In a letter to a Massachussetts militia in 1798, the Christian Founding Father John Adams famously said,
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
By this, he means that the free people of the United States had to be moral and religious to self-regulate so that the government does not have to regulate them. As the Bible and RC Sproul explain, government is a necessary evil because man is evil. The first duty of government is to restrain evil – to be a “terror to those who do wrong.” It follows that a moral and religious people – a Christian people – are less evil and therefore need less regulation. Is it any wonder that post-Christian America is so heavily-regulated? Is it any wonder managerial class and elites believe that the Constitution gives the people too much power and to little to themselves? Isn’t there a grain of truth in what they are saying? Don’t wicked people need a boot stomping their faces forever? A moral and religious people, on the other hand, can justly ask their government, “Why are you enslaving us when we only want the freedom to worship and the right to defend ourselves and our families and communities and the right to be left alone?” This becomes the basis for a moral resistance to tyrants. Since morality or ethics typically comes from religion, it stands to reason that the battle must first be won on Sunday morning if it is to be won anywhere else and we are losing the battle. I will go further to say that there will be no “new dawn” of Western civilization without good people in good churches. As Melanie Phillips argues, “The attack on Western civilization, at its most profound level, is an attack on the creed that lies at the very foundation of that civilization. That creed that must be eliminated is that of the first line of the Apostles Creed: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.'” But most Christian churches need no help from the Left in eliminating the Creed nowadays.
Of Americans that say they are Christian, many attend worship sporadically at best and are not members of a congregation. If you say you are a Christian but do not go to church and are not members of the visible body, I have bad news for you: the Christian church has always maintained that there is ordinarily no salvation outside the visible church. This means that you are either in the visible church or the outer darkness. The Reformers went further to distinguish true visible churches from false churches such as the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of their preaching of the gospel, administration of the sacraments, and practice of church discipline. This does not mean that you are saved on the basis of church attendance, but that your regular attendance and membership in a true, visible church is evidence of your salvation and your lack of evidence and attendance is evidence to the contrary. The gospel is preached in the visible church. Your Christian brothers are in the visible church. Further, Americans used to speak well of each-other by saying, “He attends church every Sunday.” In early America, there were even Sabbath-day laws preventing you from doing much else besides going to church on Sunday. For example, you could be arrested for travelling on Sunday. How far are we from that these days?
To go to a good church, you must be able to distinguish good from bad. It starts with picking a church with good preaching. The precursor to good preaching is extensive public Bible reading of the Old and New Testaments of the text to be preached. If the text is Old Testament, there should be a reading of the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament text. It is much easier to distinguish good preaching from bad if you already know doctrine and have spent years listening to good preaching. Good preaching “rightly divides” the sermon into law and gospel and explains the text in a lectio continua series of sermons that preach through a book in the Bible and find Christ in the whole Bible. Most “Christian” sermons these days are an exposition on the Law to make you a more moral person. However, no one is good but God alone, and the only way to be right with Him is through his Son Jesus Christ. This is basic Christianity, and it’s largely absent in “Christian” churches nowadays. In fact, most “Christian” sermons in the United States could be preached in a Jewish synagogue, meaning they’re not Christian at all. So the strongest requirement of a sermon is that it is Christian.
Once you find a Christian church that preaches a Christian sermon on Sunday morning, the next step is evaluating if the sermons stick to a text and come to a point. Just as a book of the Bible is organized into (non-inspired) sub-titles that form distinct lines of thought, a sermon should be organized the same way. The best way to understand this concept is to listen to good preaching.
After you’ve established that you will hear words of life on Sunday morning, you also want to ensure that the sacraments are administered properly. This is a very contentious issue between Baptists and Calvinists and Lutherans. Basically, are they having the Lord’s Supper regularly? Are converts being baptized? If you’re a Calvinist or Lutheran, are infants being baptized also?
Finally, are there any discernible moral problems in the church? Are people divorcing or sleeping-around? Is there a lack of fellowship and brotherly love? If so, pick another church. You are trying to go through life with these people and they can either help you or hinder you. It’s highly possible, even likely, that a church with great doctrine and proper administration of the sacraments is devoid of love and Christian fellowship, like the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2. I have discovered the hard way that these churches should be avoided at all costs. You’ll know what type it is if people try to talk to you before and after the sermon when you visit and if they invite you for a meal. Many large evangelical churches, despite having outwardly-friendly people, lack fellowship also because the people attend because large churches are a good place to be anonymous. They see church as just a check in the box during the week and have plans on Sunday afternoon such as working or taking their kids to a club sporting event.
Having established a way of discerning good churches from bad, let me suggest some conservative denominations because it’s much harder to find a good non-denominational evangelical church if you have no experience hearing good preaching and you don’t know doctrine. Conservative Calvnist denominations have organized mostly under the umbrella of the NAPARC. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a conservative offshoot of the liberal mainline church that began in 1936. It was started by J. Gresham Machen who was the main defender of Christian orthodoxy against Fosdick and other liberals. The OPC churches can be doctrinally pure but lacking in love depending on your location. The denomination grows at roughly 2% per year, most of the churches are less than 100 members, and it seems to have trouble retaining its children. The PCA is another offshoot of the liberal mainline PCUSA. It split-off much later and it shows in the differences between the conservative congregations and the liberals. It is undergoing its own internal battle with SJW liberalism and may be headed for another schism. This was the denomination of the late, great RC Sproul. The Bible Presbyterian Church is worth checking out. I’ve had the best results with the URCNA, which is an offshoot of the liberal CRC. On a case-by-case basis, the EPC churches can be good. This is the denomination of Andrew Brunson, the missionary to Turkey who was just released from prison.
On the Lutheran side, the LCMS seems to be in the same situation as the PCA with some congregations wanting to go liberal and others holding fast to the faith. I’ve visited a couple LCMS churches and was impressed, though the ones on the West Coast are in the same situation as the Calvnist churches: the members are old and the kids have left for other states or have left the faith. More on this later. The WELS is much smaller than the LCMS but more conservative. The ELS is also good. As a Calvinist for 18 years, I have far less experience with Lutheranism but am impressed by the conservative Lutheran churches I’ve been to. Many of them also have Christian classical schools with real Lutheran distinctives. The Calvinists (Presbyterians, Reformed) typically don’t have Christian schools even though the URCNA claims to promote Christian education. The public schools used to be basically Calvinist since the Pilgrims landed so the Presbyterians have had a hard time accepting that it’s mostly time to leave them.
Above all, avoid the mainline strains of Lutheranism – the ELCA – and Calvinism – the PCUSA. I am not a Baptist and don’t know anything about Baptist churches in the USA.