Friday, February 27, 2009

Lord, to whom shall we go?

Here I sit on a Friday morning, jotting down notes and trying to prepare for Sunday's sermon. The texts are oriented toward baptism, but there is more to consider than just the sacrament. What have people heard recently (from me or others) about baptism? (The Baptism of our Lord was only six weeks ago.) What do potential visitors know about baptism? What can be said about this crucial part of Christian life and practice in a clear, specific way without relying on "code words" or assumptions that everyone knows what I mean? Furthermore, there is the temptation narrative which deserves comment, as well as the beginning of the season of Lent.

One sermon cannot contain everything and woe to the pastor who tries to do that. I wander as I ponder and I came across this article in Slate magazine about church shopping. The article posits that the phenomenon of wandering from congregation to congregation after a few months or a year or so or of rotating between a few congregations is not bad.

One in seven adults changes churches each year, and another one in six attends a handful of churches on a rotating basis, according to the Barna Group, a marketing research firm that serves churches. Church shopping isn't a matter of merely changing congregations: A survey by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life last year indicated that 44 percent of American adults have left their first religious affiliation for another. "Constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace," a survey summary said.

Even if the American mania for shopping extends to our spiritual lives, church shopping still doesn't get much respect. But while it may be frequently derided as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, shopping around can be one of the good things about the way religion is practiced in America.

I wouldn't say the practice is necessarily bad, but I wouldn't characterize it as a good habit either. Certainly one congregation may not meet all your spiritual needs. Why isn't it? Are the services not to your liking? Could you help start an alternate weekly service in a preferred traditional style or with some jazz hymns? Is it the people? Maybe you could teach a class or a special workshop on being welcoming or on conflict-resolution? Is it the theology? If it differs greatly from the denomination's self-understanding, you may well have a valid complaint. If it differs from your own theological understanding, you may also as well.

In some of these cases, moving to a new church may really be your best option.

Church hopping creates some issues as well. Participation in a church is part of the expectation of the life of faith. We cannot be Christians on our own. The Bible calls to us again and again as participants and members of the body of Christ. The fruits of the Spirit that our God-given faith produces are for the benefit of those around us, outside of church and in the pew next to us.

In baptism, for example, in the Lutheran tradition, the parents and godparents of a child make promises toward raising the child in the faith. The whole congregation witnesses these promises and the means by which God pours grace into our lives and also promises to help in the upbringing of another member of the faith.

The article argues that one of the reasons church shopping is good (or effective) is because it removes some of the power from the pulpit to the pews. However, that also happened (or was supposed to have) in the Protestant Reformation. You have the power, through baptism and the Spirit, to transform a congregation, but congregational transformation happens best through people working together in a cooperative and open spirit. This means knowing one another, sharing joys and sorrows, appreciating the history that a congregation has- perhaps existing before any of the current members joined.

Church shopping in a new area is understandable. Church shopping after a few years can happen. However, chronic movement from church to church can undermine the true strength of what a congregation has to offer to one's life of faith. And it's not that you are being deprived of that. You are depriving others of what you have to offer as well.


LoieJ said...

When a person or couple are chronic church shoppers because they are dissatisfied with something at each church, one could look at what is the common denominator in those is that very church shopper!

We need always to remember that "church" is for worshipping God, first, and for what we get out of it, a distant second.

Anonymous said...

I just read this blog post about some negative things about church shopping. I guess since that is what I am doing, I don't agree. Maybe church shopping is the wrong term for me though. It implies that I would buy a church or at least buy into it it I found the "one" I'm looking for. I'm really just looking for happy people in love with the Lord and praising and worshiping him. I want a pastor that teaches the word of God in all its aspects and believes the words of the Bible apply to us today. Luckily, that exists in more than one place. I enjoy seeing how people exercise their faith in different ways and different levels. Currently, I'm less inspired by the denominational experience I've had and more inspired by the Bible based Christians who know how to get on their feet, raise their arms and smile, clap and sing. Despite the negative connotations many people have about TV church, I really enjoy that as well. I can "get into" the music and many of the pastors I have listened to on TV address issues that traditional denominational churches seem to be avoiding. I'm not even sure why "my" church avoids the things I want to hear about. I guess I should ask, but it's easier to find what I want where it is than to find out why it isn't where it isn't. Therefore, I'm not going to quit "church shopping" even though I'm really just window shopping. This isn't meant to address all the issues you raise about church shopping, just give you some reasons why it appeals to me at this time.

Anonymous said...

First, greetings! I just found your blog through a link on a friend's blog, and I have to say your posts and thoughts are very insightful -- keep up the good work!

Second, I just thought maybe I could add a few thoughts to your posts on church hopping. I don't really hop from church to church, but I don't attend churches of the same denomination that I was raised in. For almost thirty years, I attended the same denomination (well, when I attended...but that's another story). There were several churches, but that was because I relocated several times as my dad -- and later, as I -- moved from city to city. However, when I met my wife, she attended a different denomination than I did. To be blunt, 90% (or more) of the churches that believed in the tradition I was raised in were pretty much spiritually dead -- and it was obvious they wanted to stay that way. Change from within? Not likely.

On the other hand, the first time I attended my wife's church there was an obvious and definite feeling of the presence of God. I switched churches and never looked back. For eight years, my wife and I attended that church. When the church started a new service geared towards seekers, we moved from "warming the pews" to becoming actively involved in ministry at the seekers' service. Eventually, I became one of the worship leaders in that service, and my wife also became one of the musicians. Unfortunately, last summer, the church decided to end that service due to a number of financial and other reasons. This time, my wife and I *did* try to effect change from within, but we failed.

We kept attending that church until December when a series of coincidences (okay, I don't believe in coincidences...) led us to another church. Where the church my wife and I had been attending was alive, this new church was quite simply ON FIRE. Once again, we switched churches and never looked back. We have been attending this church for almost four months now, and once again, my wife and I are becoming involved in ministry there. I am being mentored into a youth pastor role, and am on the worship team again. My wife is also helping with the youth team and sometimes participates on the worship team.

I honestly believe that God lead me to my wife's (former) church because there was something He wanted me to learn there: how to worship Him in spirit and in truth. And I believe that He lead my wife and I to this new church because there was something there that He wanted us to learn (doing His work with the power and authority of the Holy Spirit).

In my honest opinion, I believe that there are things that we can learn by visiting other churches from time to time. In fact, the current youth pastor at the church I now attend encourages the kids in the youth group to attend the youth group at other churches as well as the youth services that he leads. However, I also believe it is important to remain grounded in a "home" church and to offer your talents to their ministries.

Anyway, may God bless the work you put your hands to!