I’ve always been against church shopping – trying to find a church that matches your exact preferences and expectations, all to be with people who are very similar to you in almost every way. What better example of consumer Christianity, right?
But I must confess. As a pastor, I’ve never had to church shop before. I attended the same church from the day I was born until I left for college. Then, the one church I happened to visit on the first Sunday of my Freshman year would end up being the church I attended for the entirety of my college career. And then, I got a job at the church I pastored, so my Sundays were covered there. I literally never needed to church shop.
But now, Kasey and I have moved. I took a job with a Christian Ministry School at my alma mater, Indiana Wesleyan University, in Marion, Indiana, 12 hours away from our home in South Dakota. I now don’t have any Sunday pastoral obligations, nor do we have a church home…
Lo and behold, we are officially church shopping.
I now know what it’s like to be in the position of the countless number of new guests I interacted with at The Ransom Church, bouncing from one church to the next to the next because they’re new to the area and looking for a home for their soul. It’s stressful! And time consuming! You really have to do your homework to look up the three or four or five churches you want to visit over the next month. Now that I’m in this position, I’m coming to understand that it’s not so much shopping for churches…
It’s searching for belonging.
Local churches act like friends in a lot of ways. There are some people we connect with right away and are immediate best friends from the start. But then, there are others that require a little more “work” on our end to develop a friendship (you know exactly what I’m talking about). The connection just isn’t as natural, or you know they’re someone that for your own health (let alone sanity), you can’t allow the relationship to move beyond a good acquaintance. While we are called to love everyone, even those we don’t naturally connect with, that doesn’t mean everyone has to be a close friend to whom we pour our guts out and can be be our worst selves around. In fact, we shouldn’t do that with everyone we meet. Jesus didn’t even do that.
It’s the same thing with churches. Churches aren’t just buildings, or religious institutions, or even a collection of individuals, as they are one collective person. That’s super hard for our individualistic minds to comprehend. Every individual church member makes up the collective church person, otherwise known as the “one body of Christ.” So when you encounter the collective church person of a local congregation, it really is like you’re befriending someone.
Church shopping, then, becomes a lot more like church dating. We’re called to love everyone, befriend most of them, get really close to some of them, and marry one of them (if we’re called to marriage). The exclusivity of one spouse means you better do the hard work to know they’re the right person to commit the rest of your life to. You need to make sure they share the same values, your personalities mesh well, you have similar dreams for your family, you can find middle ground on your finances, let alone be attracted to them. Is that called “person shopping?” NO! It’s doing the hard work before you enter into the most vulnerable relationship you’ll ever have. (Disclaimer: the whole act of “dating” to find a spouse is still a super Westernized act of individualism, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
It’s the same thing with churches. Granted, if you’re looking for a church only for the amenities, like great music, flashy lights and hazers, preaching style, aesthetics, donuts, and an in-house coffee shop—basically anything a part of relationships— then you’re absolutely church shopping. It’s no different from buying a house at that point. But if you’re looking for a church for a culture that embraces you, a mission you believe in, a community you belong to, and friends who want to know you, then you’re searching for belonging, not church shopping.
Shopping for churches is an act of consumerism. Searching for belonging is an act of humanity. Though it’s impossible to find the perfect church, it’s important we do the hard work to find the right church. Because for our soul’s sake, there’s no more important community to belong to than a local church.