8 Church Shopping Tips From an Ex-Pastor
by Gordon Atkinson
First of all, I HATE the phrase “church shopping.” But that is a phrase that people in our culture use. And honestly, it does describe the process pretty well. You’re new in town or have decided to start going to church. You begin visiting churches, looking for some place that fits you.
For better or for worse, you are in the market for a church.
My story is that I resigned as the pastor of a church in 2010. My family and I are, for the first time in over twenty years, looking for a church. And it’s not an easy thing to do.
For many years I was on the other side of this process. Church leaders and I used to talk a lot about visitors. We wondered what people in our culture were looking for and how we could best welcome them to our church. We were always looking for a balance between engaging visitors to make them feel welcome and giving them space so they don’t feel pressured. We wanted to be friendly but not pushy.
Of course a church can’t spend all its time trying to make visitors happy. If a church tries to become what it thinks people want, then it stops being the Body of Christ and starts becoming something more like Walmart or Disney World.
The danger for those of us who are looking for a spiritual community is that we might slip into 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.”
The Atkinsons have been visiting churches around San Antonio at a leisurely pace for the last 17 months. We’re not in a hurry, and part of what we’re doing is letting our kids experience many different kinds of Christianity. But ultimately we want to be part of a community again.
So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the process of finding a church.
What follows are some rather unorthodox tips for people who are looking for a church.
Think of your visit to a church as if it was a visit to someone’s home. Be gracious. Rather than concentrating on things you don’t like, make an effort to notice and affirm things the church does well.
Seek to worship more than you seek to evaluate. Enjoy discovering new ways of experiencing and serving God.
Be thankful for friendly churches, but do not be overly impressed with superficial greetings. The real test of community is investing in each other’s lives.
Pray for the church you visited each Sunday at lunch.
Do not put too much importance on the sermon. A good preacher is nice, but ministers come and go. The people of the congregation are the ones who sustain each other over the long haul.
Look for a church that will provide you with opportunities to serve others.
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.
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.
Finally this: You will not find your perfect church. Your perfect church does not exist. You should have a few things in your mind that are most important to you. Look for those things and don’t worry about the rest. 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.
This article orginally appeared in The High Calling, and is used by permission.