a congregation where that is the case, then look for a pastor who readily responds to your request for Individual Confession and Absolution.
6. Daily Prayer: Look for a church where regular opportunities are provided for the parish to be gathered together for the Word of God and prayer during the week, whether for Matin and Vespers, or Evening Prayer. Likewise, look for a congregation in which the people are encouraged and assisted in the practice of daily prayer within their homes and families.
7. Service Book and Hymnal: Look for a congregation that uses the Church's service book and hymnal; whether that be the LSB, or TLH or LW. If everything is printed out every week, look for a consistency of practice from one week to the next, preferably following the order and form of the Service as published in one of the Church's books. Every congregation has its own local practices, but those should not deviate widely or wildly from the agreed-upon norms of the official service books. Parishioners should not be asked to confess words they have never seen or heard before (and which they will likely never see or hear again).
8. Vestments and Other Adornments: Look for a church in which the pastor is vested in his conduct of the Liturgy. Vestments cover the person of the pastor while adorning the office he serves in the name and stead of Christ. These are good things; not absolutely necessary, but significant and important. Likewise, look for a church in which paraments, architecture, artwork and other adornments are all used in such a way as to focus on Christ and His Cross and His means of grace. In particular, look for a crucifix; not because it is necessary, but because the prominent display of a crucifix is a good indication that the focus of a congregation is on the Cross of Christ.
9. Decorum and Demeanor: Look for a church where the decorum of the Divine Service and the demeanor of the pastor convey an ambience of dignity, rather than a casual sloppiness. You should be able to discern that there is a seriousness about what is being done, and that the pastor and people actually believe themselves to be in the presence of the Holy Triune God. At the same time, look for a relaxed confidence in the pastor's conduct and the congregation's practice. Anxiousness and overearnestness do not resonate with the Gospel.
10. Parish Communications and Announcements: In whatever is posted, printed and announced, look for a focus on the Church's life in the means of grace and in works of mercy. Other things happen in the routines of a parish, but it ought to be clear that the Gospel of Christ is the heart and center of things, the defining emphasis of the congregation. Faith and love depend upon the Gospel, and Christians live from the Gospel. So look for a church in which the Gospel is the focus of everything that happens.