Monday, July 9, 2012

Finding a Church

Looking for a Baptist church in Alabama feels a lot like buying cereal at Wal-Mart: no matter what you desire regarding flavor, texture, price, nutritional value, or packaging, you will still have more choices than space in your pantry.

That analogy, however, points to the root of the difficulty I already feel as I look for a church home in Mobile: I don't want my experience finding a church here to look anything like shopping, and yet I find myself approaching the churches here with a rubric that differs only in content, not in design, from my grocery list:

Do they sing the hymns I love?
Do they have stained glass?
Do they have programs designed for my stage of life?
Will I find friends here?

All these questions assume that my own satisfaction is the telos of participation in a church. My very practical carnal self demands that in exchange for my time and tithes, I should expect to receive beautiful windows and a thriving social life. I don't mean to exclude my own happiness, but it ought to be a by-product, not the goal, of participation in a church. God's glory and the communion of saints and the proclamation of good news to the poor seems to be much more important, if I read the Bible rightly.

Introducing new members was one of my favorite tasks as a deacon.
As a person with strong opinions about nearly everything, I can make a fairly detailed list regarding my ideal congregation. I don't think it is wrong for me to have a list, but I'm not sure how much authority this list should have as I visit churches because I've never had to use it before.  I grew up attending the church my parents attended, a church that supported their ministry to college students and was only two blocks away from our home. In college, since I didn't have a car, I attended the Baptist church I could most easily walk to, and I found a loving and challenging community there. In Waco, I visited Calvary upon the recommendation of a friend, and I stayed because people looked me in the eye, called me by name, and said, "God is moving here, and you have work to do." I never even had a chance to make a list before I had fallen in love with that congregation.

I've only visited two churches so far, so perhaps that immediate love and certainty is still waiting for me.  In the meantime, since I can't really escape my need for a list, I am trying to fill it with better questions:

* How involved is the congregation in local and global missions?
* What does their budget say about their understanding of stewardship and justice?
* How do they use their buildings on days other than Sunday? 
* How much Scripture do I hear during worship?
* Is the full congregation involved in leading worship and ministries, or does a small group of ministers run most aspects of church life?
* To what extent does the preaching, teaching, and music balance intellectual and emotional approaches to God?
* Do I want to grow more like the people I meet here?
* What evidence is there of the members' love for one another?
* What sort of language do the ministers and members use about people who do not agree with them on points of doctrine?

What would you add to (or remove from)  my list? How do you keep the quest for a church home from turning into "church shopping"?


  1. Good post, Bethany!-- though it causes me to think about a topic that makes me uncomfortable. I like your shopping analogy. I might narrow it a bit more to choosing a restaurant, ie. Does it serve good food? Are the people friendly? Are the doors open when I want them to be open? Is the building reasonably clean and comfortable? Do some of the clientele look like me? Oh, yuck. I hate to admit to looking at churches the way I look at restaurants. I think your list is very appropriate. I would emphasize the final three questions. The trouble is, knowing the answer to those particular ones takes time. In my last church it took about six years. I hope you will write more about finding a church in the coming months. The longer I live, the less I seem to know about it!

  2. I would change bullet four to "Is the scripture heard during worship rightly handled?" It's not hard to find a church that uses scripture, albeit pasted together out of context like a ransom note.

    Another of my criteria is whether the hymns/songs are doctrinally consistent. Too many churches pick their songs based on whether they like the tune without realizing what the songs are actually teaching.

  3. Highest on my list would be: is the Gospel clearly presented during Sunday morning worship?

  4. We're famous! :) I love this blog post because it speaks to what we were looking for in a church when we came to Waco, of course, then Aaron had the practical list and I wanted beautiful hymns and stained glass windows... Church "shopping" can be hard, but keep at it! When you find the right one, you'll know in your heart that God has brought you there and you'll be amazed at how He fulfills even the smallest things you didn't think you should ask for, but He knew you wanted. I would say just look for a place where the people seek to glorify God on Sundays in worship and every day in between. Chances are, if you find that, everything else on your list will fall into place! We'll be thinking of you as you settle into this aspect and others of a new city! You are dearly missed here at Calvary! ❤

  5. You certainly should have a list, and you have a good one. A few years ago when we moved, my wife and I also compiled a list, though we never did write it down. It was a little different than yours, mainly because we had our children to consider. One of our criteria was that we wanted to attend a church that our children would also enjoy attending, or at least not resent attending.

    We also had to distinguish between non-negotiables and matters of taste. The doctrines of our church are more or less in line with our own, though we disagree on some minor points. Our children do enjoy the services, and we can respect our pastor intellectually. The music, however, is not really to our taste. We've decided that we can live with that.

    Steve S.

  6. I joined Calvary because they fed me three times the first week I was there. Actually, for me Sunday school is one of the primary things.

  7. gtb143@yahoo.comJuly 10, 2012 at 7:52 AM

    I think the first bullet on your list should be:

    What contribution can I make to this congregation if I become a part of them. The church you choose should need you every bit as much as you need them.

  8. Bethany,
    Be sure to visit First Baptist Mobile,

    We will be praying for you as you seek God's leadership in finding the right church.
    (I am a friend of your mom's--from junior high/high school days!)