After three decades and a few odd years serving several different churches as a pastor, I have become what I formerly disdained, a church shopper. Church shoppers were a frequent target of my pious potshots for they were only looking out for themselves, asking themselves which church had the best music, or best youth group, or best preaching. Church is not about YOU, I boldly proclaimed. It is about GOD, I asserted with the conviction of an Isaiah or a Micah. You go to church NOT to meet your needs but to worship and to serve. Sounded good and it soothed a sore ego when the church shoppers didn't stop long at my church before they went on to another one. Who needs them, I proudly thought. We are looking for true Christians, Christians who really get IT, aren't we?
So how do things look from the other side of the fence? How does it feel to be a church shopper? I confess that is what I am. I looked deeply at myself and realized that I have been in our new home for eight months now, surrounded by all sorts of churches, and I have not settled into one of them. I am, gulp, still shopping around. I am not blooming where I am planted; I am wilting.
So, what have I learned these many months. I have learned that feelings, prejudices, personal histories and, oh yes, those dreaded likes and dislikes, all of those, play an important role in where a church shopper ends up. It is always about GOD but it is about YOU, too. Often, way more than YOU think.
I went to one church where we attended for awhile and it was an Advent Sunday and I was looking forward to the Advent music because they excel in music and the pastor announced that today was "special" and they were going to focus on one scripture passage and there would be no music. No music! Are you kidding me? I was peeved, sitting in my pew steaming. That's what I had come for! That's all I could think about. I did not get much out of the experience of solitude. I had a hunch what was going on. The next service was the Christmas children's program and they were gearing up for that and they needed to get us out of our service early. Aha, I thought that was the real reason for the music free service.
Another church I have attended nearby is literally in the woods. There is little signage to let you know where it is. The first time we went we could not find it. There is no website, canned music, no children, and a very small congregation. I like the part time pastor who travels over 50 miles to get there on Sundays. The people are very friendly, too, but there is a hint of desperation in their invitations to come back. They need help, fellow servers, Christians who will throw themselves into the life of the church with abandon. Yet, what they are lacking is so evident….(but what they are lacking are servants and isn't that what we sign up for?)
There is another church I go to from time to time. We know people there. It has rousing contemporary Christian music with a worship band. There are lots of families with young kids. The pastor is friendly and a lively preacher. Trouble is there is no liturgy, the service is a few songs, the sermon, and the offering. The sermons are evangelistic and lean toward the right wing of evangelicalism. I am not always comfortable….(and isn't comfort what we seek?)
There's another church, too. It's in the city. In a storefront that is part of a revitalizing neighborhood. It is small but dynamic, informal with liturgical elements, needy but not clingy, diverse yet unified in outreach, techno savvy but rooted in tradition. It is inclusive and the pastor, she, preaches good sermons. It is also small and meets in a rented space that is available only on Sunday mornings and has to be set up and taken down before and after each service. There are few children, and the music lacks the polish and vitality of other churches we have visited.
I'm tired of church shopping. But, I have noticed a few things. I've noticed a lot of "me" and "I" as I have evaluated "my worship experiences". Why don't I check my personal preferences at the door?
Am I that picky person, whose personal preferences trump everything else, that one I frowned on before. I have learned that THAT is there in all of us, every one of us, even pastors who thought they were above that kind of thing. And it's not a bad thing, it's just a human thing. And, there isn't any church that is going to appeal to everyone. I have seen that Church is kind of a miracle: the fellowship of the body of Christ is a supernatural thing which takes a whole lot of individuals with their personal stuff and makes us ONE. Read 1 Corinthians, again. I have learned that Church is about YOU because it has to be, because YOU and I are WHO make it up, and we really can't get away from that, but Christ is showing us that it is not ALL about us, or even MOSTLY about us, or FIRSTLY about us, and as we see that, and realize that and act on that, fellowshipping and serving, Church becomes more and more about GOD. I guess that is the process we are all part of.
Maybe we are more caught up in our idea of Church more than we need to be. Having to church shop tends to clarify for us what Church really is. Bob Goff, in Love Does, writes, "Because I am a lawyer and follower of Jesus, people often ask me about my religion. I am not sure what they hope to learn from me, and I tell them I am not the best person to talk to about that. I think of Church as a vibrant community of people consisting of two or more of varied backgrounds gathering around Jesus. Sometimes they are part of a place that might have a steeple or an auditorium but its just as likely that church happens elsewhere…. any place works just fine …when it's a matter of the heart, the place doesn't really matter… it's Jesus plus nothing - not even a building. "