This post is the first of two about the popular western Church concept of church shopping. In Part One, I’ll lay down a quick theology of the Church, with some philosophical thoughts about how to think about engaging the Body of Christ. Part Two — posting on April 1 — will offer some spiritually practical principles to guide the activity that is church shopping.
“Good morning, my name is Jay.”
“Hi there. I’m Paul; this is my wife Julia and our two girls Madison and Maggie.”
“So nice to to meet you. Where you folks from?”
“We’re from out of town and recently moved to this area. We’re church shopping.”
Ugh. What a tough spot, and what a terribly awful phrase: church shopping. It conjures this crazy image of people walking through a strip mall of side-by-side churches with a shopping list in their hands. Each church they enter has the expectation to meet the things on that list and whichever church can most complete, or hopefully even exceed, the expectations on the list wins that family’s participation in its church life.
This is deceptively unwise at best and insanely narcissistic at worst. The phrase “church shopping” has to go.
Before getting to some principles of initially engaging a local Body of worshippers, understanding the nature and purpose of the Church is important. Acts 1.8 provides a paradigm for understanding the nature and revelation of Christ’s body on earth:
But you shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria and to the uttermost part of the earth.
The Church has four expressions by which it declares its witness: the Church local (Jerusalem), the Church regional (Judea), the Church national (Judea/Samaria), and the Church universal (the uttermost part of the earth). Not only is the Church — as expressed geographically — simultaneously specific and broad, but there is also Hebrews 11 & 12 which describe us as being connected in the New Covenant to believers throughout all history. The Church is a for-all-time-and-everywhere-all-followers-of-Jesus type of organism. In God’s economy outside of time, you are in the Church with all believers forever — Moses, Paul, Sarah, Rahab, David, John, Mary, Augustine, Martin Luther, Mother Theresa, etc. These and countless others are your brothers and sisters, your spiritual family (spiritual mothers and fathers, even) whom you are called to honor.
The Church is thought of pictorially in Scripture three ways: a Family, a Body and and a Bride. In the Family picture, God is Father, Jesus is His firstborn Son, we are fully adopted sons with Christ, He is our older brother and the Holy Spirit joins us all together in His mercy and grace. In the Body picture, He is the head, we are the members. In the Bride picture, He is the bridegroom, we are His great love. In all three of these pictures, God is the head and it is our role to esteem and glorify Him as the head, “that in all things He might have supremacy”.
Which brings us to this most basic statement about you finding and being part of a local church: it’s not about you.
The church exists to glorify Christ, to elevate and esteem His beauty and glory above all things. When you are looking for a local church, that should be your primary concern. What you like or don’t like is not the point. The key question is: does this church elevate and esteem the beauty and glory of Jesus above all things?
In Matthew 16, Jesus declared that He would “build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it” before “the Church” as we think of it had ever been invented. What He declared He would build did not yet exist, certainly not anything even close to a building. The Church is the people of God everywhere for all time. It is also the people of God in the country you are from and it is the people of God in the region in which you live and it is the people of God in the local churches that are in your city and it is the people of God whom you join with on Sundays to corporately worship God.
A family…many children, one Father.
A body…many members, one Head.
A bride…the corporate wedding feast of the Lamb.
This is not about you. It is about we. We centered on Christ.
It is not about you getting fed or your needs getting met or you thinking the sermon is interesting or you enjoying the worship or your kids having fun or your opinion of the building or if you fit into the demographic or you thinking it’s cool or you finding a place to serve or you anything at all. The whole point of the book of James is to call the people of God to stop fragmenting and focusing on themselves and start loving and caring for one another. Church shopping is too often an excuse to appease myself and avoid taking up my full role in the Body of Christ.
Some folks have experienced true wounding or hurt that has been received from a local church experience, a “wolves among sheep” situation — a heretic in the pulpit, racial discrimination by the ethnic majority, spiritual rape, a church who will not expel a Jezebel, an authoritarian false prophet in leadership, leaders who embrace witchcraft, etc. I have witnessed that, and experienced the ministry and healing God has for people who have experienced those unique situations.
More often than not, though, people who claim they have been hurt by “the Church” and thus have a self-justified reason to stand at a distance from it, have in actuality been hurt by one or two people, or a social clique. Rather than walk through a process of confrontation and reconciliation, they harbor the hurt and blame the Body of Christ. Or when they have tried confrontation and reconciliation, they are rebuffed, scoffed at or not shepherded through it, and rather than forgiving as they have been forgiven, they harbor unforgiveness in their heart which turns to bitterness and their chosen object of emotional release becomes the Church.
A lot of Christians use church shopping as a way to never submit themselves to a local Body of Christ and the leadership and relationships therein. In my observation, people — especially young people — are looking for:
— the perfect church (which they ruin when they find it) or
— they have “issues” with “the Church” (keeping them critical of it and separated rather than listening to it and working to help it) or
— they get lazy/complacent (ceasing the hard work of waiting on God and following His voice) or
— they start attending a local church and hold themselves at a distance while they “discern” if that is God’s place for them.
I’m all for a space of discernment — at the church I pastor we ask people to wait six months before becoming a member or joining a ministry of some kind — but some folks just keep themselves at a distance, consuming the worship service and ministry of that local body without investing in and contributing to the work.
That’s not to say that any of these things listed is not legit. They very well may be. The western church is deeply, deeply broken. I’m not sure Jesus had much of what we have become in mind when He birthed this whole thing. Anyone can point out a problem, but it takes humility, teachability and meekness to enter the mess and be a part of building something better.
In my opinion, all of these things become distracting and miss the biggest thing you should be discerning as you seek a local church home:
Love God, love others…that is what you are looking for when seeking a local church.
Is this a people that is corporately loving God and seeking to deepen their love toward Him?
Is this a people who are growing in love for one another and their neighbors?
If those two things are the hallmarks of a local congregation, then that is a people with whom you can be who God made you to be.
When the first and second commandment are at work in a local church, it produces an ethos you can feel with heart and that melds with your spirit, if you too are grounded on the two great commandments. If a church loves God and loves others, it doesn’t matter if the worship is traditional or contemporary, if the pastor is a great preacher, if there are a lot of small groups, if the church is big or small, if the children’s ministry runs like a well-oiled machine, if the building is modern or not, or any plethora of other things we have idolatrously made being part of the Church about.
The presence of God, His love, and a local congregation’s love for Him is unmistakable.
I understand, you want to be in a local church where God wants you to be and that means on some level, no matter how broken the process may be, you will have to visit some churches and figure out where God wants you. Stay tuned for Church Shopping Pt2, posting on April 1. In the meantime, a blessing:
God bless you, my brothers and sisters, as you pursue His plans for you and your part in His Body. May you walk in wisdom and grace, seeking in all things the greatness of Christ, increasing the beauty of His Bride and advancing the work of His Kingdom. May you know that you matter and you are a uniquely integral part of the grand plan of God that is redemption through Jesus. Amen.