On church shopping, hopping & hunting
Full credit to author Caitlin Muir for this great article, originally printed in Relevant Magazine, issue 60 HERE
You've been let down before, but this weekend—you’re sure of it—you’re going to meet “the one.”
You deliberate through a half-dozen outfit possibilities, dressing to dazzle on a first impression. Then you brush your teeth, hope for the best and head out the door to one of the trendiest new spots in town.
It’s not a first date, but sometimes finding a church can feel like one.
Especially when you’ve been out of the groove for a while. Maybe you grew up in the church but life has gotten so busy you kind of quit going. Maybe church has never been your thing in the first place. Or maybe you’ve been burned and are tentatively wading back into the scene years later. Whatever your reasons, you don’t have a church you’d call home right now—and when your relatives ask you about it over the holidays, you fake a smile and change the topic.
But maybe today’s the day it’s going to be different. Perhaps today you’ll find the church you only thought existed in your dreams and in late-night reruns of 7th Heaven.
As you slide into a back seat in the sanctuary, you find yourself keeping a running tally of pros and cons. Could you commit to this place? How are the small groups? Are you connecting with the worship? What are the service opportunities? Where are all the hot singles?
It’s easy to romanticize the perfect Christian community. But when you visit a church, a wish list can actually get in the way of the real essentials you need to consider when finding a church home.
The Problem With Lists
The problem with mental catalogs for the perfect church or spouse is that they often miss the heart of the matter.
That is, they’re missing the heart, period.
Lists tend to focus on quantifiable features, which are all too often just surface issues. The way people dress. The songs they sing. The types of cars that fill the parking lot. What coffee brand the café or bookstore uses. How many members are in the handbell choir.
While there’s nothing wrong with personal preference, preferences should not be equated with essentials. Such expectations can set people up for disappointment—perhaps contributing to the seven out of 10 young adults who went to church as teens and dropped out by age 23, according to a LifeWay Research survey.
Lists are a good way to sort out your standards, but something is wrong when a church wish list reads like a spoiled starlet’s Starbucks order. And when Christians build a dream church around a check-off list, they’re bound to miss the Gospel alive and at work within the walls of the actual churches they enter.
In fact, when you get so stuck on the individual items on your wish list, you often lose sight of the whole package.
Ladies, when was the last time you dated a Ryan Gosling lookalike who loves Jesus, flies a jet for a living, makes his own organic pasta and serves the homeless on the weekends?
Men, have you found the woman who looks like a model, cooks like Julia Child, loves football and dreams of having a home full of very large TVs?
Society tells Christians they need someone who will complete them and make everything better. But are these qualities really what they want—pre-programmed settings that satisfy selfish desires?
More likely, Christians are looking for someone who will love them while challenging them to grow. In the long run, character lingers longer than looks, tax brackets and hobbies. And when character is refined and sharpened in the refinery of a committed relationship, the result is a strong and healthy marriage—or a strong and healthy church.
The Reason for Church
Most of the time, the church really isn’t the problem. Truth be told, the 15 churches you “dated” last year were just fine. Well, except that one ... but seriously, it’s not them.
Any time you catch yourself serially dating—whether in relationships, church shopping or anything else—it may be time to step back and examine whether you’re the one with unrealistic expectations.
Let’s be honest: Are you going to church to glorify or be glorified?
The Church (capital “C”) is not about you. This seems obvious at first, but Christians dismiss it every time they walk into worship with the expectation of being satisfied, accommodated or entertained.
The Church was designed to glorify God and bring you into a closer relationship with Him and His people. Committing to a local congregation is about serving the Church body as a whole and glorifying God together. When you commit to a church, you willingly put yourself under its leadership. Your actions become accountable to others, and you begin to grow through the friction and sanctification that happens in close community.
Your decision on a church home may carry little ceremony, but it’s more like a marriage vow than you might think. A vow at the altar is intended to be more than an official alignment of two lives. It’s intended to be a complete lifestyle changeover—a promise to let go of selfish pursuits and to serve one’s spouse every day.
When a marriage is lopsided, trained in a direction to promote one spouse over another, it makes for trouble. Similarly, when a church is lopsided to promote one individual or authoritative leader over the rest of those who belong to it, this is known as a cult. When Christians try to find a church created in their own image instead of God’s, it promotes the cult of self.
If you want to get married, you have to go through the dating process. And if you want to find a church home, you have to go check a few out. Church shopping, hopping and hunting are all necessary parts of the process in order to find the place God has called you to be.
But as you search, it’s what’s on your list that matters. So, now that you know what not to put on your list, here’s what you should really be looking for.
The Gospel Essentials
The perfect church doesn’t exist. It never has. And entertaining this ideal is like refusing a relationship with a genuine person because you’re holding out for the mall mannequin.
The New Testament Church was full of scandal simply because it was full of people. The disciples squabbled (Acts 15:36-41). The Corinthian church swarmed with sex scandals (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Even when Jesus chose Peter to lead the Church (Matthew 16:18), He was picking the man who had just publicly denied Him three times.
It was only when the early Church centered itself on the Gospel that its members stuck together (Ephesians 4:14-16).
Clearly, the Church Jesus founded was flawed, yet He loved it dearly—He even identified it as His bride. No matter how damaged a church might look on the surface, Jesus is still able to redeem it today.
Yes, you can assess a church’s worship style, denomination or leadership structure based on a single Sunday impression. But the real essentials take more than a first meeting to discern. Does that particular church preach the Gospel? Does it proclaim Jesus crucified, dead, buried and resurrected? Is the leadership and community transparent about their need for forgiveness and grace?
No church will have its act together, nor should it pretend to. As whenever a group of sinners meet together, you can expect to get hurt, disappointed and even outraged. But none of these are reasons to give up on a specific church. A community steeped in Gospel grace will be as aware of its shortcomings as you are of yours, and together you can mourn your sins and grow in a holiness that’s not the result of following rules but of being in a committed relationship with Christ.
Beware of churches that present extra-biblical rules for holiness. Jesus said the world would know who His disciples are because of their love, not because of their lack of rule-breaking (John 13:35).
Besides, love isn’t something you can quantify on a list. And it’s more than a mid-service greeting. A church embodying Christ’s love is actively engaged in serving, in bearing each other’s burdens and in praying for each other. It echoes the love of God for each person, regardless of personal opinion or affection.
This Gospel-inspired love is far more than pretty words. It’s action—faith wrapped up in skin and presented as a representation of Christ to the world.
As you visit a new church, consider its local reputation. What do people in the community say about this church? Is it known as a place of judgment filled with town gossips, or is it known as a place of wide and loving welcome?
Also take a close look at the church’s theology. Stay away from those that outsource truth—using songs, pop culture and inspirational anecdotes in lieu of biblical teaching. Those churches tend to tiptoe around the concept of sin, which may make us feel good about ourselves in the moment but also ingrains in us a false perception of the eternal consequences of our sin. Find a church that proclaims truth, no matter how difficult it is to hear at times. Jesus said the truth will set you free (John 8:32). You won’t find healing and freedom by going to churches that tickle your ears (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Theology may seem like an issue to worry about when you’re older, but the way you view God shapes the way you live your life. And a church’s treatment of theology will point you in the right—or wrong—direction.
Don’t Rush Things
It takes time to get beyond the visitor veneer and under the skin of a church—and again, this can’t be accomplished on a first visit. Building relationships with the people in the next pew takes time, energy and a fair amount of coffee money.
Most of all, it takes a willingness to be vulnerable.
Resist the temptation to darken the church door as a critic. Show up honestly, willing to learn. Immerse yourself in the culture of the church by helping out during a church cleanup day, by braving the Wednesday night potluck or by trying out a small group or two. The process is bound to be uncomfortable at times, but through it you will learn about the people—just like you—God has called to Himself.
So, next Sunday morning, adjust your expectations for what a church can do for you. A church is not meant to complete you. It can’t magically make you perfect or happy. But it can constantly point you toward the One who is ever working to make you whole—“the One” you have really been looking for all along.