One of the worst things about moving to a new place has to be the task of finding a new church.
Or actually I should say, one of the worst things for people who grew up in a non-denominational or independent or quasi-independent evangelical church. I can’t tell you how many times throughout this whole process I thought, “Man, this would be so much easier if I was Catholic! ” But in all seriousness, this is the reality of the fractured Body of Christ of which we are all a part: people shop for church like it is car insurance, trying to find a favorite brand or company – or even a custom package.
But there is another side to this coin, or there can be. This doesn’t have to be the way we “church shop.” What if church shopping were less about looking for the ideal product, and more about the diversity of the Body of Christ, and learning about what your own faith?
From my experiences, here are a few thoughts on navigating the church hunt with grace…most of which were learned by trial and error!
1) Start with realistic expectations.
There is no such thing as a “perfect church.” Coming to terms with that reality fast is going to cut down on the pressure and stress of the situation. If you loved your previous church, you will not find one identical to it. If you did not love your previous church, you probably won’t find a church that has everything you’re looking for. If you do find that one church that “clicks,” I guarantee that eventually you will realize something or experience something that makes you frustrated or disappointed. We are imperfect beings, and our flaws are exhibited sometimes in greatest contrast in our communities. That’s part of what being the Body of Christ is: loving one another in spite of our sinfulness. Don’t go in expecting things to be perfect.
2) Start with some criteria.
I know a family that decided going into it that they would only visit three churches. After three churches, they would make a decision. Now that’s a bit excessive for me, but the point is a good one. Start with a set stopping point. Knowing that there isn’t a “perfect church,” decide when you’re going to stop looking for it. Maybe that means deciding to only look within a certain distance from home. Maybe that means doing some Googling ahead of time – making a list of places to check out, and then deciding from that list. Maybe it means setting a certain period of time for the church hunt, and committing to making a decision by the end of that time.
Whatever the stopping point is, the purpose of choosing one is not to have an arbitrary deadline. Church shopping is a hard process – the times I have spent without a proper church home have always coincided with some of the driest times in my spiritual life. During this last stage of Church shopping, I don’t think I realized how much of a role in my spiritual stalemate my lack of a church had. It was not until I found a church and drank deeply that I realized how hard it was to live off only sips. No church is perfect, but Christianity is a faith that can only be lived in a community – in spite of and including the inevitable imperfections. Don’t let yourself be separated from this kind of community for too long.
3) Use this as an opportunity to learn.
There is an incredible diversity in the Body of Christ, but most Christians never experience anything beyond their own tradition. Don’t let this be true of you. Try something new. Church shopping is a remarkable opportunity to experience churches and church traditions that are unfamiliar and possibly out of your comfort zone. Embrace that as a chance to learn more about the Church – one, catholic, and apostolic. Who knows? The experience might even open your eyes to God in a new way.
4) Identify things that you like and appreciate in the churches you visit.
As I was visiting churches to look for a new church home, I realized something about myself, very much to my chagrin. I found that I was developing a tendency to be very critical and disparaging, I might even say judgmental, of some of the churches that I visited. Though there is certainly a good and necessary element of critiquing that one must do while looking for a church, there is a difference between thinking critically and being critical. Churches are not perfect. There may be churches you will visit with which you have significant disagreements. There are certainly some valid critiques and even criticisms that could be applied to churches you will visit. But do not forget that these are your brothers and sisters in Christ. (Believe me, sometimes I have the hardest time reminding myself of this. Some churches just make me want to *grumblegrumblegrumble*.)
A tool that has helped me counter my tendency toward fault-finding is to intentionally identify things that I value in the church I have visited. Whether it be the friendly welcome that was offered, or the music, or the nice family down the aisle, focusing on the good has helped me to better walk the line between analyzing and judging.
5) Figure out what your deal-breakers are.
The above being said, it is completely valid to have disagreements with a church, whether that be in theology or leadership or practice. This time is an opportunity to figure out what your deal-breakers are – to figure out what you think is important and essential. This can be a chance to gain some eye-opening self-awareness, and can teach you a lot about your own faith. Sometimes, you don’t realize something is important until it’s gone.
6) Listen for the Spirit.
There may not be a “lightning” moment; there may not be any kind of moment. There doesn’t have to be one. But let this be a meditative process. If God does have a specific place for you, let him guide you to it.