The following article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Columbia’s Contact magazine. It’s written by David Warkentin, director of our Columbia One and General Studies programs.
Let’s be honest, looking for a church — a.k.a “church shopping” — is a common part of the North American Christian experience. Advances in technology mean even the most remote community can access countless options for church engagement via podcasts and live streaming. With driving such a regular habit, distance is also no longer a factor: “commuter churches” abound. The reasons to look for a church are also many. A move to a new area. Conflict. Relational disconnect. Leadership problems. New to faith. A return to faith. Spiritual dryness. Boredom. The list goes on. No doubt, most situations are a combination of good and bad reasons to be looking for a new church. So the issue isn’t should we church shop, but how we should church shop.
At Columbia, we’re aware of this cultural phenomenon. We’re also committed to equipping students to view the body of Christ — the church in its many forms — as central to the mission of God in the world. We teach that central to discipleship is participation together as citizens of God’s kingdom. We’re passionate that students engage the church well. This includes equipping students for the process of choosing a church, emphasizing how this process can be vital to Christian faithfulness. Church shopping, it turns out, is important.
Now, to be clear, there is no uniform experience or single clear process for finding a church. Some, those in urban and suburban areas for instance, have access to many options. Columbia students arriving in Abbotsford know this well — there are some 100 churches to choose from — representing a huge variety in denominations, theology, worship styles, and demographic groups. In some places, church choices are sparse. Finding a church in a small community like Gem, Alberta will be drastically different than in Calgary. Clearly, church shopping will be different for everyone. A good first step is simply to identify your own context.
CONSUMERISM & CHURCH SHOPPING
In all contexts, however, there is a common challenge to be faced: the challenge of consumerism. As I tell students at the start of every semester, we live in a culture of choice, from the food we eat to the products we buy to the churches we attend.
On a certain level, this is good. Our individual freedom as North Americans is a privilege, one that the suffering and oppressed around the world are denied. The freedom to choose — consuming — is not the root of the problem. How we consume and what we consume, however, have major implications. To embrace individualism and self-fulfillment leaves people with only one question: “What can this church do for me?” Selfishness becomes the lens for belonging.
It’s important to recognize that too often, churches themselves have catered to the self-oriented consumerism of our culture. Alan Hirsch, in his book The Forgotten Ways, highlights how much of the North American church “is built on the ideals of comfort and convenience (consumerism), and of safety and security (middle-class).” Churches are left to compete for their parishioners’ attention, turn their pastors into celebrities, and create expectations for personal fulfillment more in line with pop culture entertainment than belonging to the people of God. Yet churches continue to shrink; relevance just isn’t working. We should listen to Hirsh’s conclusion, “We plainly cannot consume our way into discipleship.”
CHURCH & BELONGING
We need a better approach. Church is not a “thing” — be it a destination or experience — that we choose in the same way we choose a movie or visit a local park. In this sense, Christians don’t simply “go to church” as is so often described. The word often translated as “church” in the New Testament, ekklesia (“gathered assembly” – e.g. Acts 16:5), is only possible because of koinonia (“fellowship” – e.g. Acts 2:42). Koinonia describes deep community, a participation with God and one another that goes far beyond personal preference. This is our model. In finding a church, then, we need to shift from viewing church as a place of consumption to a place of belonging. To state the obvious yet often ignored point: the church is a people not a place. It’s in this belonging, then, that Christians give and receive the gifts of the Spirit with one another as they live together as citizens of God’s kingdom in the world. This is what we are “shopping” for when we look for a church.
Distinguishing the difference between consumption and belonging means we need to honestly assess our rationale for church participation. If finding a church is driven by the same impulse as finding a new favorite restaurant, the problem may be more with our consumeristic lens than with the church itself.
Here I would suggest a period of honest self-reflection and prayer. Repentance and renewal may be your path. You may not need to find a new church, but instead re-engage your faith in your existing one. Such a realization, I believe, could have wonderful implications for your own faith journey, and also that of your church. Blessings to you if this is your story.
SUGGESTIONS FOR BELONGING
Yet honest self-reflection and prayer may mean you still need to find a new church. Not all cases of church shopping are about selfish consumption. Many people need to choose a church for a whole host of valid reasons. So, from a lens of belonging, here are some practical suggestions (by no means exhaustive) for choosing your church:
Narrow down your options to 2-3. Before you actually visit a church, do some preliminary work. This is quite easy through websites, podcasts and conversations with people you know. Framed by belonging, here are some questions to consider: Does this church’s mission, beliefs, values and practices reflect my understanding of a biblical church community? Can I submit to this type of congregation in all matters of faith and life? Does this church reflect consumerism or belonging in describing itself?
Use these questions to narrow down your choices before you visit in person. A Sunday gathering isn’t always the best indicator of beliefs around belonging, or even the essentials of faith. You don’t want surprises down the road that will make you rethink your choice. For this preliminary searching, try to narrow your list to no more than 2-3 churches.
Visit all the churches on your list at least once. During the first visit, use this simple question as your lens: “Could I belong here?” Picture yourself connected and involved. Pray about it. Paying attention to consumer tendencies and focusing on belonging, you’ll be surprised how quickly format and structure (e.g. music style, programming) becomes secondary to discerning your place in a church’s overall identity. Try to narrow down your options to one clear choice.
Visit that one church again. This time, ask members, what does it mean to belong here? As you listen and observe, be more specific in evaluating belonging. Is this church a community where I can receive the blessings of God’s people? Is this a community where I can share my gifts as a blessing to God’s people? Do the parts I don’t connect with (and be as honest as possible) become secondary as I imagine belonging? Or do they hinder belonging?
Commit to a choice and pursue belonging for an extended period of time. This could include formal membership (however that looks in that church), which can foster a belonging beyond attendance alone. Receive the gifts of others in the church – enjoying a good sermon is okay! – but also get involved as your schedule and gifts allow.
Give it time, within reason. The New Testament church doesn’t give a blueprint for the duration of church belonging. I would suggest an annual assessment of belonging, evaluating the church and your role in it. Yearly church-hopping isn’t a habit to take on, of course. But we recognize life has ebbs and flows. Participation in a number of churches over a lifetime can still reflect a faithful commitment to the people of God.
Church shopping isn’t a process that will disappear from North American Christian life. But it doesn’t have to be a consumeristic process. Instead, it can be a chance to pursue the path to true belonging as the people of God. ■
David Warkentin is Program Director for Columbia One and the Diploma in General Studies programs. He has a longstanding fascination with how Christianity and culture intersect, and is passionate about helping students faithfully engage with their world. David blogs at www.davidwarkentin.blogspot.com.