I admit it. “Church shopping” is a term that I loathe. I think the phraseology just sounds too commercial to apply to a community of faith. I also think that searching for a church home is a crucial life decision that requires a deeper level of introspection and spiritual guidance than can be found by following the usual church shopping guidelines.
Despite my disdain for the terminology, I do understand the popular concept and wish to offer a different, hopefully more pastoral perspective on what persons should look for in a church.
I begin by confessing my own biases. While I think of myself as somewhat progressive in my approach to ministry, many of my basic convictions about what it means to be church are not in sync with what I encounter in the pop church culture. For example, my preaching will probably never be as Lettermanesque as some postmoderns would like, but neither will it be as dogmatic and exclusively expository as some traditionalists prefer. My perspective on worship and ministry is much more missional (I prefer mission-driven) and much less entertaining or performance-based than you might experience in a big screen church. I also perceive that many church marketing schemes, often proffered as outreach strategies, seem to be veiled attempts at proselytizing (encouraging believers to leave their church to come to your church) and I unapologetically believe that proselytizing is a sin. We should be colleagues, not competitors, with other churches in our community. And I so firmly believe in covenantal membership, I contend that, with few exceptions, you should change church membership only when you change addresses.
A few years ago when I moved to Kentucky to begin serving as pastor in a small town rich in Appalachian folklore and history, I discovered that many of the local churchgoers had transferred membership between churches in the same community three or more times in five years. My plain-spoken retired pastor friend, Bob Lockhart, cynically suggested that our local ministerial association should begin offering a church passport so that our frequent church swappers would not have to go to the trouble to keep transferring their membership every time they became disgruntled.
I suppose that his comment helped me notice that “church shoppers” all too often become frequent “church swappers.” Along with other factors, that leads me to propose that when many people go on a church shopping spree, they use the wrong shopping list. In trendy religious magazines and captivating advertisements, typical church shopping tips might include encouraging someone in the market to look for a church where they like the pastor, where their favorite worship style is honored, where their beliefs are re-enforced, where the offering of activities is sufficient to “minister” to the whole family, and where they “feel” a sense of belonging. Lots of other things appear on church shopping lists, but these summarize the basic propositions.
This list may sound appropriate on the surface, but deeper probing reveals motivations that are a little too superficial and ego-centrical to survive gospel scrutiny. I cannot imagine Jesus, the one who spoke so radically about denying one’s self, giving his disciples such self-oriented guidance. I cannot fathom Paul, who wrote with gratitude about the diverse gifts within the body of Christ, encouraging converts to connect with a local faith community simply because others there already have similar gifts, similar passions, and similar preferences.
Perhaps the family or individual genuinely searching to connect with a church that stimulates growth and provides opportunities for missional service, should revise their shopping list. I’ve learned from experience that because pastors are charged with encouraging and equipping their congregations in ways that often challenge the status quo, a pastor’s “approval rating” can rise and fall weekly. Worship styles are constantly changing, as are the menu of activities and opportunities on most church calendars. And a sustained sense of belonging comes through engagement and participation. The immediate emotional appeal created when you visit a church that is new to you recedes quickly if you do not become connected relationally and missionally. In other words, using these popular criteria to select a church could doom you to perpetual frustration or frequent rotation of membership.
When looking for a church home, choose a place where your spiritual gifts are needed. Consider a church that offers diverse styles in worship, expressions that span the generations and the ages. Think about joining a church where your beliefs are going to be stretched and challenged by the preachers and teachers, not simply validated. Choose a church based on the opportunities you will have to serve, not just to be served, opportunities you will have to minister, and not just be ministered to. And cultivate a sense of belonging by getting involved in the work of the church.
I am privileged to serve a great church that has an above average degree of spiritual health, but a perfect church does not exist. Every local congregation has strengths and weaknesses. When you change churches as a reaction to something you disagree with, or something you don’t like, or because you are searching for greener pastures, you will inevitably end up in a church whose strengths and weaknesses differ from your current spiritual family but are not as visible to you; a new church that will enrich you and frustrate you in a different way.
There are a few good reasons to change churches: If you relocate, if you are called to service in another church, or if your church alters its mission and becomes involved in witchcraft, sorcery, or idol worship. That’s about it. I don’t think that differing interpretations of Bible passages, varying styles of worship, new or expanded mission partnerships, or changes in the menu of church services are really good reasons to divorce your church and seek another.
If you are currently “dissatisfied” with your church, perhaps God is revealing ways that you can proactively help your church become a more effective family of faith. Rather than running from the problem, consider “blooming where you are planted,” offering your spiritual gifts and passions to propel your congregation to higher ground.
If you are shopping for a church, make sure to use the right list. Don’t just look for the things that you like, or the things that make you feel good. Connect with people with whom you can grow. Serve in a community where you can make a valued contribution. Find your niche’ and plant yourself firmly in a local congregation to live out your faith covenant in good times and in challenging times.
(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)