One of the most difficult tasks involved in moving to a new place is “shopping” for a new church. I’d say it’s an even more important decision that figuring out which apartment to rent–though you’ll actually be living in your apartment, you can just move out at the end of your lease term if you aren’t happy with where you’re staying. However, it’s much more difficult to disentangle yourself from your church home if you aren’t happy there. People can get really huffy and offended when you tell them that you’re not comfortable worshiping at their church anymore –you are, after all, talking about their home.
Which is why many Christians spend a good deal of time researching a visiting a bunch of different churches before they officially settle down in one and declare it their home. There are a lot of different factors to look for. Are there a good amount of people in my age group here? That’s one of the most obvious ones. No one in their twenties wants to attend a church filled with 60-and-up seniors. I would feel a little out of place among the sea of white and gray hair in the congregation. Likewise, I don’t think any senior citizens want to attend a church that is predominantly filled with twenty-somethings and loud rock music. (However, that does occasionally happen, and usually in those cases, the senior citizen rides a Harley or teaches Salsa classes or is just in general so cool that no one really notices the age difference too much.) When visiting a church for the first time, I tend to be very critical all throughout the service. Do I like the songs they’re playing? Do I know these songs? Is the pastor harping too much on being generous with our money? Do I agree with everything the pastor is saying? Is this service too long or too short? Are these seats comfortable? Is the sanctuary too cold? …and on and on. It’s a wonder that any church manages to survive such a critical analysis! It is easy to get carried away and become TOO picky when I’m church shopping, and I try to keep my expectations realistic. I just left a small church in Florida filled with all of my good friends–people who prayed with me through all of life’s twists and turns, and laughed with me and cried with me and challenged me to be a better person. It’s unrealistic for me to leave such a tight-knit church family and expect to have that same “coming home” feeling when I walk into a new church sanctuary filled with strangers. But it’s also important for me to find a place that definitely has the potential to become a church home. And even though it’s a little early on in the search, I think we’ve found it…
The last time Justin and I went church shopping was a few years ago when we moved to Savannah, Georgia. We didn’t have internet access when we first moved into our apartment, so that first weekend we were there, my mom suggested doing things the old-school way. We looked up different churches in the phone book. And boy did we find some interesting places!
We visited a church with a giant sanctuary and an inexplicably small congregation. No one wanted to go into details about their church history, but one woman spilled the beans that the church used to be much larger until they had some sort of dispute, effectively splitting the congregation in half. One half left the church, and the other half stayed, but their numbers eventually dwindled down until only a handful remained. Can you imagine how awkward we felt there? Inside of a giant room with stained glass windows capable of holding hundreds of people, there were more people onstage leading praise and worship than there were to receive it in the pews. They gave us a complimentary coffee mug with their church logo on it, but we never went back.
We visited a church that was only five minutes away from our apartment. A trendy warehouse church filled with tattooed twenty-somethings sipping lattes while they watched the worship band play rock songs. It was a very short service, apparently tailored to those with a short attention span, and there was no official meet-and-greet time. Do you know what that means? No one said a word of welcome to us…except for the guy sitting next to us who admitted that he was also a first-time visitor. That place definitely didn’t give me a warm “coming home” feeling, and we never went back there again.
The weirdest one of all was a Pentecostal church, attended primarily by senior citizens and located a little farther into the backwoods that we had realized before we plugged the address into our GPS. A plump elderly lady with a beehive carefully hairsprayed on top of her head lead played the organ and had mascara running down her face as she passionately led the congregation in singing old-fashioned gospel hymns. I’ve often heard the expression “they were rolling down the aisles” (generally used in exaggeration), but I can honestly say that is the only church I’ve visited where I’ve literally seen people falling down on the floor and rolling down the aisles. When it came time to collect tithes and offerings, she led the church in a strange mantra-like speech that many of them had recited so many times they had it memorized. It wasn’t scriptural; it was something along the lines of, “I give my offering today in full expectation of the blessings I receive in return. These blessings may come in the form of checks in the mail, gifts and surprises, winning lottery numbers, etc.” I looked around in amazement at the people counting on gaining back money for money, instead of acknowledging that the best blessings they could receive in return were the spiritual kind. I shouldn’t have been surprised that throughout the following sermon, the names “God” and “Jesus” were rarely mentioned at all. Most references were to “the GHOST” (that’s right! Not “the Holy Spirit” or even “the Holy Ghost”….just “the GHOST”). Justin and I high-tailed it out of there as quickly as we could, hoping to make our way back to the car before they could bring out the snakes.
Eventually though, after many weeks of searching, we found our home church in Garden City, Georgia, just outside of Savannah. I had never been SO thankful to be done with church-shopping.
Now that we’re in Pittsburgh, I did most of my church shopping on the internet, thinking that a relevant church with a sizable young-person population would probably be connected to the web. Our first visit was a miss, but I really liked the second church that we visited. The only problem was that they were located MUCH farther than I realized (it took us about 40 minutes to drive there), and they were big enough to almost be called a mega-church. It’s probably completely unfair, but I am pretty biased against mega-churches. I grew up going to a stadium-sized church that seated over 5,000 people each Sunday and had their sermons broadcast on television. I have some very fond childhood memories of that church; however, once I got older I started to realize just how deeply into debt they were (15 million dollars, to be exact) from building the sanctuary and adjoining TV studio. The Bible definitely doesn’t promote going into debt, and Jesus never needed a TV studio to reach people, so it just turns my stomach now whenever I see these mega-churches on TV. I know they’re not all the same; many of them may have their heart in the right place. But I just don’t believe my church growing up ever did. The worst part was that when the church family gave and gave of their money, and they finally cleared away all 15 million in debt ten years after going public with their financial records, they threw a huge celebration….and then they announced their plans to renovate the children’s ministry. After watching an elaborate presentation of blueprints and computer-generated images of the veritable children’s theme park they felt “God was calling them” to add on to the sanctuary, I just couldn’t handle it. My family and I stopped going there soon after that.
The church that we’ve found in Pittsburgh is no where near as “mega” sized as the one that I grew up in. But I’m still a little bit wary of its size, and we need to be completely sure about their intentions and major goals before we can officially declare it our home church. The really nice part about it, though, is that we found out that they have JUST begun doing services in a rented building downtown (which is much closer to where we live). Not only is it a shorter drive, but the size of the city service is much smaller, more akin to the church that I went to in Florida. Not as many flashy lights and electronics equipment. Not as much to distract from the real reason that we’re meeting there every week.
And that’s someplace I might be able to call home.