We’ve all heard the stories about “back in the good ol’ days…” you know, the ones about how life was simple but hard. In the past, something like figuring out which church your family would attend was not a monumental task. You simply went to the church closest to your home (or the only church in town!) Then, with the rise of various denominations, you had the onset of new decisions. Do you choose the Methodist church on the northeast corner of Main Street, or the Presbyterian church on the southwest corner?
Fast forward to 2014 and it’s all but completely overwhelming for many people to find a church “home.” So overwhelming, that often, people end up placing membership at the Church of the Soft Comfy Pillow or the Church of St. Mattress on Sunday mornings.
It’s so hard to church shop, isn’t it?
It’s like finding the perfect pair of new shoes. I know, I know, this may sound a little sacrilegious (especially coming from someone who wears flip flops for nine months of the year), but stick with me and let’s explore this idea together.
SHOES COME IN DIFFERENT STYLES
We all gravitate toward different styles of shoes. The PE teacher at my daughter’s school owns more sneakers than I could count! One of my dearest life long friends absolutely LOVES wearing high heels. My husband can’t stand flip flops. Finding the style that suits you and your family takes some work, though, right? AND–not all shoes of the same style are even the same, right? One large online retailer of shoes has 5,219 different pairs of women’s boots. Same style, different shoes.
We have the Catholic Church, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Baptist, Church of Christ, Bible Church, United Church of Christ, and on and on and on. Heck, even “Nondenominational” churches have pretty much become their own denomination. If you have family history with a particular denomination, that may (or may not) be the best starting place. Some people gravitate toward wanting to find a church that was just like the one where they grew up. Others seem to want to find something that is the complete opposite. Finding the style (denomination) might be a good starting point, though.
To learn more about various denominations:
-look on denominational websites
-call various churches and ask for a staff member or pastor to explain the characteristics of that church’s particular denomination.
-ask friends who attend various churches to describe the 5 or 6 main things that set their denomination apart from others (You’ll end up finding that many churches are more alike than they are unalike).
SHOES FIT DIFFERENTLY
Just because you wear a size 8.5 women’s shoe, doesn’t mean that all size 8.5 women’s shoes fit you. I don’t know about you, but I can’t just order a pair of shoes online and know without a doubt that they will fit. I need to try the shoes on and walk around in them for a little while. That same pair of shoes that fits someone else with the same shoe size, might not be a good fit for me.
The same goes for finding the right church for your family. After selecting the style of the church you’d like to “try on,” I encourage you to explore their online presence–what does their website say about the congregation. Do they have social media pages like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram? Do the pastors or other staff have blogs to read or sermons to listen to or to watch online? Check all of that out. Contact the church (I know, we don’t like making phone calls anymore in today’s age)–trust me, though, the pastors of a church (should) LOVE talking about the ministries they share with the congregation they serve. Call them, tweet them, facebook message them, or email them. All you simply need to say is, “Tell me about your church.” If the “online shopping” seems like a fit, the next step is to put that shoe on! Find out when the weekly worship experiences are (this should be prominent on their website, by the way)
To learn more about a specific church:
-explore the various facets of the church’s online presence (website, social media accounts)
-call, email, tweet, or FB message the pastors or other church staff to ask them any questions you might have about the church.
-ask friends who attend that church to describe the church in 10 words or less (Okay—you can give them more than 10 words!)
-make a plan to go to a weekly worship experience, Bible Study, youth group, special event, or other ministry opportunity.
SHOES HAVE DIFFERENT PURPOSES
Most people do not run in high heels. High-powered business executives generally do not wear Birkenstocks with their three piece suits. Athletes tend to wear shoes that are specifically suited to their particular sport. While some shoes seem to work well in many different situations, it’s hard to find a shoe that is absolutely perfect in every situation. Still, regardless of the specific purpose, the most basic purpose of ALL shoes is to cover and protect our feet, right?
So it is with churches. Yes, I would HOPE that all churches (speaking from the Christian faith perspective) strive to teach and share the love of God that is found through Jesus Christ. However, each and every church may discern how to live out that purpose in drastically different ways. What ways of sharing the love of God are the most important to you? Maybe at the top of your list is children’s ministries for your kids or Bible Study for parents. Still, at the top of others’ lists might be how a church responds to social justice issues, or how they allow various people to participate (or not participate) in the life of the church. Is reaching out beyond the walls of the church via local and global mission work important to you? Maybe a solid music ministry or choir or band is what tops your list. Some of your “dealbreaker” purposes/practices can be determined even before you set foot in the church if you are searching online and engaging in conversations with the pastors or church members in advance. The worst thing would be to go to a church and “fall in love” with the people, but feel adamantly against a particular belief or practice of that congregation.
Determine the “dealbreaker” type purposes for ministries for you and your family
-Do you have specific opinions about communion or baptism practices?
-How do you feel about women serving in church leadership (or divorced men or women or people of various sexual identities)
-Do you love organ music or prefer a band or are you somewhere in-between?
-Do you align with certain social justice issues? Do those views match the view of the congregation?
-Would a church with a large or small youth group or children’s ministry suit you better (or would you rather a church with no children?!)
SHOES FEEL DIFFERENT OVER TIME
I can’t begin to count the number of times I have tried on a pair of shoes, walked around for a while at the store, purchased them, only to find that after actually wearing them for an extended amount of time, that I would rather set my feet on fire than wear them ever again. On the opposite extreme, when I buy a “better” pair of flip flops like some Reefs, I absolutely LOVE how they form to my foot over time, developing the perfect, comfy fit specifically for just my foot.
You can’t always determine if a church is a good “fit” for you and your family on just one visit. Stick with it for at least a month. You get to hear several different sermons, get a better snapshot of worship style, fellowship and study opportunities, children and youth ministries. Sit in different spots in the sanctuary, hang around after worship and mingle and chat (maybe another family will invite you to lunch!) Ask the people sitting around you questions about the church.
Trying a church out over time
-Do people remember your name from week to week?
-Are your children excited about going back?
-Do the nursery workers seem to be building relationships with your little ones?
-Does the worship style seem to feed your soul?
-Could you see friendships developing with the people around you? Would you invite your friends to this church?
-Most importantly–are you encountering the presence of God? Are you experiencing the love and light of Christ?
-Does the weekly experience linger with you for a while throughout the rest of the week?
SOMETIMES SHOES WEAR OUT
I have a pair of red Toms that I absolutely love. They were given to me as a gift, an unexpected gift, and I have worn them lovingly for quite some time. However, they have a hole in the toe. I am to the point that I have to make a decision–can this shoe be repaired? Does it still have life for me? It is time for me to “retire” this pair of shoes.
Since churches are made up of people, sometimes they change (what? I am saying that churches change!?) Yes, they change over time. It’s often very difficult to watch something you love go through changes. Maybe it’s not so much that the church has changed over time, but your needs have changed. I often hear from people, “but I love my church” or “I love the people” but they also add, “but….” “it doesn’t feel the same” or “I just don’t feel God’s spirit in this place anymore.” It’s hard to come to this point with regard to a church. It happens, though. There is no set way to “handle it,” but I always try to tell people who ask me to share about my church that I would LOVE for them to stay at their current church. This is often met with a confused look because after all, why wouldn’t I want them to come to my church, right? The point, though, is that I understand the relationships that are built through years (sometimes not even that long) of attending the same church. You share life…all of it…sometimes pretty intensly, with your people. Breaking away from that is hard.
A few suggestions if you’re feeling “worn out” with your current church
-Talk to the pastor or other staff or other church members (not engaging in gossip, of course), but share your feelings. Who knows, maybe they are also feeling the same way and together you can engage in ways to help the church remember who it once was.
-Pray and pray some more. Pray for your church, the leaders, the congregants, all of it. Pray for guidance about your family’s continued involvement.
-Discern if you put a patch on the shoe and keep wearing it, or realize it’s time to find a new shoe. If possible, before leaving, though, talk to your pastor(s) one more time…don’t just disappear.
Overall, keep in mind that all churches (ideally) are trying to figure out how they can best share the light and love of Christ in this world. No church is doing it perfectly! It can be scary trying to find a new church, but with time and with “trying on” a few, you’ll soon find a good fit.