Good question. Rather than just griping about what is, I'm going to talk briefly about what should be. But before I do, let me make a note: as much as possible, I'm going to try and keep these non-sectarian. It's very hard for me (or apparently for anyone else) to separate principle from form. In concrete terms, I frequently have trouble imagining how to practice a principle I see without seeing it in terms of how we practice it. So where I see "the Priesthood of all Believers" as a biblical principle, I have trouble seeing how that might look other than the "brethren" form I've been exposed to. I just want that out in the open. A disclaimer, if you will.
So without further ado, here is a point-form list of some things I'm looking for, in no particular order. There is no way this is complete, but it is a reasonable sketch:
- Worship is central. This is the biggest requirement I have. This is the one reason I would consider an Episcopal church over say a Baptist church. I have no interest at all in a gathering where the central activity is a lecture or (let's be honest) a guilt-trip.
- Worship isn't entertainment. I can tolerate a lot, but I have little use for a choir and less for a "worship team". Worship is a participative thing, not a spectator sport. I wouldn't necessarily reject a gathering because of a choir, but it is definitely a negative, in my book. And I would frankly take a choir over a "worship team" every time. At least choirs tend to sing participative hymns: that is, they tend to sing songs that are (in principle) designed for congregational singing. But performance-based music is worse than worthless for me. I can buy a CD of better musicians performing the same music; why would I go to church to hear a second-rate rendition? If your worship team is good enough to cut a record, I'll buy it and listen to it in my car; if not, I'll buy the one from the group that is. Either way, entertainment is for the commute to work, not for the gathering's limited time to worship.
- Small is good. I wouldn't necessarily reject a gathering because it's too big, but I prefer small. Smaller lets me interact with more people more meaningfully. Big is fine, but I like small better.
- Informal is good. By "informal" I don't mean "casual" (although I like casual too), but I mean "not ritualistic". I mentioned Episcopal churches above: I've been to a couple, and I frankly enjoyed them. But the whole "stand up, sit down, bow, genuflect, repeat" routine gets in the way of heartfelt worship far too often. Some people claim it helps them worship... I'm not going to call them liars; but ritual is a good hiding place for hypocrisy. And before I go further, the pseudo-ritual all too often where I fellowship is just as bad. Don't take this as an attack on anyone else, ritual comes in many forms.
- Buildings are irrelevant. I don't mind being in a gathering that owns a building, but I'm just as happy in a home. In fact, I'm willing to host a gathering in my own home.
- Sectarian titles are bad. I'm not interested in having a name other than "Christian". If there's one thing that makes me grit my teeth in meetings, it's when a group meeting in a school gym is referred to as "such-and-such Hall" or "such-and-such Chapel". They're not a hall or a chapel: those words refer to buildings. If a gathering owns a building, they have every right to name the building however they like: but the name refers to the building, not the gathering in it. To refer to a gathering like that is a sectarian title and nothing more. And don't get me started on the pseudo-title "the assemblies"...
- Leadership is not authoritarian rule. I see nothing in Scripture indicating church leadership is to be a "cram it down their throats" sort of thing. I am personally an "elders are not for today" kind of guy, but I would happily fellowship in a place where elders/overseers are doing the job Scripture lays out for them: not lecturing, not guilting, but leading and shepherding. Teaching is good too (they ought to be "apt to teach"), but there's nothing wrong with having someone else do the teaching. Not all good teachers are good elders.
- The Bible is the authority. This one is a lot harder to practice than it might sound, but a reasonable attempt it really what I'm looking for. If someone demonstrates a willingness to change based on Scripture, I think that's all we can ask. No one understands Scripture perfectly; but when we treat it like it judges us, rather than us judging it (to quote someone else); then we're on the right path.
So that's it: an incomplete list, but a good starting-place.