Let me start out by saying that I totally despise the phrase "church shopping." I have my reasons (mostly connected to the idea that a church is some kind of product to be compared to other products and measured according to consumeristic values -- sorry, I couldn't resist). However "church shopping" is a phrase that our culture uses to describe the process of looking for a new church home.
Obviously, I write this with some bias. I AM a pastor. I AM a pastor leading a church that I would like to see grow.
That being said, I have done some thinking about how to find a church home in this American culture. The danger for those of us who are looking for a spiritual community is that it is very hard to avoid a consumer mentality. You can tell this has happened when you sound like a movie critic at lunch on Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t know, the sermon kind of bothered me. I didn’t like the sound of his voice. How about that solo? Yikes, someone was off key. Also, what’s up with those offering bags? I’m more of a plate man myself. And anyway, I’m not sure they have the kind of youth program we’re looking for.”
While my family is plugged into a community of Christians in which we experience vibrant relationships that help us grow and that provide us opportunities to help others as they grow, perhaps you are not. For my whole life I have NEVER chosen a church. I grew up in the church my parents chose. (We never changed church in my entire growing up years -- my parents believed that church was their community and that we traveled good times and bad times together. So we never left.) As soon as I moved away to college and seminary, I became a staff pastor and have only attended churches I have lead since the time of my youth.
I have discovered that it is an odd experience in today's America for someone to have experienced the kind of consistency in church participation that marks my life and identity. It has been this discovery that has had me doing some thinking about the process of finding a church. Assuming you are looking for a church for all the right reasons, here are my tips for visiting a church that may become your home.
CHURCH SHOPPING TIPS BY BRUCE
1. Think of your visit to a church as if it was a visit to someone’s home. Be gracious. Instead of focusing on things you don’t like, try to see the positive things and keep your focus on the things a church does well.
2. Try very hard to worship instead of evaluate. Enjoy discovering new ways of experiencing and serving God in ways that unfamiliar churches do those things.
3. Be thankful for friendly churches. The real test of a spiritual community is investing in each other’s lives. Give yourself time before and after worship gatherings to enter genuine conversations that go deeper than "hello," and "thanks for coming."
4. Pray for the church you visited each Sunday at lunch. Assume the role of partnering in a church's success whether or not it becomes your church home.
5. Do not put too much importance on the sermon. A good preacher is nice, but a church is primarily a spiritual community and the shimmer of a skillful wordsmith should not be your primary concern. The people of the congregation are the ones who sustain each other over the long haul.
6. Look for a church that will provide you with opportunities to serve others and stretch your skills and gifts in this arena.
7. Try some small, out-of-the-way congregations. You might have to ask around to find them. Pay particular attention to churches that are new or are meeting in interesting locations. You are less likely to find polished production driven experiences in such congregations.
Count your season of wandering as a time of spiritual growth and discernment. Do not be in a hurry, but do not waste Sundays either. Be about the task of finding your church home. Holy days are important to each person's spiritual journey and to the wholeness of each household. A habit of skipping Sunday's is a hard habit to break, so don't start it!
Finally I want to say, you are never going to find your perfect church. Your perfect church does not exist. Narrow your search down to 2 priorities for you and your family. Let the rest grow as you become a contributor in your new church family. Part of the joy of being in a community is learning to live with the faults and frailties of others, just as they learn to live with you and your idiosyncrasies.