Five Things to Know about Church Shopping

As a pastor, I have the chance to talk with many people about what they are looking for in a church. Some have landed at Oglethorpe, others have not. Here are a couple of things that I have learned along the way: 1) You’re Shopping. And That’s OK.

Some people are troubled by the idea that they are doing something as crass as “shopping” for something as important as church. If you are “brand loyal” (i.e. your theology is only at home in a Catholic, or Associate Reformed, or Orthodox, or COGIC church), then you shouldn’t shop. Otherwise, get over it. Even if a congregation has a denominational affiliation, this label probably says more about how they are governed than about how they worship or what they do.

In our case, we are Presbyterian, which means that we are connected to other churches in accountability and support, and that our decision-making is an open process. While our worship style comes out of a Presbyterian background, we incorporate things we have learned from both high church (communion, baptism, ordination) and low church (the roof doesn’t collapse when the drums come out).

In other words, finding a church where you are at home is important enough to give it the time and energy it deserves.

2) Don’t Judge a Church by Its Cover.

Many people make the mistaken assumption that how a church appears says everything about what they believe. If there are bright lights, casual clothing, and modern music, then the church must be “hip” to the 21st century. If there’s an organ and the preacher wears a robe, then they must be hopelessly stuck in the past. The reality is that this is almost never the case; in fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.

Dig deeper, ask questions, and don’t be bullied. Does this church allow women to participate in all leadership roles, or just some? What is their stance on marriage equality? How transparent are they about leadership and decision-making, money and salaries? If there is a crisis (in case you didn’t know, churches make the headlines from time to time, and not for the right reasons), who will hold them accountable?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not about finding people who already agree with you. That’s the subject for another day. In fact, any church that is worthwhile is going to stretch you and change you. But if you have deeply held convictions, be sure that they will be respected, not merely tolerated until you “see the light”.

3) One Visit Is Rarely Enough.

Churches have off days. And they have exceptional days. You won’t know which is which until you go back. Was the sermon lackluster? Maybe the pastor had a head cold. Did the choir hit a sour note? Maybe the best singers were on vacation that day. Did they sing that hymn that you hate? Maybe they had to do that in order to figure out that they hate it, too. Did no one speak to you? Or did they swarm you like “fresh meat”? Maybe their best greeters were in charge of the luncheon after worship.

When you encounter worship that’s a little “bumpy”, that probably means they think grace is important, where you can try new things, fall flat on your face, and get up again. That’s not always the case, of course. Some churches just worship poorly, and that’s a problem. But you won’t know if you only go once.

A word of caution: there are those churches that break out the “Kool Aid” on your first visit. You might want to refuse politely and be sure you know where the exits are.

4) For Parents: Be Selfish.

I often meet with parents who are looking for the right church for their children. I think that's a mistake. If you find a church that your kids enjoy but you hate (or tolerate mildly), they will know. What they learn is that church doesn’t matter to you. And one day, they will follow suit. However: if you find a church that feeds you and stretches you in all the right ways but doesn’t have a strong children’s program, what they will learn is that church and faith matter for the long haul.

I watch parents drag their children out of bed when they hate school. I see them force their kids to play sports when they’d rather play in the dirt. For some reason, though, making it clear that faith is central isn’t “worth the fight.” If that describes you, that might say more about you than you wish it did.

5) The Church Where You Grew Up Is Gone.

Let's be clear: nostalgia is not good. And when it comes to finding a church home, it's a problem. If you are looking for a church that is “just like the one I grew up in”, you will never find it.

There’s the simple fact of history. Whether you grew up in the 1980s or 1950s or the 2000s, the world is a very different place than it was. When you grew up, was FourSquare how you checked in, or a playground game? Did your childhood church eschew PowerPoint because they had a problem with it, or because it hadn’t been invented yet? If you find a church that treats the world as if it hasn’t changed, then there’s usually something very wrong.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you probably don’t even know what you mean when you say that about your childhood church. What does “just like” mean? Are you fixated on a single pastor? Are you looking for your grandmother’s pew or your mom in the choir? Do you need someone to pat you on the head or offer you a cookie during coffee hour? If you can’t explain it, then you just need to let this one go.

If you do know what you mean, then this aspect of a search can actually be helpful, if you do it right. You have to be sure you can articulate the characteristics of your childhood experience that mattered, and that can translate to other churches. Those points can be the launching pads to a new church home. Just be sure you’re going deep enough.