Shopping for a Church
One question I’ve been asked several times here (and elsewhere) is how to find a good church. Whenever someone asks me that I know one of two things are not the case. The person asking is not absolutely loyal to any denomination or there are too many or too few churches of his or her denomination in the locale.
I once moved to a large city that had only one church of my denomination and, at that time, I was absolutely loyal to it (held ministerial credentials with it, too), so the decision was easy. And, fortunately, for the most part, it was a good church for me and my family. Later, when we moved to another city, however, there were several churches of that denomination and none of them were what I would call a good “fit” for my family. So we “shopped” for a church of a similar tradition.
Finding a church to attend has become more problematic in recent decades. Two reasons stand out (there may be others). Many churches hide their identities and try to look generic. They are what I call “plain label” churches. Also, many people are not committed to any denomination or even Christian tradition and are open to a wide variety of churches. Many don’t even begin by looking at the churches of their “home” denomination even if they have one.
Shopping for a church (an objectionable phrase on many levels) is somewhat easier in a small community than a large one. Many people are willing to drive “across town” in a large city whereas they wouldn’t be willing to drive “two towns over” when they settle in a smaller place (population wise). People tend to want to stay in their metropolitan area or at least county. So, just to pick two hypothetical scenarios, if you move to Denver, you might be willing to drive twenty miles to just the right church whereas if you move to Podunk Center you wouldn’t be willing to drive twenty miles to a town in another county to just the right church. It’s a psychological barrier.
Even if you are absolutely loyal to a denomination or tradition you might find yourself faced with a wide variety of options—especially if you live in a large city. Suppose you won’t even consider anything but a Lutheran church. If you move somewhere in the upper Midwest you’re going to have a much easier time finding one that “fits” you and your family than if you move to, say, Louisiana. I have spoken to many people like the man I met at a Baptist church in a small Texas town where I spoke. He wanted me to know (for some reason) that he was Nazarene but there was no Nazarene church near enough to drive to so he joined the Baptist church because in that locale it was closest to Nazarene.
When people ask me to give them some guidance about finding a church they usually mean guidelines—rules of thumb of what to look for. That assumes they are willing to visit several churches for at least two or three weeks each. Many aren’t. But I insist a person cannot really know anything about a church (that matters) without attending for a while. I suggest a month including Sunday School, worship, Bible study and a meeting with the pastor. And, of course, careful perusal of the church’s web site and literature (visitor’s brochure or whatever is available). I suggest a person church shopping ask for a copy of the church’s statement of faith (if it has one), vision or mission statement, constitution and bylaws.
Much of this is, of course, common sense, and I suspect people asking me how to find a good church want theological advice—not common sense advice they can figure out for themselves. Most of the time they would not attend a church that radically diverged from their own beliefs or preferred style of worship. Or that had no programs for children or youth (assuming the family has such). Or that was a “niche church” that radically diverged from their own interest or style of living. (For example, many people would not attend a “cowboy church” even if it was a good church in every way except they had no interest rodeos.)
One thing I suggest is that people consider the ethos of a church that, on the surface, seems like a good candidate for their adherence.
So let’s assume the person asking me for advice wants to find an evangelical church—one that is generally conservative theologically (but not fundamentalist) and emphasizes the importance of having a “personal relationship with God” and promotes evangelism and missions. Then let’s suppose there are twenty-five such churches in the person’s new locale and the person doesn’t really care about denominational identity.
What do I mean by “ethos?” Well, “evangelical” is an ethos. So is “liberal.” But these are very broad ethos categories. Returning to our twenty-five evangelical churches. They all share certain interests and commitments in common (to varying degrees). What do I suggest the person look for beyond that? How might they decide theologically which ones to consider seriously (all other things being equal)?
In my experience, Protestant churches in the U.S. tend to lean toward one of three dimensions of spirituality. Each one is also a theological inclination even if not specifically doctrinal. (In other words, three churches might have identical doctrines but diverge radically in terms of spiritual and theological emphasis.)
Some Protestant churches have an ethos, a corporate personality, that tends toward the intellectual side. They emphasize knowledge and understanding as the primary path of Christian discipleship. In such a church you’ll notice a heavy emphasis on Bible study, a well-stocked and well-used library, sermons that appeal to the mind and congregants that want “meaty” sermons and Bible studies that help them think about God and salvation, etc.
Other Protestant churches have an ethos, a corporate personality, that tends toward the volitional side. They emphasize training and turning the will in a godly direction. Ethics and moral living are emphasized in sermons and Bible studies. Such churches will usually have lots of opportunities for growing in Christian discipleship that emphasize self-control, outward vision and action, service.
Yet other Protestant churches have an ethos, a corporate personality, that tends toward the emotional side. They emphasize having certain transforming experiences and feelings that flow out of those experiences—joy, peace, confidence, enthusiasm, etc. Sermons and lessons will emphasize personal transformation through inward experience and feelings of God—either mystical in nature or ecstatic in nature.
In my experience most churches tend to be a little suspicious of Christians who emphasize a side or dimension of spirituality different from their own. Cognitive and experiential dissonance can result fairly quickly when a person with an intellectual bent joins a church that bends toward experiences or decisions.
A dysfunctional church is almost guaranteed when a congregation is divided about this. If a third of the congregation strongly believes in the importance of transforming experiences and a third strongly believes in the importance of choosing to live a moral life (without transforming experiences) and a third strongly believes the best path to spiritual living is the life of the mind, trouble is almost inevitable. It’s the same with a pastor and congregation. If a pastor… Well, you get the idea.
Of course, a really good church will at least attempt to find a balance and integration of all three because Scripture emphasizes all three and Christian tradition includes all three and people need God at work in all three dimensions of their lives.
In my personal experience such churches are rare. Most don’t even recognize the need for such balance and integration. They have settled into one emphasis, orientation, to the neglect of others.
It would be possible to list other ethoses of churches—sacramental, missional, liturgical, etc. But I think that my three types or orientations would exist among sacramental, missional and liturgical churches. Most people shopping for a church know already how to “spot” a sacramentally-oriented church or a liturgically-oriented church or a missional church. And they already know to “stay away” or “visit” such churches based on those orientations. What they don’t already know, in my experience, is about the threefold orientations I expounded above—that even among, say, “liturgical” churches you will find some that emphasize the life of the mind, some that emphasize the will (ethical living), and some that emphasize transforming experiences. For example, among Episcopal and Anglican churches (normally highly liturgical) you will find some that lean toward the intellectual side, some that lean toward the moral-ethical living side, and some that lean toward the experiential side (e.g., charismatic Episcopal churches).
So, what I am suggesting is that even after you’ve narrowed down the list of potential churches based on other criteria, ask yourself which orientation you either need or must have in a church—emphasis on the life of the mind (knowing and understanding), emphasis on the training of the will (moral living, service), or emphasis on transforming experiences. Ideally, look for a church that strikes a healthy balance and integration of all three. But unless you enjoy cognitive dissonance or think you need it, avoid a church that seems to fit you to a “tee” but whose ethos conflicts with what you perceive your desire or need to be.