Have you ever seen the early morning worship programs on television? The packed congregations, the huge church venues, the smooth-talking evangelist who delivers the perfect sermon. Church seems to be where all the action is. That there are so many new megachurches popping up all over the world suggests that a lot of people are desperate for spiritual guidance and fellowship. But with so many churches to choose from, it can feel like a minefield. Are you one of those seeking to make a step in this direction and feeling overwhelmed by the profusion of options? Don’t hit the panic button just yet.
Just as many mom-and-pop stores have disappeared from Main Street or been swallowed up by large department stores, many churches have been forced to either adapt or face the inevitable decline. Times change. Many from older generations were born into a denomination. Like gender, it was automatically assigned at birth. Today, there are so many choices that anyone interested in finding a good church can simply do a Google search and get locations and reviews. Have you been doing online shopping for a good pastor or congregation? Why not? We do it for everything else, from choosing the right shampoo to finding a quality used car. It’s the equivalent of shopping at your local Woolworth’s store 50 years ago.
The online experience has changed the way we do everything. Technology has impacted the way society organizes finances, education, and even concerns about national security. On a personal level, it has made everything accessible, and the world that was once large and mysterious can now be explored for the most part from your smartphone. These are huge cultural and generational changes from a mere 20 years ago.
It would be naüve to assume that the cultural impact of the digital age—that remarkable ability to simply click it and have it—has not influenced the church experience.
Change: uncomfortable, but necessary
Just as advancements in education, culture, and technology open our eyes to the ever-changing world we live in, so many concepts about church have changed. There was a time when the Catholic Church considered it a sin to believe that the earth orbited the sun instead of the other way around (I know, that’s hard to believe). One of the threats to churches then and now is simply a probing of long-held beliefs and traditions. The personal walk of faith is no different. Incremental increases in knowledge and experiences shape one’s ideology. Core beliefs are reexamined, and if they are scripturally correct, they can weather the storm.
It’s been that way through the centuries. New ideas, new social norms, the clash of races and cultures—all these various influences have caused conflict as people instinctively felt their way of life and their core beliefs were being threatened. But when the dust settled, a society was usually stronger, a community more diverse, and faith enriched by the challenges.
Similarly, the convenience of access to so much information at anyone’s fingertips because of the internet and the free flow of information globally has allowed the uncontrolled spread of erroneous ideas as well as important truths, giving the genuine seeker a lot to sift through! It’s the online shopper’s dilemma: compare prices, compare options, compare brands, spend hours trying to find the right item, and at the end of the process, you’re still not completely satisfied. But it’s still better than a trip to Woolworth’s on a rainy day—at least you can do this from the comfort of your own home.
What’s in it for me?
The risk, though, with this consumer approach to your spiritual walk is that you can easily lose sight of what really matters. The well-produced television commercials and the early morning broadcasts are carefully choreographed stage productions, and it can be difficult to filter through all the options. Many large churches spend millions annually on marketing, and whether we want to hear it or not, church is a billion-dollar business. Texas author Kathy Howard observed in an article for Crosswalk that “many churches have also fallen into the consumer trap. The church is swayed by the attitude of the Christian consumer. . . . The church uses lights and sound, razzle dazzle, and giveaways to keep us coming back for more.”
For someone who hasn’t spent most of their life within a community of believers, it can be overwhelming knowing where to start. If you approach simply as a “window shopper,” the risk is that you’ll gravitate toward all that glitters. Writing for Dialogue, British freelance journalist Vanesa Pizzuto explored the consumer-driven culture of the church experience today, and she concluded that “the style and experience of worship matter. But by placing an exaggerated emphasis only on these attributes, we may lose sight of the substance: Jesus.”
The church should not only offer you something but also provide an avenue where you can serve others. Christianity is all about service because that was Jesus’ passion. We are His followers, working within a community of believers, and we all have something to offer. Whatever talents, skills, education, recreational pursuits, or training you possess can be used in service for God. In your quest for a suitable church, service is a factor that you should consider: What can I bring to this community?
Finding the right fit is important. It creates a feeling of contentment, of ownership, of “consumer satisfaction.” You are looking for a product when you shop for a church. It isn’t as tangible as looking for a pair of jeans, but it’s something far more significant: a spiritual home.
We all have this inherent need to belong, and a church community plays a vital role in fulfilling that need in our spiritual life. But while a lot of time and effort can go into considering all those different factors, basic doctrinal beliefs sometimes get overlooked. Many want somewhere just to find comfort after or during a rough period in life; others seek friends to socialize with. Some young parents just want a place to provide a sound moral foundation for their children. Others attend because they like the pastor or because the location of the church is convenient. And these are all valid considerations.
But you also need to look for something that can positively impact your spiritual growth in the long term, and this means that finding a church that upholds a clear understanding of the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is essential. You need a church that allows you to be of service to the cause of Christ as you grow—not just to be a consumer. You need a church with strong, engaging leadership and good, Bible-based teaching. A church that takes an interest in the spiritual, social, vocational, and lifestyle development of its members is a healthy place to begin your journey.
A church that reflects Christ
What draws us to a church initially may be the very thing that drives us away in the end. It can be difficult as a first-time “shopper” to get it right. Even mature Christians will take their time settling into a new congregation after they’ve moved to a new home in a new location. Some church hopping may be unavoidable. The need for spiritual relevance in our lives finds its fulfillment only in God. So, if you’re seeking biblically sound advice and growth, you don’t necessarily want to follow the hype. The purity and beauty of one’s faith don’t consist in the extravagance that grabs attention but in the grace of its execution. Spiritual things are spirtually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).
In your quest, it’s important that you compare and research the fundamental beliefs of each church you investigate. Much like when you shop for the right winter jacket online, looks aren’t everything. If it isn’t going to protect you from the elements, you’ll only look pretty while you freeze to death. Finding a church that places an emphasis on good Bible teachings, encourages a closer walk with God, and allows you to ask uncomfortable questions, will go a long way in helping you find satisfaction.
Do you feel intimidated by the minefield of options in your search for a church but still have questions? If a church is not something that immediately draws you in, then I would recommend that you find a Bible-study group near you or register for an online Bible-study class. Then do some research and question the fundamental beliefs of the pastors or churches you are considering. If their teachings don’t align with the Bible, keep looking.
Nigel Byng is a freelance writer based in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA. He’s passionate about sharing God’s love and grace with others.