I’ve always been told and thought that “church shopping” is bad. But why? Yes, okay, it’s bad if it’s rooted in a consumerist mindset that says “I’m looking for a church in the same way I look for a good nail spa or gym. I want the one (church, spa, gym, whatever) that serves me and my needs and doesn’t cost very much.” Unfortunately, I’m sure there are people who shop for a church with that mindset.
However, I want to suggest that is not the only mindset for church shopping.
What is one to do when he or she moves to a new town or city and wants, needs, to find a new church home? This is becoming my situation and it has happened before. I have moved to new cities several times and needed to find a church to attend and potentially join.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Let me clear away some underbrush, questions and qualms and objection that I can already anticipate because of the diversity of my blog readers. First, I’m not Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic or …. Some Christians have the alleged advantage of belonging to a denomination to which they are absolutely loyal for whatever reason and will not even consider looking at any church not of that denomination. Even then, however, they may find that in their new location there are several congregations, parishes, whatever, of that denomination and they must choose one. (It was expected that Catholics attend the closest Catholic church to where they live, but that is no longer the case. Many Catholics cross town and pass several Catholic churches to attend one they like.)
These days, many people do church shop and I am finding that necessary. One reason is that in my new location, to which I will move in the near future, there is no church of my denomination. I’m Baptist and belong to a particular Baptist group that has no congregation there.
So what have I done and am doing?
First, I look at similar churches. Similar in terms of tradition, roots, beliefs, etc. In my particular case that has not worked out well. There are no churches similar to the ones I have attended for the past approximately thirty-five years—within driving distance of where I will live in retirement. (I am willing to drive a long distance to a church but my wife is not; she understandably want to belong to a church we can become involved in more than just attending Sunday morning worship.)
Second, I look for a vibrant, Christ-centered, broadly evangelical church where I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit and the people love one another.
Third, I look for a church were the stated doctrines are biblically sound and broadly orthodox and neither “liberal” nor “fundamentalist.”
Fourth, I look for a church with warm and enthusiastic worship that invites participation by the congregation and its not merely a performance by a worship band.
Fifth, I look for a church with pretty good preaching, where the sermons are biblically based and coherent, comforting and convicting, thoughtful and relevant to real life.
Sixth, I look for a church that is as diverse as its neighborhood.
Seventh, I look for a church that is concerned with social justice as well as evangelism.
Eighth, I look for a church that is welcoming of newcomers, friendly, not closed in on itself like a “clique.”
Ninth, I look for a church that is not caught up in politics or nationalism.
Tenth, I look for a church that is focused on God, Jesus Christ, salvation, discipleship and spiritual depth and has some mechanism for church discipline of members who stray too far from holiness of life and doctrinal truth.
I/we have not confined ourselves to any denomination or Protestant tradition in our church search. (As I will mention below there are some Protestant denominations and traditions that are not options for us.)
During this COVID pandemic, shopping for a church has been challenging. Before the pandemic broke out about a year ago (February-March, 2020) we visited many churches in the city where we will retire. During the last year I have examined many churches’ web sites and watched their services online and even communicated with their pastors.
Here is a report on our experiences—before the pandemic when we could visit churches “in person” (we are both vulnerable older adults and have been advised by our doctors not to enter any buildings except to shop for necessary things) and after it began.
The locale within which we are searching for a church (as described above) is very large. The suburb where we will live has about 350 thousand residents. The metropolitan area to which the suburb is attached has about 2.5 million residents. So there are many churches to choose from even though it is not a place “full of churches” as in most Southern U.S. cities.
With only one exception, the preaching has been extremely disappointing. It was and is difficult to tell if the preacher even prepared or gave serious thought to what he or she would say in the pulpit. I could tell horror stories about some of the sermons we have heard—from sermons about the church’s building program to sermons about the Dead Sea Scrolls to sermons about the twelve steps of recovery programs to sermons about Moses’s wife circumcising their baby boy and throwing the foreskin on Moses’s feet to sermons about making friends with no mention of Jesus Christ, Christianity, salvation, evangelism or helping people.
With only one exception the worship was “performed” by a worship band with very little or no participation by the congregation. The songs sung were clearly written for performance, not congregational singing. And most of them were extremely shallow with repetitious lyrics.
With only one or two exceptions we, as visitors, were not welcomed or greeted or even noticed as visitors. That is, except during the “greeting time” during the worship service. But those greetings did not acknowledge us as first-time visitors. During the pandemic I have communicated with many pastors by email and most of the responses have been much less than enthusiastic to the point of almost suggesting I/we do not visit the church. I know that’s hard to believe, but in those emails I do ask questions and, of course, am usually known to the pastor by some kind of reputation that precedes me.
All of the churches we visited were either bursting at the seams with attendance or obviously dying. The ones with impressive attendance were all extremely shallow in both worship and preaching; the dying ones had very unenthusiastic worship, incoherent sermons, a generally dour atmosphere with no hint of vitality.
Now, here is what I can easily predict about your responses. You will say I have too high expectations and am being unrealistic about churches. I don’t think so because I have “church shopped” before without encountering these problems. And I am not looking for perfection but signs of vitality and depth.
I/we will keep looking but we are running out of options.
I should be honest and admit that there are certain denominations whose churches I will not even consider. My wife agrees completely. Among them are: Southern Baptist (fundamentalist, complementarian, usually nationalistic), Churches of Christ, strongly Reformed-Calvinist churches, traditional Lutheran and Episcopalian churches, and Pentecostal-charismatic churches that lean into the prosperity gospel of health and wealth. But we have visited and I have looked into churches of many different denominations.
What conclusion can I draw about this sad situation? Put simply and bluntly, church life in America is in trouble. I now have greater sympathy for friends and acquaintances who have simply given up and stopped attending church.
Now, I want to end this by saying there are several churches I/we will return to and give to them a “second chance.” Also, I still have a short list of churches we have yet to visit—in spite of some real concerns raised by what I have seen on their web sites. Finally, in the end, we will find and join a church even if it falls short of my expectations.
I am not looking for a perfect church and I do not want to read the cliché “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it because then it won’t be perfect anymore.” I really don’t appreciate cliches here.
What are your experiences with church shopping (if any)? Please keep your stories as brief as possible.
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