Since I argued in a previous post that “church shopping” is not necessarily evil, and is perhaps necessary, the next question becomes how to do it. I see several options, most of which I have tried or heard reports from numerous other people who have tried. This post is less of an argument regarding rights and wrongs than a clearinghouse of pros and cons.
First, a few factors to weigh as one attempts to discern where God is calling one to serve:
Fidelity to God: While this can be a matter of denominational structures, it is always also a question of local congregations. Some congregations strike us as very committed to obeying God; others may appear to a visitor already as committed to going their own way despite God. Most congregations just strike a visitor as unfamiliar and requiring some getting to know. We need to remember, of course, that we can’t read people’s hearts.
Proximity: The closer the congregation, the more time can be spent there, or serving with them, or on really anything other than traveling. To take an extreme case, I doubt God usually calls people to drive a whole day to go to church. Proximity is a good thing (you might call it the “parish model”) so sometimes one might be tempted to pick “whatever’s the closest church” and go with that, but proximity is not the only thing.
Opportunities to grow: The church should help guide us in our spiritual growth, and this consideration can cut both ways. On the one hand, to grow with people we need to be able to trust them a certain amount, to be comfortable around them rather than always on our guard. On the other hand, to grow spiritually we can’t get so comfortable we fall asleep! A congregation which gives us opportunities to grow will ideally be “on our side” and yet will challenge us to draw closer to God. For laypeople like me, I prefer if the challenging comes through the spiritual discernment of a mature shepherd, but often the impetus to draw closer to God can be unintentionally provided by a congregation.
Opportunities to serve: The goal of church shopping is to discern where God wants us to serve him. That might look like serving the congregation itself, or it might look like serving the broader community with the other Christians there. The hardest place to serve is a congregation whose every need is already met and which does not meet anyone else’s needs, because it takes real ingenuity (and perhaps provocation) in order to find a way to serve God in that context. Although perhaps even there, the services could provide the spiritual nourishment for one to go serve elsewhere…
Loving God and loving neighbors: Jesus called these the two greatest commands, after all. It’s often hard to discern this after a single visit, but this should encapsulate much of what went before. Loving God leads to obedience. It also leads to a desire for spiritual growth which can be infectious, and a desire to serve his people. Loving one’s neighbors often requires spiritual growth (it’s always easiest in the abstract and at a safe distance), and should lead to opportunities to serve them.
Presence of the Holy Spirit: This is the hardest to discern, but is also the defining characteristic of the Church. Jesus promised to send “another Comforter, so that he will be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16-17). Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that you people are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). Irenaeus wrote, “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace” (AH III.24.1). But how do we discern the presence of the Spirit? I think some people have a spiritual gift for discerning the spirits, which certainly helps. The presence of the Spirit should lead to the fruits of the Spirit enumerated by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23. We can pray for God to reveal the presence of his Spirit. But beyond that, we are fallen human beings with limited spiritual perception.
A perfect congregation would have all of the possible benefits listed here (with the exception of proximity to everyone, of course, which is a divine prerogative). But real congregations are necessarily mixed bags, in the process of redemption, and in order to worship God in his Church we typically need to do so among other sinners like ourselves. It is even possible that God might call us to summon a straying congregation back to himself, although we must be very careful of the danger of pride which such a belief can lead to. So in general, it is safer to prefer congregations which are holier than I am already, if such can be found, without demanding perfection.
No doubt I’m missing several other relevant factors, which readers are more than welcome to remind me about.
Tactics and Strategies
I do: Pray about it, pick one local church, and stick with it no matter what. This approach has the benefit that no one can accuse you of fickleness. It has the downside that, unless your discernment in prayer is remarkably inerrant, it could get very difficult indeed; bad church experiences even sometimes drive people out of the Church. So one might legitimately worry about the danger of “guessing wrong.”
I’m on a roll: Pray about it, pick one local church, and try to make it work for a period of time, perhaps several weeks or several months, but if it just isn’t “working,” then repeat the process with a different church. The danger here is that “not working” can simply mean discomfort, and, as I suggested elsewhere, discomfort is a necessary part of redemption. This approach requires a definition of “not working” which is not simply self-serving, and that can be hard to formulate. The benefit is that you may start growing in a local congregation very soon after moving.
Survey the landscape first: Spend some initial time prayerfully “bouncing around” from one local church to another, seeing how different congregations do things differently in this region, before prayerfully committing to one particular group. Here I see the dangers of bouncing around too long and of focusing too much on externals. Visiting a different church each week is, I suspect for most people, not a good recipe for spiritual growth. And it can lead to an “informed consumer” mentality which tallies up the pros and cons of each congregation visited. Such a mentality loses sight both of the fact that the most important qualities of any church, the characteristics for which God will praise them eternally, are not immediately visible, and that churches are not primarily places for us to consider the pros and cons of, but are places for us to worship. As to benefits, if one keeps these more important points in mind, one gets to meet a wider range of local Christians than a single congregation, and can then pray more intelligently for a larger portion of the Church. This approach also allows the visitor to distinguish whether any particular difficulty subsequently encountered in a congregation is likely to be the same at any church in this region (people wearing cowboy boots to church) or is distinctive of this particular group.
Other suggestions for strategies of “church shopping”? Each of these approaches has its benefits, but also its drawbacks and dangers. The most important piece of each of these approaches cannot be emphasized enough: pray about it!