Friday, April 4, 2008

In Defense of Church-Shopping


I recently read an article by a former colleague of mine in which she bemoaned the American habit of church-shopping.  I completely understand how she feels.   I used to preach that same sermon.   She criticized the concept that churches are "spiritual service providers."  Yup, I've made that argument, too, back in my preaching days.   

But let's consider the other side of the story.   Let's say I'm a mom of a young child and worship on Sunday morning is the one hour a week I can hope to get some spiritual nourishment in community.  I may sneak in my own prayer and devotion time through the week -- but not with other people.  This is my only chance and I know I can get more out of it if my beautiful, squirmy, noisy, curious child is safely taken care of somewhere else.  In a nursery.  And the church I attend doesn't have one.   Will I stay?   Probably not.  Could I be accused of only thinking of my own spiritual needs?   I could.  But what would be the point?  That I shouldn't be taking care of my own spiritual needs?   Don't women -- and mothers in particular -- get that message often enough?   Take care of everybody else's needs first!   Yours can wait.   

Or take the accusation that one shouldn't leave because you disagree with the pastor.   The truth is, anybody making this statement is probably a pastor.  What is the point of worshipping week after week, listening to a person who preaches the Word and shapes the liturgy, if you have some fundamental disagreements with that person about that same Word and liturgy?   Is this a tolerance test?   Of course I'll disagree with any other human being from time to time -- we're human, after all -- but to state that agreement with the pastor should not be a criteria for whether one stays active in a church is an unrealistic and, frankly, disingenuous statement.  You can bet the person making it, on his/her Sunday off, seeks out a worship service with a pastor they enjoy.  (If they go to church at all).   

Neither of the above are my current situation.  But here is my reality:   I'm a single mom working full-time as director of an agency, with two precious animals in my care, a home, yard and car that are my responsibility, and aging parents for whom I uprooted my adult life so that I could live near them.   I am not complaining about these things.  I love these realities.  They are, in fact, my calling in life at this stage.   Each one of them has a particular pull on my soul and energy and I do my best to honor all of those pulls.   They are where my time, energy and love go, day after day.   Taking care of a church community is not one of my callings right now. It has been for most of my life, but it isn't now.  And that's true of many people sitting in our pews.  They aren't called to take care of your congregation, preacher, so give them a break.   

I love God.  I love worshipping God in community.   I need that community.   And I am church-shopping to find it.    Shopping has this negative, materialistic, self-centered image in the church and for good reason.   I think a better metaphor is dating.   I'm dating several churches (and other spiritual communities) this year.   I thought I needed to hop from my last church-marriage into a new one and the trouble with that model is you don't give yourself time to learn and grow and figure out how you changed since the last time you made a commitment. So I hopped quickly into what I believed to be a long-term relationship with a congregation.  I didn't sign on the membership line, but I did get very involved.   Then, when I began sensing that the relationship wasn't really working, I felt guilty and confused about how to extricate myself.   

Also, like my real-life dating these days, there is a child involved.  And that makes a tremendous difference.  (Unlike real-life dating, the child goes on most of my church-dates).   It is not just my needs, but his that I consider.   Is he surrounded by other adults in this congregation who demonstrate to him, implicitly and explicitly, the kind of Christian values I hope to help him develop?    If that isn't happening in the congregation, I'm not staying.   Just as in dating, I don't care how much I like the guy, if he's not somebody I feel good about my kid being around, it ain't happening.    

And, as is true in my dating life (or my desire to have one, is more like it), I'm not really out for a long-term commitment just yet.   I need a break from the hard work of that kind of commitment.   I do want to just be able to enjoy the date without thinking too much about the future.  Which means, next Sunday I may or may not want to spend time with you.   I may want to go out with another church next week.   Or I may be serially monogomous for a while -- a few months in this church, a few in that.    

The bottom line is, church-shopping -- or church-dating, as I prefer to call it-- is going to happen.   Churches and pastors need to deal with this reality without judgement.  Just as not every date is going to lead to marriage, not every church-date is going to lead to a long-term commitment.   Nor should it.    And there's nothing wrong with that. 

13 comments:

Diane said...

I like church-dating better :).
as for disagreement: I think if it's a fundamental disagreement: of course, a person should leave. because I would bet that there is also a fundamental disagreement with the community or the direction of the congregation as well.

but if it's a "time to time" thing, and the person fundamentally likes the community and direction of the congregation, that's different.

leaving sure beats staying and trying to kick the pastor out, if you ask me.

lj said...

Diane, I completely agree about the differences issue. And I know that many people tough out pastors they don't like because they were part of the congregation long before the pastor came and intend to be there still when the pastor moves on. I get that, too.

I think I'm reacting more to the "how to find a church" question rather than the how to stay in a church where you've been for a long time. And I suppose I'm reacting because I'm having trouble feeling at home in the churches I visit these days. So I feel a great deal of sympathy for the folks who wander in and out of our congregations, with enthusiasm early on, which seems to dry up at the first difficulty. It really is like dating. You get excited at first and then start taking a more realistic look ... sigh.

pj said...

Hey! Look at me! I didn't grow up in church, so I have no choice but to shop.

I've been going to my local UCC for a few months now. Not every Sunday, but maybe every other. I love the pastor -- especially her sermons. She's absolutely wonderful.

But, I don't love singing hymns. It's never going to feel right to me. They're all sort of 'Little House on the Prairie' to my ears. And sometimes I think I might prefer the Episcopal church, for the ritual and music and schmaltz. (Haven't tried it, though.) Right now, I really like the people I've met at the UCC.

My church just re-opened its nursery room, by the way. It must be hard for small mainline churches to spend money on this stuff when they've only got one or two little ones turning up (and not every week at that!) Whereas the big "Christian Worship Center" down the road has everything... including PowerPoint presentations (prob'ly) and a seriously ugly building. Can't go there. Nope.

Shop away, LJ. What can you do? I'm sure God doesn't mind where you go. Besides, admit it. You like trying new things. :)

more cows than people said...

thanks for this perspective and may you find a faith community that feels like home soon.

and glad my sugar abstinence could be inspiring for you. (((LJ)))

lj said...

PJ, you're right. I do like trying out stuff. I could probably go somewhere different every week and enjoy the experience. But to extend the dating metaphor, it does get tiresome after a while if what you really want is a cozy, dependable relationship.

MC, I wasn't completely successful today, but closer than usual. (with the sugar, that is. for church I was back to FLC.)

Diane said...

lj, I hear you on the wandering too. maybe if I wasn't the pastor, I'd have a hard time finding a church that feels like "home." I know as a pastor I always feel bad when someone wanders out... not exactly like "taking it personally," but more like, "what could I/we have done differently?" That's what I want to know. And of course sometimes there's really nothing...

Wormwood's Doxy said...

to state that agreement with the pastor should not be a criteria for whether one stays active in a church is an unrealistic and, frankly, disingenuous statement.

I totally agree with this. And I wish you luck in both parts of your dating life!

I've got serious issues with my current rector, but I don't feel I can go church-dating because of my kids. It's a great environment for them, if not for me.

Fortunately, every other week I can go to church at my Dear Friend's--and I get what I need there. But I wish I wasn't so divided....

pj said...

it does get tiresome after a while if what you really want is a cozy, dependable relationship.

Oh yes. It's good to have a home base, with a little freedom to wander. May all our dating be successful. :)

lj said...

Diane, yeah, I'm not sure it's about doing things differently. I'm a believer in evangelism -- there is good news to share and we ought to be finding ways of making it more widely accessible. Plenty of churches need to broaden their scope and be less cliquey. But, there's also a chemistry thing. For some folks, it either works or doesn't.

WD, waahhh. I want a Dear Friend. ;-)

PJ, I feel like I should make a snide comment here, but I can't think of any that wouldn't be too ... well, revealing.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

WD, waahhh. I want a Dear Friend. ;-)

Well, you know what I had to go through to get this particular one, so I hope you find yours a little easier... ;-)

PJ---I, too, am refraining from the snide remark.

lj said...

Indeed, dear Doxy. If anyone deserves her current happiness, it is you. Drink it in!

(I'll watch from the wings with sighs and sweet hope. Though I think the Hafiz poem below is still calling to me for now.)

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Laura C said...

LJ,
you're lucky that you're in a place where you can church shop or date or whatever it is you want to call it. (Hang around? Worship? Sample the flavors? Browse?)

In times when I haven't been serving a congregation regularly - which have gone on for pretty long stretches - I have really enjoyed getting to pick and choose from the whole buffet line. You can get a pretty nutritious meal, actually.

As for your young one, I don't have a lot of ideas, but I definitely hope there's a community where he is welcomed and nurtured and cherished!

Can the two happen simultaneously? I will look forward to finding out from you...
Peace,
Laura C in NY