Sunday, June 16, 2013

Confessions of a Perpetual Church Shopper

National Cathedral, Washington D.C.
We don't like church shopping. We don't do it for kicks. But the thing is, we keep moving.

Since we left Eugene, Danny and I have visited or attended nine churches. One of those we left early. Two others we drove by, or parked near before deciding whether or not to enter. We've stalked websites. We've listened to online sermons.

I've even read Yelp reviews.

And now we're in the process of leaving Richland and relocating to Portland. While I'm excited about the move, finding a church home can be emotionally exhausting. But we've done it a lot, so on the subject, I have thoughts.

1.) I hate being singled out as being a visitor. When people find out you're a visitor, they get this odd rabid look. I'm sure you've seen it. Their eyes light up, and suddenly they're trying to make sure you come again, so they can convert you. This usually happens without any real conversation about your spiritual history. (You can negate this slightly if you bring your own Bible. Never mind if you read your Bible on an e-reader, you need the real thing for this situation).

2.) I don't want a special gift. Really, what I want most is community. Don't give me a book, don't give me free coffee. Do you really want me to come back? Invite me to a women's group, a Bible study, a post-church coffee group. And not a "hey newcomers, talk to the pastor after church" (which often has an aftertaste similar to item 1), but an honest to goodness invitation.

3.) This requires talking to me. No because I'm a visitor, but because I'm a person. Because if y'all don't talk to your people - not just the people you know, but the people you don't - I'm not okay with that.

4.) It's important to have a good website. I'll dismiss a church out of hand if their website has been "under construction" for two years, and is poorly or inexpensively done. In this day and age, the website is both a church's first impression and electronic bulletin. Don't ruin it with a purple background and yellow hypertext links.

5.) For the love of all that is holy, I can't with churches that try to be cool. The way I see it, If you have to try, it's not cool. If you are, naturally, great. Fine. Whatever. But in general, Christianity really isn't cool. The message of sin and redemption is not hip. The message of Salvation is not popular - what it is is necessary. It's truth. It's a challenging blend of freedom and sacrifice, and wrapping it up in shallow "relevance" and buzzwords is an insult to everyone's intelligence.

6.) Buzzwords. You've heard them. Relevant. Transparency. Real. Transformative. Overuse of the word "thing" (i.e. "Jesus Thing, Love Thing, Grace Thing, etc). See also: overuse of the word "place". And while I'm at it, phrases like "speaking into someone's life" or "loving on someone" drive me nuts too. Speaking into someone's life sounds awfully condescending, and loving on someone...seriously. Think about it. Does it sound legal to do in a public place? My issue with buzzwords is that they're either a Christian shorthand or verbal window-dressing.  While I know synonyms are a good thing, we don't always have to linguistically reinvent the wheel. A church that relies too much on Christian buzzwords is either trying too hard to sound meaningful, or too disconnected from the rest of the world to know how silly they sound.

7.) Speaking of window dressing - coffee. If you're that into it, as a congregation, I'm concerned about the sermon quality. We attended one church that featured an official coffee break after the worship and before the message (it was, in fact, a good time to sneak out). In the past, most churches I've attended have served coffee in the Ye Olde Folger's tradition, but around here, if a church serves Stumptown they'll tell you on the website (because this is how you choose your church, right?).  So aside from my quality sermon concerns, my other thought here is that if you're going to be coffee-obsessive, throw the tea-drinkers a bone and offer good-quality tea options.

8.) MUSIC. It's church, not a Beyonc√© concert. Colored lights are a bit much. Strobing, flashing lights, ditto.  We are in church to worship God, not to marvel at how much effort has been put into the staging, or wonder about the electricity bills.

9.) I appreciate a church that isn't afraid of acknowledging life's difficulties. We live in a fallen world, and while yes, we have Jesus, and Jesus saved us, we still have to hang tight through this life until we get to heaven. And sometimes? Sometimes this life is really hard. Scripture is pretty open about this, but I've visited several churches that seem reluctant to admit that this is reality, as if they're concerned that if we talked about the tough stuff, people might not buy into the Hope of Christianity.

10.) In a similar vein, I appreciate churches who aptly identify that their church congregation ins't solely made up of married adults with children. In a church body, there are younger singles, older singles, divorced adults, widowed adults, and couples struggling with infertility. While I'm sure it's tough to craft sermons that suit everyone, there's an importance to being sensitive to where people may be at, especially if it's a painful season of life.

11.) I do appreciate signage toward the main entrance. It's nice to look like I know where I'm going, rather than wandering around the front, examining the landscaping. Do you want people to come to your church? Make sure they know how to get in.

We did visit a new church today, and while there were a couple tricky points - we couldn't find the entrance, and several well-meaning greeters wished Danny a Happy Father's Day - we both enjoyed the meat of the message as well as the worship.

In the months to come, we'll continue to visit churches in the Portland area and I may well report back on it. Especially if people try to love on us. I'll have to blog about that.

What about you? What do you look for in a church? 


  1. Wow! Talk about pressure on a pastor and a church body: If your shopping list is this long, imagine how long the list grows with every person who attends a church. In fairness, I think most churches are just trying to share the Gospel but we all have different styles…and then there’s that whole humanity thing we’ve got going (we are not perfect). My suggestion is to find a full Bible-believing church with a style similar to your own and then offer a whole lot of grace and choose to serve instead of be served.

    I commented quickly (above) when I read this post initially, but I would like to add a personal note to you. I understand your frustration in finding a new church but give it time. Unfortunately, time is what it takes to find a church you can call your home church. I like you as an author and so I was surprised by this post because your voice in the writing of it sounds very judgmental of churches. I don't think that was your intention, but your frustration did not translate well. I am a pastor's wife who knows for a fact that people do come to church with shopping lists. From the pastoral side, we have to choose to offer a whole lot of grace or get bitter in the process of shepherding the people God brings to us. People have needs that can only be filled by Jesus but sometimes they have those needs buried so deep that they can only focus on what they want (what they THINK they need). Anyway, grace is always the answer, whether dealing with churches (that often get it wrong) or people (who think they are always right).

  2. Hi Anonymous!

    I'm sure that as a pastor's wife you're more than well-acquainted with all of the challenges of pastoral care. My husband's a PK; I'm friends with a few pastor's wives myself.

    My aim for this post was not to be judgmental, but honest. If we could sit down to coffee (or tea) and pastries, I could share the long, long, long list of stories that built this post. And as far as serving, I have street cred. My church apron has stains from use.

    In the last three years, we've been in and out of church doors across the country. I see churches turning cartwheels to attract new members, but my issue is that I think there need to be fewer bells and whistles (artisanal coffee, light shows, guest gifts, hipster speak) and more of a focus on doing church practically and creating a culture of hospitality. I think Timothy Keller's churches are a strong example of how people - even Manhattanites - are hungry for the truth and don't need a hip young pastor and a light show to draw them in.

    I'm guessing that as a pastor's wife, you haven't (for valid reasons) had a recent opportunity to independently choose a place of worship and teaching. I challenge you to poke around a bit and see what you find. It's extremely difficult to find out what's going on in a church beneath the coffee and glamour. Sometimes what's going on is something I can deal with. Other times, a church has deep issues that hinder its growth, or is intent on going in a direction that simply isn't for me.

    What's difficult is how much time it can take to figure out a church's inner culture. All the time spent looking is time not spent getting settled into a small group or Bible study, deciphering where to serve, forming the relationships that ultimately make a church work. It's time spent without community. And the truth is, just as how an editor can look at a book proposal and figure out in a page or two if it's worth continuing, the list I've given above is mostly small things that are strongly indicative of what's going on in the big picture.

    The sad truth is that churches have the power to hurt as well as help, and in fact some of the deepest wounds a Christian can experience can come from a church, often from pastors themselves. Grace is real and needed when dealing with people, but I'm concerned that sometimes we use the idea of grace as an excuse to forgo dealing with problems that are just as real. We do not continue to sin so that grace may abound.

    Am I picky about churches? Absolutely. Without a doubt. But better to be picky and ultimately invest time and energy wisely than to be less choosy and find yourself at a church where no amount of effort or energy results in a healthy spiritual community. Those are the stakes, and it's big. We tell youths to be careful choosing their spouses. Why wouldn't we tell Christians to choose their churches wisely?

  3. Fair enough. Christians should choose their church wisely. However, you must know that a good portion of those who read your blog might not be in a healthy place and may have jumped from church to church to church because no church can meet all of their requirements. That’s not a dig on your readers—I am one of them!--it is just an observation based on church trends in the U.S. So posting a list containing music style, coffee (or tea), and websites could further encourage this shopping mentality.

    I do believe you need to find a church that is a good fit for you and that is about more than presentation. Our God deserves so much more from His people: He deserves genuine praise from His children and unity among them. But there is a difference between finding a good fit in a church and looking for a church that has it all. It seems there is a culture of professional church shoppers arising. And I am not talking about moving and finding a new church home. Nor am I talking about people searching for answers to life’s tough questions. I am talking about Christians who want a church similar to their Starbuck’s beverage of choice: made to order. This is what I speak of and it is not healthy. I don’t think it is a good representation of what Christians and the Church as a whole should be. While we do not continue to sin so that grace may abound—nicely quoted from one of my favorite books of the Bible--the items of music style, coffee and tea, and poor website maintenance generally don’t fall into the category of sin. Finding a home church is about more than just a style that suits us. It should be about seeking the Lord in prayer and asking where we can best serve Him. I really believe the Holy Spirit inhabits us and will direct our steps as we seek Him.

    All that said, I love your writing and your honesty and I am confident I would really like you if I met you in person. Telling the truth in love is an amazing quality—and it is rare. Many people either tell the truth without love or say what they think someone wants to hear in a way that sounds loving but it completely void of truth or love. Thank you for sharing honestly. Also, I apologize for the anonymous post—I didn’t fall into any of the other categories for comments: My name is Stacy. I live in Oregon and could possibly recommend a few good churches in the Portland area. I am a pastor’s wife who loves to dialogue about and find ways to make the Church a better example of the Bride of Christ. Thank you for responding to my first comment!

  4. Hi Hillary! I miss you! I just want to say that even though you're hilarious :p, I see in these thoughts a real desire for church as church is meant to be, genuine, focused on living like Jesus instead of cramming Jesus into modern culture and skin-deep society, and open to everybody. Godspeed on your search!

    I've been to the Bridge (look up Bridge PDX) in Portland if you like garage band worship songs that come out of the experiences of the community and want to hang out with messy people who may or may not drop an F-bomb in church. I'll ask around for other suggestions too.

  5. May I throw in my two cents?

    I sympathize with the pastor's wife. It must be hard dealing with a bunch of very different people, each with their own expectations. But as an experienced church-shopper from way back, I also agree with the sentiments in the blog post.

    I don't have much taste for church shopping - I dislike the concept. But it's such a discouraging process to find a church that, in the words of the pastor's wife, has "a style similar to [my] own". Sometimes style really is what it comes down to. More often, though, it's the substance that is the deciding factor, so I, too, get frustrated trying to figure out if the presentation matches what's going on beneath the surface. And as for being welcoming, there *is* middle ground between ignoring people and making every newcomer a project.

    I also think that churches are trying too hard to be 'culturally relevant' (how's that for a buzzword?). As if Jesus will go out of style. (As if He was ever *in* style...) There is nothing at all wrong with being modern, but when you start bending to the whims of secularism for the sake of attraction... Syncretism is dangerous.

    I'm all for loud music and fancy coffee if that is how you naturally worship and congregate. People once thought hymns were sacreligious, after all. As long as the focus is on God rather than on trying to look 'normal', I don't have a problem with it (though I may choose to go elsewhere if it's a matter of taste).

    One last thought about the relevance movement: In the Bible, God is constantly sending his disciples OUT; why are we so focused on luring people IN?

  6. Oh Hilary, I am not the one with that problem. I totally feel the same (the rabbit look I hate) I totally do the sames things you do (websites r important), but my pb is - i am ready to settle for lesss just not too "church-shop". The Church where I felt at home was the first Baptist in Eugene (where I went to with Kara and her parents). This is the kind of church and congregation i want to find and stay...


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