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.