Church Hunting

Church Hunting: The process of visiting a number of churches, looking for the one you will commit to attending (the one you will call your home church). A sort of rite-of-passage for the young evangelical, particularly overwhelming if you’ve attended one church for your whole life.

Note: This is Part 1 of a short series (to be continued on Thursday), so don’t despair if the ending is totally depressing.

You begin with a certain amount of enthusiasm. Curled hair and your special-occasion eyeshadow and hope.

If you’re Type A, like me, you’ve created a spreadsheet. You’ve done research. You’ve clicked into church websites to get a feel for their mission, their programs, their heart. You’ve written down addresses and service times, and you’re walking tall in your trying-hard-to-be-cute heels.

You know how it goes: shake the hands of the greeters, stop by the welcome desk to introduce yourself. Drink the coffee, smile at the children, sing along with the songs projected on the screens. Clap on the beat. Stand. Sit. Stand again.

You know how it goes.

You’re not sure, exactly, what you’re expecting when you walk through those big church doors, but you can feel the absence of it heavy against you. The church bulletin lists half a dozen Ways to Get Involved, and it makes you tired in a way you can’t articulate.

People are friendly, but their questions skim the shallows of your life—job, family, current residence—and then stop. You wonder how long it will take to move from the ankle-deep of acquaintance to that all-the-way-in, sink-or-swim-together kind of relationship that you crave. Friendship and sisterhood and brotherhood and family.

Once at a youth group overnight, you slept on a trampoline in someone’s yard with half a dozen other girls. Your feet formed the center heart, your bodies angling out like tire spokes, evenly spaced. Above you, the stars were close and bright and you laughed until your throat felt hoarse and your nose was cold and you drifted off to sleep.

You still feel that, still feel those times in college when you sat up all night with your friends, high on caffeine, on the sharp bitterness of your first black coffee, on all these new ideas about God. Conversation charged like electricity, and you were a string of Christmas lights, linked together by that high power.

But the church bulletins of a dozen churches accumulate at the bottom of your bag. You stop curling your hair, give up on your pretty heels. It is tedious and long, this search for a group of Christians that will become your Christians. You weren’t expecting that.

There are so many churches. They rise up from so many corners, from strip malls, from great fields that would be empty but for the big new building and its glassy black parking lot. So many churches, but also, never the one you’re looking for. Never the church you have in your head, the one where you fit like a puzzle piece.

And there are those who would say that you are just part of a generation of wanderers. That this is an epidemic, that your discontent is, at its root, selfish. You just want to be catered to, they suggest. You want to be entertained.

But I know. This is not really what you’re asking for – slick programs and fog machines and espresso.

I know that when you say “community,” it’s not a vague concept. It has faces that you can still see and voices that you can almost hear and the distinct smell of old popcorn. You’re not sure, to be honest, what the grown-up version of this is, but you’re pretty sure it’s not the Women’s Breakfast and Coupon-Clipping Seminar in the bulletin.

You tick down the list of churches. Get up Sunday morning after Sunday morning until one week, you turn off the alarm clock. Abandon, for now, the hunt. Sleep in.

33 thoughts on “Church Hunting

  1. Beautiful way to describe the process… my family despaired a lot more quickly than you did!
    Although, I have to say… walking into a church the first Sunday and finding people who are instantly trying to create “all-the-way-in, sink-or-swim” community on the first conversation is equally unnerving and discouraging. That sort of community is waded into… from the ankles to the knees tentatively to the waist. You can’t just dive in… for whatever “adult” reason…

    1. That is so true. It’s the kind of thing that can’t be instantly, microwave-ready, and trying to make it so feels just as false and hollow as never moving in that direction at all.

  2. I feel sorry for most church visitors. I hate the embarrassment they endure in our efforts to “welcome” them, I empathize with their frustration at the assumption that they are “out of the will of God” or that they’re only there because of their kids, and all that. I pity them for the stress they endure over how to dress, how their kids should act, and which version of the Bible they’re allowed to carry. I understand that they don’t even KNOW the songs, and they also know that they can’t put too much out there for the regulars to sink their teeth into.

    It’s a tricky dance, from both sides of the fence. There are MANY compromises.

    1. Agreed, Bernard. Having been that new person too many times to count, I can remember the discomfort of it all. Still experience it sometimes even in my home church. But more on that later. 🙂

  3. I always feel bad for visitors to my church. They always show up on days when the pastor is either preaching something REALLY controversial, or he cusses. Or people ask questions. In the middle of the sermon. Yeah, we’re weird.

  4. Beautifully described. I turned the alarm clock off for a while, then tried again and finally found a place. I’m moving 800 miles in a few months and don’t look forward to the process again.

    For me. Introvert that I am, I am more than willing to “jump in” to all those ways to be “connected” because I know it’s that youth-group-esque community I’m looking for, I stop turning on the alarm clock when my efforts are met with no response, no engagement, nothing deeper than the shallow conversation even when I put forth the effort as the new person all alone.

    I’m so thankful that I’ve even blessed to be a part of a church for the past two years that actively embraces people who want to jump in.

    1. So hard to work up the energy to jump back into the uncomfortable unfamiliarity of that stage of life. I hope it is an incredibly positive process for you this time around!

      I was nodding right along with you when you talked about jumping in and making those efforts and how disappointing and frustrating it is when STILL you feel no engagement. I think that much of my church-hunt-pain has come from that very thing.

  5. The few times we have visited churches it seems that it is always the yearly “stewardship” sermon (oooh there’s a good word for you). We now live rather close to my childhood church, and we could attend it, but now it has been so long that not only does it feel like a “new church visit” when we attend, we also get the “haven’t seen you in a while” greetings. I’m sure they mean well, but it feels like “why haven’t you been here”.

    I wonder also if you might comment on changing denominations? I know I’m not LCMS anymore, but how on earth do you find out which of the thousand denominations shares your dogma? I tend to believe that community churches don’t count, because if you don’t have dogma, then you aren’t discussing deep enough issues. I highly doubt there’s a church that I agree with, makes the process even more difficult. Sigh.

    1. Yes! The stewardship sermons. Welcome, friend. Let’s talk about how much money you should REALLY be giving us… 🙂

      Denominations is a Huge topic, but I promise to tuck it away and think on it for a while. I love what you said about doubting that there’s a church out there that you totally agree with and how difficult that makes things. I feel that weight too. Thanks for the comment!

  6. “Church Shopping”

    The Phrase literally makes my stomach turn over. The eggs I just finished eating for breakfast feel like they are coming back up even as I write this response.

    I’m not sure 2 postings are enough to cover all the problems, issues and scenarios attached to the above statements, but Im excited to see you try.

    Here’s my perspective as a local church pastor that regularly discourages “church shoppers,” from connecting with our community, or at least do my best to communicate that if you are coming to meet a felt need that your last church couldn’t fulfill, you will come up empty handed here too.

    The bigger picture question here is really about what corporate gathering is really about, but I’ll save that for another time and just address this.

    First of all, your assumption that most people seeking out a church really want deep community, in my experience, just isn’t true. My experience is that community is a learned skill. If a person is good at community, understands it, values it, and longs for it, they will not necessarily need a church to help them create it. Those people make community everywhere they go. Those people are part of book clubs, beer brewing clubs, on the PTA, create Bunco nights with the neighbors, etc. Not because they have to, but because they see the value in living life with people. Most people (not all), have a very skewed idea of community, and what creates it, especially Christians! We have house groups, tidy’s the house never before seen perfection, making goodies they have never made before, putting on a show for their guests, “This is what our lives always look like.” Our relationships begin on false pretenses of perfection and avoid the inconvenient and obvious reality we are not by saying things like, “No one’s perfect,” thereby avoiding the most meaningful and community forming question of all… “So what is your imperfection?” Deep theological discussions around a coffee table in someone’s living room with 4 other couples doesn’t create community. Taking the risk of opening your heart, sharing your mess, and letting others love the broken parts of your life is one of 2 things that creates real community. Singing songs together doesn’t do it, attending bible studies doesn’t do it, throwing parties, having potlucks, etc will have no shot at creating real community, in fact I would say those things have been created, maybe not intentionally, to outright avoid community altogether.

    2 things… giving up your mess, and suffering together are the only things that create deep relationships. Try leading with those 2 things and see how many people stick around and stay connected. Community is hard because it requires risk and sacrifice to cultivate it in a world that is set against its existence.

    Ok, this became a rambling mess of thoughts that haven’t been composed very well. The point I really wanted to make is that if you are a person who goes to a new church and leaves disappointed at a lack of depth of relationship, I am nearly certain you are in the vast minority. People give lip service to that pursuit, but most church shoppers are looking to have their needs met, not looking for how to meet others needs.

    ok, im done for now. Sorry I threw up on your blog 🙂

    1. Jake, so much of what you wrote strikes a chord with me. I especially loved this line: “Deep theological discussions around a coffee table in someone’s living room with 4 other couples doesn’t create community.” How true that is, and yet I still find myself trying to get there that way. “Giving up the mess and suffering,” what a unique, true pairing that is. And how difficult to understand, because it’s not something that you can turn into a program and mass produce.

      You’re also probably right about the motives of many people that engage in “church hunting” or “church shopping” or whatever. And yet, I have also seen the weight of loneliness in myself and in others. In my own church search (which I’ll talk about more in future posts), the type of community I was looking for wasn’t the kind that I could find in Bunco nights. At that time in my life, faith felt like a very heavy thing to carry alone, and I needed people in my life who could help hold me up.

      When I say “community,” here, I don’t mean necessarily that fuzzy feeling from hanging out with people you just really love. I mean that sense that Christ is in these people in this place, that he is looking at you through their eyes, that both He and they are truly SEEING you.

      I think that, yes, there are people who are just looking for what best fits their personality type and preferences, and that sometimes that can get all tangled up in this idea of “community.” But I also think that there are people who are looking for something that feels honest and are instead finding things that feel contrived. Myself among them.

      (And if that’s your version of throwing up, feel free to barf here anytime.)

      1. You’re right Addie, the concept of real, Christ center community is different then Bunco nights. Here is my point with that stuff though…

        My largest hurdle to get people over in an attempt to develop real Christ following, people living, grace giving, kingdom minded people, is simply wrapped up in re-teaching people how to have friends. Its crazy how our culture sets us all up to isolate…ie, the attached garage. Close personal relationships in any context are difficult when our surroundings and culture values isolation. People who value community, meaning real relationships that have real meaning will do that everywhere they go, because they love people. That’s the key, understanding that life works better with people. Always. You don’t need a church to create community for you. People want to talk, about real things, life, faith, etc. We just have to break through the isolation and fear of rejection and just decide having deep relationships is worth the fear of rejection. Truth is, the “world” is better at relationships than most Christians!

        We gotta change that.

  7. The hubby and I are about to embark on this very adventure; we absolutely love the folks in our current church, but have some significant theological differences (that frequently end in me crying on the way home from church). So this post really resonated with me as we begin our hunt. Thank you, and looking forward to your next post!

    P.S. I have a beautiful spreadsheet you’d be proud of. 🙂

    1. Oh Laura, I know that crying-on-the-way-home-from-church feeling so well. Thanks for sharing. I hope that between your spreadsheet and the amazing grace and goodness of God, you are led to the place that you need and that needs you.

  8. What’s funny is that everywhere I’ve moved (and it’s been A LOT), I’ve done the spreadsheet, type A thing, and every time, I’ve found a place to call home.

    BUT this time, my big move to Texas from New York, I moved here because of one sermon from one church. I didn’t care how far from home it was taking me, or the fact that it was taking me to DFW (which I hated), or about a job, or a home, or whether I’d find community, or anything. I was just so desperate for the gospel, unadulterated gospel, no frills, no list of to-dos, nothing, just straight gospel. That sermon had it and I was hooked.

    Best church decision of my life. No coffee corners, no frills, no flashy programs, no shiny marketing, hardly even a church sign! But in these doors are broken, broken people who love grace and love the gospel and love each other. It’s powerful.

    I love everything you write, I know I tell you that a lot, but thanks for your faithfulness =)

    1. Love that, Lore. I’ve often thought that if we move again, I want to first find the church and then the house, not the other way around. It feels important to me to live near to that place. I love that you did that, just picked up and went where your heart needed to be, and then built a life around it.

  9. Been there. As much as some might complain about the shallowness of “church shopping,” I’ve found results that were deep. Sure, 100 years ago you went to the church that was less than a half hour walk (or buggy ride) away. I don’t live 100 years ago. When I church shop, I have my list of preferences, which include proximity to where I live so that if it comes up in conversation with neighbors, they know where in the world the church is. I’ve been lucky (oops, how unevangelical of me; I’ve been blessed) the last two moves I’ve made to find my church home within easy bicycling distance (about two miles). Location wasn’t the only thing on my list. One thing on the list was meaningful, relevant preaching low on cliches. Another was low-church and non-liturgical. Another was well-performed (I am so shallow) contemporary music with a good sound-board person (not like playing the Cure “Disintegration” CD where the louder is the better). Another was having an outward, local-service focus. Another was having a full range of ages attending and participating. I don’t know if I had a top or trump item on the list (unless, shallow again, I can say “it has to feel right to me”). The two most recent finds were ones I stumbled across when I was past the end of the list I had made from the yellow pages and the internet, after my wife was tired and discouraged, and said “why don’t you visit ______ by yourself and give me a report; I just can’t stand to visit another.” I’ll name names: in St. Paul, MN it was enCompass; in DeWitt, MI it is Redeemer.

    1. Glad that you’ve found places that you’ve liked, Eric. Some of the things on your list really resonated with me and with what I want church to be; others felt less important to me.

      I think that at it’s heart, your list speaks to the way that you feel nearest to God, and that you’re searching for the version of him that you recognize. I think that’s okay, necessary at times, great at other times. But I also think that there’s this mysterious, wild-card aspect to God where the thing he wants to give to you is not the thing that you think you want or need. Sometimes the most life-giving things are the ones that look nothing like you expected.

  10. My wife and I shopped for churches for a year and a half. Sometimes trying a new place every week, other times sticking around for two months. Eventually we got tired of it and gave up. Lately we’ve found a place we think we can fit in at. I’ve put my cynicism aside long enough to find people that seem to care and remember how to spell my name after telling them once. Little things like that are all I really look for. I want to belong. Other things are just a bonus.

    1. I feel that same way: wanting to belong, struggling with cynicism that has built up over time. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story.

    1. Yes. It doesn’t really help that Sundays only come once a week so it really takes a long time to sort of figure it out. Bleh. (Glad you found a place.)

  11. We have been going through our own struggles with this issue. Finding a place to connect with people in some way. We would even give up a lot of ground on the theology of the church if we could just feel connected. But that connection is hard. After you join, people start to tell you “we need to get together sometime.” This magic sometime that never comes to pass. When you bring it up again, they just say “yeah, I am busy this week, but I’ll get back to you sometime when things clear up.” Once again, that magic sometime.

    Then comes the passive attempts to make you feel part of the “family.” “If you need anything, let me know.” “If you want to hang out, let me know.” We live in society where no one lets you know anything – we all suffer in silence. And the person saying “let me know” knows full well that you won’t – but if some kind of problem crops up in your life, they will pull that out and say “I told you to tell me and you never did.” Well, you and three thousand others I know have all said the same thing, to “let them know” – how am I supposed to know who means it and who doesn’t? Its all a game really… people say “let me know” just to make themselves feel better, not to offer a real hand of friendship most of the time. I know that is why I have said it in the past. We do our duty to offer a hand of friendship – a generic, passive, uninterested gesture that we give to who knows how many people every week – and then go our own ways.

    Somehow, I think Jesus did it differently. He didn’t say “I can hang out sometime – let me know.” He said “Come, follow me.” In other words, let’s get this done right now. Let’s connect and walk together right now, not at some random “sometime” in the future.

    1. Thoughtful and true words, Matt. This American way of never really having enough time to be with people has absolutely infected church communities too, and you find yourself often feeling like just another thing on someone’s list. I know I am not blameless here either; I have done it to others without meaning to.

      Love, love, love what you said about Jesus and the instantaneous aspect of his relationships. Everything here, now. Beautiful.

  12. I’m a big planner, but for some reason I have never church shopped. Never. Each time I have moved to a new town I ended up at a specific church (the first one I set foot in) because it somehow just fell into my lap—it seemed like the one to go to because someone I knew told me about it, or it was in a certain location, etc.

    I’m not saying that’s always going to work for everyone, but I do think it takes some of the pressure off whatever church you end up at. When you do research and try out church after church, comparing the results with a check list, your expectations rise with each and every hour you put into the hunt. By the time you pick a church, it has SO much to live up to because you’ve invested so much in the process!

    But when a church is just there, and you decided to just go Sunday after Sunday, to see what happens, you somehow take on some of the responsibility. It’s a bit like not asking what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. 🙂 Because no matter what, it’s going to take time and commitment and involvement before it can even start to feel like the place you’ve imagined—before you can “…move from the ankle-deep of acquaintance to that all-the-way-in, sink-or-swim-together kind of relationship that you crave.” (You described that feeling perfectly, btw!)

    1. You are a lucky girl (wait–no–blessed?) I’ll share more of my story in the next post or two, but I think that the hardest part for me in the “church hunt” was when we’d go Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, dive way deep in, and still never really feel that sense of belonging.

      I think a lot depends on where you’re at in your heart, your life, your own spiritual landscape. If you’re in a good place, you have the energy and the sustainability to sort of wait it out, to give until you receive. But if you come a little broken, a little wrecked, a little empty, it makes it kind of hard. I remember feeling so tired, feeling a little like I was being asked to prove myself, my worth as a Christian, by doing all sorts of stuff. (Not that people intended to communicate that, but it was how I interpreted it from that dark place.)

      I’m not saying that you’re wrong at all or that my experience is even all that common. I’m just saying that there is so much complexity here, so many ways we don’t SEE each other. So much capacity for love and also for pain…like most worthwhile things.

  13. As someone who attends a liturgical church, I’ve recently learned the importance of this church-hunting process, arduous as it sometimes can be. I came from an Episcopal church that was home. Everyone knew me, and I knew everyone. I was involved in every ministry from choir to youth group to missions to outreach. I felt enveloped. When I moved away to college, I was delighted to discover that the local Episcopal church was only a few minutes from my apartment! We’re Episcopalians; how different can the liturgy be between different churches? I jumped in feet-first, joining the choir and asking if this huge, gorgeous church facility had ever thought about hosting the regional youth conference. That’s how you build community, right? A year of attending regularly later, and people still asked if I was new. The priest could never remember my name. I had no one I could really call a friend. Then someone invited me to an Episcopal mission church, roughly 40 minutes away. A congregation of 50 or so. From day 1, people remembered not only my name, but also my major, my boyfriend’s name, his major, and what city I came from. The congregation and vicar were delighted to have me, and I instantly felt that sense of home I’d been missing. I helped form their imperfect-but-joyful choir, and shed many tears when I graduated and had to move back in with my parents.
    Last August I moved again, to a different state. In my new city, there are 3 Episcopal churches. Remembering my previous naive folly of jumping into the closest one, I vowed to attend at least two services at each before I made my decision. I would have been happy at any of them, but the one I eventually chose just felt…right. The priest’s wife sat next to me during church and asked if I was a visitor, and if I’d been to an Episcopal church before (our traditions can be overwhelming to newcomers sometimes). The ushers gave me a small bottle of olive oil from the Holy Land as a welcome gift. The priest invited me out for coffee. None of it seemed overwhelming or cloying; I felt taken care of and desired as one of God’s children.
    My point is that the process of finding a church that fits you is hard. Sometimes excruciating. But it’s so worth it.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story Stacy. I would certainly agree that while no church is perfect, there are places that “fit” us better than others. How wonderful and complicated and difficult that we are all made so uniquely, that no one thing touches us all in the same way.

  14. check jw.org if you’re still “shopping”… no charge for anything, volunteer bible education community. The websites actually pretty awesome at explaining basic beliefs, and what we’re up to…

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