Church-shopping. ’Cause sometimes you need a new church.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 May

Know what to look for when you’re considering a move.

Church-shop /'tʃərtʃ.ʃɑp/ v. Look for the best available church.
[Church-shopper, /'tʃərtʃ.ʃɑp.pər/ vt., church-shopping /'tʃərtʃ.ʃɑp.pɪŋ/ vt.]

If you haven’t been going to church, or never did go to church, it’s time to start.

And at certain times in a Christian’s life, we’re gonna have to go to another church. Sometimes for good reason; sometimes not. In my case it’s usually because I moved to a new city, although twice it’s been because the church went wrong.

In any event, Christians decide to begin a process we Americans call “church-shopping.” We visit a new church and try it on for size. If we like it, we stick around. If not, we move along and try another.

It’s not a complicated idea. It only gets complicated because certain Christians are extremely choosy about their churches. And there are other Christians who are convinced church-shopping is fundamentally wrong. Even devilish.

Devilish? Yeah; it’s because they read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Namely where senior devil Screwtape advises a junior devil to encourage what sounds an awful lot like church-shopping. If a person must go to church, “the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him,” which “makes the man a critic where [God] wants him to be a pupil.” Letter XVI We’re no experts on what makes one church better than another. We’ll wind up using silly, superficial criteria to judge. How dare we?

Well, here’s how dare we: You’ve got a brain, don’t you? You can learn how to gauge a church on meaningful, weighty criteria. Ain’t that difficult. Those who insist we leave all the thinking to experts, have a really bad habit of doing very little thinking, and as a result fall prey to a whole lot of false teachers and legalists. Ignore them; they have their own problems.

For most Christians, church-shopping isn’t at all complicated. There’s a church in town they’ve either visited, and wouldn’t mind visiting again; or a church they’ve never tried, but they’re curious about it, and would like to give it a shot. They go. They like it. They stay. Simple.

For other Christians, church-shopping is an incredible trial. They go to a church for a few months: They get involved, get to know the people, even try to minister or join or get into leadership. Then they discover the dealbreakers. And they’re just heartbroken, and leave. They’ve been church-shopping for years, and haven’t found a church home yet. Just about every church in town—heck, the county—has met these folks: “Yeah, they went here for five months. So they’re at your church now? Well, glad they’re somewhere. I always wondered.”

I gotta tell you, though: If you’ve gone through 25 different churches in the area and can’t stay in a single one, it’s not the churches which are the problem. It’s you.

Not a church-shopper; a church-hopper.

Screwtape advised that junior devil to make his subject “a connoisseur of churches.” Such people go to church because they correctly know Jesus wants us plugged into one. But they’re not really looking for a church family, a support system, a safe space. They’re looking for other things.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors instructed us to visit a different church every week. He wanted us to check out the great diversity in Christianity. And some church-hoppers love the diversity. Love it so much, they want a different experience every week. They’re not gonna get stability; they’re certainly not gonna get to really know their fellow Christians all that well. But they don’t care about those things: They get to feel like they’re well-rounded, well-traveled, ecumenically-minded Christians. How flexible and open-minded of them! (Yeah, it’s kind of a pride thing.)

Others love the ability to visit all the best parts of multiple churches. I know this one couple who bounces from revival to revival: If they hear the Holy Spirit’s doing something in a church, that’s where they’re going next. Again, no stability, no relationships; not that they care. They’re chasing the spiritual high. They want God-experiences, ’cause they love God, but not so much their neighbors. Lk 10.27

The other phenomenon I’ve run into are the perfectionists. They are looking for a safe space; they just have a crazy standard for what “safe” means. Hence these are the folks who visit 25 different churches in the area, and can’t find a good one in the bunch.

I meet ’em whenever they try out my church. The greeters meet ’em at the door, and answer all their questions. They make a point of saying hi to the preacher, the pastors, and various leaders. They meet a bunch of the regulars. They quickly become regulars themselves: They love the place, love the people, and wanna get involved immediately. You see ’em at all the midweek events, all the evening services, all the bible studies, all our activities. When’s our next membership class take place?

Then they just vanish. Gone.

What happened? Like I said, they discovered a dealbreaker. Pastor said something they absolutely couldn’t get behind. Or somebody was rude to them. Or the husband wanted to prophesy, and somebody wouldn’t accept his prophecy. Or the wife found out I watched some R-rated movie, and can’t understand why the entire church hasn’t censured me over it.

From the way they flee the scene, you’d think a crime was committed. Nothing so dramatic. They simply discovered we’re not perfect, and this, they cannot abide. Doesn’t matter that they’ve developed serious friendships among the people in the church; those are ended easily. Doesn’t matter if they actually got into membership or leadership; they simply resign. Doesn’t matter if people wanna talk things out, or apologize; they’re done. This church isn’t their safe space anymore. They’re off to find another.

Okay. First of all, no church is perfect. We’re gonna be wrong. It’s inevitable. There are sinners in every church. There are sinners in every leadership structure. People are sinners! And the church is people.

If you actually find a flawless church… well you actually haven’t. They’re hiding their flaws. The better a job they do, the more likely you’ve got a bad infestation of hypocrites, and it’s only a matter of time before the hypocrisy gets exposed, publicly and destructively.

What we want is not a perfect church, for there is no such thing. We want a church who’s trying.

If our church humbly recognizes we’re not perfect, and is striving to do better, that’s the kind of “perfect” we need in a church. If our church forgives sinners—because hey, a lot of us have done way worse things in our lives—that’s infinitely better than Christians with zero tolerance for sinners. (You know, like the folks who cut and run.) This is not to say a church should permit blatant, unrepentant sinners in leadership. Of course not. But every church should recognize nobody but Jesus is perfect, that the rest of us need grace, and one of the best ways to follow Jesus is to pay our grace forward.

If you’ve left behind a dozen churches or more because you can’t find the perfect one, it means you need to work on being gracious. They’re not the problem; it’s all you.

Best way to break the cycle is to stay put. Whatever church you’re at: Once you discover the church has flaws, ’cause I guarantee you it has them, you deal with those flaws. Act for once like this is your family, and like you’re functional: Don’t abandon them at the first sign of trouble. Work it out. Get, and accept, apologies where appropriate. If someone needs to go through official church discipline, ride out the process. Learn grace. Forgive. Love your neighbors. And grow up.

What are your dealbreakers?

Now for the rest of us who don’t scamper from church to church like we’re on some big holy Pokémon hunt.

When we’re church-shopping, let’s admit it: There are certain things we really don’t like to see in our churches. We put up with ’em in our previous churches; by God we’d like ’em gone in our next church. You know you have your peeves—those things you’re really looking forward to Jesus burning out of his church with holy fire. 1Co 3.10-15 I’m the same way.

And they’re not actually serious things, like our non-negotiable religious doctrines. Of course we wanna go to a church who believes God’s a trinity. But when people church-shop, they don’t reject churches because they accidentally stumbled across a secret cabal of unitarians in the basement. They decide they’re not coming back because they didn’t care for the music that Sunday. Or one of the church ladies came across as super rude. Or the kid sitting behind us wouldn’t turn off his phone. Or the pastor talked way too much about her favorite team… which we don’t personally follow or care about, or might even hate. Or the person putting words on the screen mixed up “they’re” with “their,” and bad grammar implies they lack standards, which implies they tolerate secret failings… and after you’ve paranoidly connected all the appropriate dots, you’re just outta there.

Yep. I’m talking about all the stupid, insignificant things which shouldn’t be dealbreakers. But when we’re church-shopping, we escalate all the little things into dealbreakers. “Good Lord, they served Folger’s at the hospitality table. Don’t they know Folger’s is [synonym for poo]?” Well maybe they don’t. Maybe you need to join this church and show ’em better.

Know the difference between your real dealbreakers, and all the dumb stuff which you should be mature enough to forgive.

I’m a biblical studies nerd. So I expect preachers to have done their homework. If they did, I appreciate it. If they didn’t—if they expect the Holy Spirit to guide them through an hourlong rant about what they think is true about their topic, following no outline whatsoever—I consider it time wholly wasted. People aren’t getting any real spiritual guidance, so I don’t wanna go to such a church. That’s my dealbreaker.

Oh, there’s worse. Say the rant consists of what popular Christian culture says on the subject, including scriptures taken out of context to back up the preacher’s prejudices. Say they’ve got that fruitless, adamant attitude that they’re right and holy, and everybody else can go to hell. That’s not merely time wasted, but ruined. Not only is this no spiritual guidance, they’re getting misled, which I consider as bad as heresy—if the preaching wasn’t heresy outright. I’ll leave those churches in mid-sermon. I’ll step out of my own church if a guest preacher gets that way.

I also get irritated about certain Christian doctrines. Yeah, there’s the non-creedal heretic stuff, but I’m not even talking about that; I’m talking about certain wrong ideas which just make me nuts. (And not just ’cause I grew up Fundamentalist and still have old Fundie hangups; I’m working on those.) I’m talking about limited atonement, or Darbyism, or complementarianism, or cessationism—and of course other views I’ve not yet ranted about on TXAB. If I discover the church’s main teachers are huge fans of these things, I know I’m gonna wind up correcting them. And they’re gonna be outraged because they’re absolutely sure they’re absolutely right. So it’s best if I preemptively dodge those churches. It’ll spare them the grief, and me the trouble.

I’m not that picky about music; I can do hymns, choruses, or Christian pop songs. I can worship to pipe organs, pianos, keyboards, tambourines, electric guitars, drum circles; whatever makes a joyful noise to the LORD. Nevertheless I expect music pastors to have their jobs because they’re mature Christians, and not just because they’re competent musicians, or related to another pastor. Music is a significant part of the service. If the leadership of the church has handed it over to brats who’ve gotta have everything done just so, or who’re chasing their own feelings instead of leading the congregation to the Holy Spirit, I can’t help but assume the church has a serious leadership problem.

I get picky about a lot of things. Relax; I also let a whole lot of things slide. Not everything’s a dealbreaker. Not everything should be. So you need to figure out the difference between your peeves and your dealbreakers. Learn when to leave, and when you really don’t need to.

Heck, once you sort out your actual dealbreakers, you might even realize you don’t need to leave your current church. That’d save time.

Do your internet research!

This is the 21st century. If a church can’t be found on the internet, or their website hasn’t been updated since the 20th century, it’s a sign of one of two things:

  1. They’re a cult, and hiding their insanity from the public.
  2. Their leaders are ignorant of, or afraid of, technology. Which means they’re not really interested in sharing Jesus with the overwhelming majority of the culture who uses the technology. (Sharing Jesus should be one of your non-negotiables.)

So they’d better be on the internet. And since you’re on the internet (otherwise how on earth are you reading this?) look ’em up. Visit their website or Facebook page.

True, their websites might suck, or have very little useful information on them. Some of ’em were obviously designed by amateurs. (Wait, are the pastors still using America Online email addresses?) Still: Whatever they’ve got on the website, read. Find out about their beliefs, ministries, small groups, missions, events, and other activities. Find out what denomination they are… assuming they’ve not hidden it. (Some churches do.)

If their sermons are online, listen to a bunch. Make sure they’re preaching love, kindness, joy, goodness, and peace. As opposed to condemnation, hatred of enemies, fear and paranoia, evil disguised as righteousness, and other fake Christian behavior. These sermons are gonna greatly influence your Christian life, y’know. Make sure they’re not poison.

Check out their faith statement. Does it sound like the stuff you personally believe? Watch out for areas of disagreement. Fr’instance, if you don’t believe in women preachers, but this church does, it means women are gonna preach, and that’s gonna bug you. If you speak in tongues and they’ve banned tongues, you’re gonna butt heads on that one. If you believe in helping the needy, but their sermons indicate they’re huge on the “prosperity gospel,” that’s gonna be a problem. Head off these problems far in advance by checking out the website.

But don’t just look at what they put on the internet.

Yeah, sometimes you’ll find someone left the church, hates that church, and has been bashing them online. Sometimes they’re cranks. But, a little too often, they’re not: They were legitimately wronged by that church, and they’re trying to warn people away. Take a look at that stuff, and use your commonsense. If their warnings have merit, maybe you’d better stay away.

Check out what the local media has reported about the church. Has the newspaper ever written anything about them? Hope it was good… and not that they had a major embezzlement scandal two years ago (which, no surprise, they never talk about). Peek at their Yelp review. Do a Google search on the leaders, and see if you can discover a little of their background. Like where they went to seminary, where they ministered in the past, and of course if there’s any press on them. Again, hope it was good.

How many churches should you visit at once?

When I’ve gone church-shopping, I’ve done it one of two ways.

The most common way people church-shop is to visit one church at a time. They visit a church one Sunday. If they like it, they go back next Sunday. If they still like it, they go back a third Sunday. If they still like it, a fourth Sunday. And so on, until they come to the conclusion they’re no longer shopping; they’ve found a church.

Yeah, I’ve done it that way too. I tend to give my denomination’s churches the first chance. But when their local church doesn’t work out, as sometimes happens, I tend to do it the following way.

  1. I pick four possible churches.
  2. I visit one of ’em one Sunday; the second the next Sunday; the third the Sunday after; the fourth after that.
  3. If any churches commit any dealbreakers, they’re out of the running.
  4. After the month, I usually have one definite favorite. Unless they all suck; they might. If that were the case, I’d have to pick four more possible churches, and start over. But every time there’s been a clear standout. That’s been the church I stuck with.
  5. If there are two standouts—or even three—alternate till I have a favorite. That shouldn’t take too many weeks. Then stick with the favorite.

When people ask me about church-shopping, this is what I advise them. It’s always worked for me.

And pastors hate when I tell people to do this. Because it gets in their way! They want prospective attendees to do the usual thing of staying at their church for a month or two. By then, habit will have kicked in, and they figure they’ve gotcha. (Well, until it turns out you’re looking for a perfect church, and vanish the instant you find a flaw.)

So when you visit their churches, they expect you’ll be back next week. The churches with the more-efficient followup programs will try to send you an email, phone call, written note, something. (For some odd reason, they never think of texting.) They’re trying to get you to stop church-shopping and stick around. It’s totally understandable; they’re partly afraid you’ll give up, and wind up in no church at all. As happens to a lot of frustrated church-shoppers: “None of ’em are good enough. I quit.”

When these churches contact you, hide nothing. What you’re doing is not none of their business; you’re thinking about joining them, remember? So tell them exactly what you’re up to. “I’m checking out four churches; I wanna see which one clicks.” And you’ll find it quite useful to see how they react. Do they try to talk you out of it? They might; pay attention to how.

  • Do they claim church-shopping is unbiblical?—a fact they can’t actually back up with bible. Red flag.
  • Do they get impatient and frustrated with you? Red flag.
  • Do they refuse to take no for an answer, and try to undermine your decision? Red flag.
  • Do they disagree with how you’re church-shopping, or find it kinda odd, but respect it’s really your decision? Good sign.

Yeah, people don’t always have the patience to visit four churches. They visit a church and like it so much, feel so good and peaceful and pleased with it, they figure their search is over. Sometimes that’s the very first church they visit. Sometimes the second. Hey, I get it: They want a new church! Why wait when it feels so right?

Thing is, this church feel perfect, but the next church may be perfect. So we gotta be patient. Stick to the process.

One caveat: Since the Holy Spirit is in charge after all, if he tells you to stop shopping and stick with one particular church, make sure it’s him, then drop the process and stick to that church. He knows best. Far be it from me to say he doesn’t.

Red flags.

And while you’re on the lookout for dealbreakers, be on the lookout for all the other red flags which warn you this isn’t the right church for you. Or, really, anyone.

Remember, church is meant to be a support system. A family. People who’ll love and help you. People who exhibit the Spirit’s fruit. Whereas fruitless Christians are like big red flags which warn you: STAY AWAY. Especially when these fruitless Christians are in leadership.

Don’t only look at the church leadership. Churches are people. Most of your relationships in church won’t only be with the leaders, but the people. If you can’t stand the people, that’s not good! If the people aren’t making any effort to grow in Christ—if the only mature Christians in the bunch, the only people worth knowing, are in leadership—that’s not good either.

Remember, a church and its leadership are two different things. The leadership are the people who wrote all the nice-sounding stuff on the website. They’re the ones who actually believe the faith statement, mission statement, values, and so forth. But the people, the congregation which actually makes up the church, may not believe any of it, or even know any of it. Or care.

Fr’instance, I used to go to an all-white church. It wasn’t that way because the leadership (as far as I know) wanted it that way. I certainly didn’t want it that way; I kept inviting non-white friends! But unless there’s a language barrier, the only reason any church is all-white, all-black, all-Latino, all whatever, is racism. There were racists in that church, subtly driving away any non-whites I, or others, invited. Doesn’t matter what the non-racists wanted, or the leaders put in the church’s literature. The people set the tone of your church far more than most church leaders realize.

So never forget to check out the people, those sitting in the seats with you. Either they’re seeking God with all their hearts, enthusiastically contributing to the life of your church… or they’re passively letting the leaders run the show, and contributing nothing but their own prejudices. Either the church is full of love and joy, or it’s got that cavernous feeling like the Holy Spirit left the building ages ago, and the only wind blowing within it are the farts of old, bitter men.

Can you trust these people to be your Christian support system? Or do they figure that’s the pastor’s job, whereas they’re free to be needy, whiny, bitter, or self-centered? That’s a worst-case scenario… but honestly, too many churches fit it.

Do they introduce themselves and try to make conversation? Do they make sure they talk to you before you can slip out undetected? Do they try to involve you in any upcoming events? Do they make contact with you after the service?—and I mean serious contact, unlike a message you aren’t expected to return. Do they want you to become a part of what they’re doing?

If the church is truly following Jesus’s command to love one another, it should be completely obvious one way or the other. One visit will tell you everything. You won’t need two.