Since you are reading a Christian blog I’m assuming you want to grow in your understanding and faith. I want to share my story with you so you can learn from my mistakes and avoid the traps I’ve fallen into.

Though I’ve always believed in God, I didn’t become devout in a consistent fashion until I was 19. I remember a college group meeting where I discovered there was such a thing as Christian books. Being both a driven reader and zealous for God that was a big deal. The next ten years saw me read hundreds of Christian books, trying to learn more about God and the Christian life. I was zealous, but without direction or safety nets. I iterated through many, if not most, of the streams of the Charismatic and Pentecostal church – healing, word of faith, prophetic, Messianic Judaism, end times, ecstatic – as well as embracing elements of liberal thought such as open theism and God suffering. What I needed was a guide and correction. Of course, I had the Bible, but how to sort through the maze of opposing interpretations? I also had the Holy Spirit to help – there were times I would pick up a book and get a sick feeling in my stomach. As a rule, though, God has chosen to work through his people. What I mean by this is that God doesn’t usually give you warnings in dreams or visions. Instead, he has given the church pastors and teachers as guides.

Looking back, on the one hand, I’ve learned many varied things and can sympathize with Christians from many different camps, having read their material and worshipped with them before. On the other hand, much of that material was wrong. I spent ten years iterating through teaching after teaching, searching for the truth, but without a clear path forward. The thing that saddens me about that, besides the damaged relationships, is I can’t go back. My twenties are past. I can’t relive them more profitably. I’m writing this in the hopes that young people take my warning.

Put yourself, and your family, in a safe, edifying environment. What you want is a church that fosters guided zeal. Zeal is good. It makes you run the race more intensely. We desperately need churches that encourage passion for Christ. But without guidance, the zealous Christian is in danger of running off a cliff rather than arriving safely and fruitfully at the finish line.

It’s not clear to me yet how churches can best foster zeal, but I have some thoughts on the guided part of “guided zeal.” You want a church that gives you solid reference points as you go down the path, and that will bring you back when you go off. By reference point I don’t mean mere opinion – say “King James Bible only” – I mean wisdom gleaned from the Church. Though the various denominations disagree on the sacraments, end times, and church government, the historic denominations agree on most everything else. For example, if you read the Presbyterian and Baptist confessions from near the time of the Reformation you will find that they are almost identical, and the Reformers and Catholics agreed on the doctrine of God. What you need to do is tether yourself to those beliefs. That’s what I mean by “learn from others.” The Church has spent two thousand years debating nearly every conceivable area of thought and practice. Most mistakes have been made already. Don’t let that wisdom be wasted in your experience.

Look for a church that confesses the ancient creeds and has an extended statement of beliefs. The creeds tie you into the core things the church has believed about God for millennia; the belief statements give you guidance on the major areas of life. When reviewing the belief statements ask questions. Are they vague or limited? Is there substance there or only what is popular and novel? Are the leaders making them up themselves or have these beliefs stood the test of time? Where do these beliefs come from? Lastly, talk to the leadership and congregants about how differences in belief are handled. You don’t want to be shunned because you differ on some points, but you also don’t want to be left to your own devices. You want to see the church constructively handling differences.

Being in a good situation you can grow quickly and safely as you pursue God without all the false starts I experienced.