To everyone who has ever church-shopped (and everyone who has given up)
I have a friend who has a friend who is looking for a good church. In the middle of his search, he went to a church where he heard that “the church is not meant to serve you and meet all your needs.” Now he is feeling guilty for even looking for a church that seems like the right place for him. Is it okay to shop for a church, to look around for one that seems to “fit?”
The answer, I believe, is yes. AND – the church is not meant to serve you and meet all your needs! It’s fine to look for a church that has beliefs and practices you are okay being involved with. It is fine to look for preaching that “works” for you, as long as “works” means challenging you, prodding you, making you think, and maybe even sometimes making you mad. “Working for you” should mean you won’t always agree with everything, will sometimes feel a bit offended, and will frequently be challenged and urged to think. If you are not stretched and challenged, you are not learning anything. So find a church where the preaching challenges you to grow and makes you think in new ways.
On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to approach finding a church from a consumer mindset. Churches that are doing the best work are critiquing the American “you can have it all” way of thinking. Churches that have anything important to say are saying – at the very least – that the real meaning of life is something other than getting everything we want, or even everything we think we need. [In my opinion, any church that is not constantly returning to this idea has lost its way and now believes it is part of the culture. Churches should stand outside the culture and never become beholden to it.] Finding a church is not like deciding what to order at McDonald’s.
I think finding a church is actually more like finding a mate. Because of the size of the commitment you are going to make to a mate, you are serious about the search. You don’t just settle for anybody. At least you shouldn’t! You date. You think through what it is you’re looking for and what marriage is going to mean. But when you finally decide to marry someone, you do so with the knowledge that you are marrying an imperfect person who will have flaws and who will sometimes disappoint you. You know you will let that person down as well. Your diligent search for a mate is not in order to find the “perfect” person, but rather the person who somehow manages both to encourage you and to help you aspire to be a better person at the same time. When problems come, you don’t ditch that person and start over. Instead you stick it out, realizing that it is precisely this persistence that can make your relationship stronger and better. You do not wake every morning ready to bail if the other person says something offensive. You determine to continue thinking well of him/her even when things are difficult. Perhaps most important, you do not enter the relationship believing that it is the other person’s job to meet every single need you have for love, for affirmation, for fulfillment, and for companionship. If you do, you are certain to be disappointed.
Finding a church should be somewhat like this. Anything less than an intention to ultimately make a real commitment to a church comes from an attitude that has been formed and shaped by the very consumerist notions that the church should be consistently opposing if it has its head on straight. So it is fine to “church shop,” just like it is fine to date. But most people don’t date forever. They eventually settle down into that school of life that is called marriage. The church is another school of life, and at some point one needs to settle into it. It is fine to look for teaching that challenges you, people you believe you can connect with, and programs that are right for your family. But watch your expectations. You should avoid entering a relationship with a church believing that it’s the church’s job to meet all of your needs for community, for care, and for spiritual development. Expect people in the church to be as flawed as you are (and perhaps some to be a good deal more so). Expect the staff to have quirks and hang-ups like everyone else. Expect that there are things you think the church should do that it will never do, and things you think it should not do that it will sometimes do anyway. When things get difficult, realize that staying and working through problems is what will grow you into the kind of person the church is helping you aspire to be in the first place. When something hurtful happens, don’t say, “I can’t believe this person did that – I thought he/she was spiritually mature!” After all, the reason you are all going to church together is precisely because none of you is yet what he/she aspires to be!
Because of this reality, do not view yourself as someone consuming the church’s programs and services from the outside, and constantly determining whether or not the church is “cutting it” (a consumer orientation – this is what we do with “products”), but view yourself as part of the reason the church is as it is – with all its triumphs and shortcomings. Because a church is a collection of individuals. But when the individuals involved commit to it and work on that relationship, it can and will be a great deal more.