I know a couple of people who are in the process of looking for a new church. One is a family member who recently retired and has more time on her hands. The other is a friend who is moving to a different state. In both cases, I was reminded how much the search process feels like dating. It is exciting, uncomfortable, and most visits feel like a mismatch.
The internet has altered the experience of church hunting. Back in the day, looking for a church was a lot like going on a blind date. You showed up without really knowing what kind of church you were going to find. You might make a few assumptions based on denominational pedigree or the appearance of the building. But you had to visit to get any real first impressions.
Speed Dating the Church
Today most churches have an internet profile, and similar to internet dating, the initial point of appeal is almost always physical. When you visit the church’s web page, you are greeted by smiling faces meant to reassure you that the congregation is full of friendly, happy people that you will like. If you are not impressed, you can always swipe left and move on to another site. No need to go to the trouble of making an actual visit.
But as we all know, first impressions can be deceiving. Sometimes the pictures you see on the church’s web page aren’t even from the church but are stock photos inserted by some anonymous web developer. If you dig a little deeper, you can usually find photos of the church’s staff, a statement of what the church believes, a calendar of events, and an archive of recent sermons by the pastor. It’s not enough information to tell you whether this is the church of your dreams but sufficient for letting you know which ones you should probably ignore. In this regard, I suppose this stage of church hunting is a lot like speed dating.
When I was a pastor, it felt like the people who visited our church were looking for the congregational equivalent of a supermodel. We were a good little church but never quite good enough for them. The congregation was too small, and we didn’t have enough programs. It irritated me at the time. But when I became a civilian and started looking for a church myself, I saw things differently. In fact, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, what most people look for in a church is pretty basic.
Good Preaching & Friendly Leaders
At the top of their list is a good sermon. Pastors tend to consider those who come to church mainly to listen to the sermon as selfish. But it makes sense that the sermon would be important to those who attend church. Listening to preaching is one of the main things we do there. Is it too much to ask that the sermon be both helpful and listenable? One of the marks of the first Christians was that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). We don’t accuse them of being selfish or consumeristic for doing so.
Next to preaching, people looking for a church want to know if it is friendly. Many churches know this and station people at the entrance whose main job is to grin at newcomers and extend “the right hand of fellowship” as soon as they cross its threshold (Gal. 2:9). But visitors are not dummies, especially if they have been to more than one church. They know that it takes more than a handshake and a smile to be friends. Visitors appreciate the greeting, but they do not necessarily trust it. The greeter’s warm welcome doesn’t carry any more weight than the flight attendant’s smile as you board the plane. At least the flight attendant’s greeting serves a practical function. They are sizing you up to see what kind of passenger you will be. Plus, they eventually serve snacks. The typical church greeter doesn’t offer more than a smile. They barely focus their gaze on you before moving on to the next person in line.
But even if the church’s greeters seem genuinely friendly, that doesn’t mean friendships will be easy to find. A church whose members seem close to one another is often a congregation where opportunities to connect will be scarce. The more close-knit the community, the less interested it is in including newcomers. People who have friends are not usually looking to make new ones, and they may even have trouble finding time for the friends they already have.
Perhaps this is why the respondents in the Pew survey said that feeling welcomed by leaders was what was important to them. They weren’t looking for a friendly congregation so much as for friendly pastors. To be honest, I’m not sure what this looks like in today’s church, especially in large congregations. Many pastors no longer visit their parishioners. The pastor may meet with you at a restaurant for lunch or even invite you over for dinner, but usually not more than once or twice. As soon as you have graduated from newcomer status to regular attendee, you will likely find yourself on your own again.
Proverbs 18:24 says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” The Hebrew literally says that a man of friends is to be broken. The proverb may suggest that the person with too many friends isn’t much better off than someone who has no friends. Those who appear to be friends with everyone often prove to be a friend to no one in particular.
Church size has a surprising effect on this dynamic. The larger the congregation, the easier it is to move in and out. Because so many people in the sizeable congregation are anonymous, it often has a larger pool of those who would like to be connected. The challenge is in locating them and finding a meaningful point of access. Visitors to small churches can often tell that they are close-knit, but they do not often find these congregations friendly. They are like a small town. You have to be born there or marry someone who was born there in order to belong.
Style of Worship
The third priority of church hunters has to do with worship style. This is another sensitive issue for pastors, especially worship pastors who like to remind the congregation that worship is “not about us.” What they usually mean when they say such a thing is that we shouldn’t complain if we don’t like the music. The irony (I am tempted to say hypocrisy) of this is that churches where one hears this sentiment expressed during the service usually rely on their worship style to attract new attendees. The philosophy of these churches seems to be that the style needs to appeal to those who don’t attend the church; it just doesn’t matter whether or not it appeals to members.
The trouble with a preference for a particular worship style is that it is so personal. It’s unlikely that a church can craft a worship style that has universal appeal. People who say that a certain style distracts them from worship are not exaggerating. C. S. Lewis believed that the best style was the one that you didn’t notice. He was talking about liturgy instead of music, but the principle is the same. Lewis compared the experience to dancing. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not dancing but only learning to dance,” he explains. “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice.”
As long as our attention is distracted by the style of worship, we are not worshipping. According to Lewis, an even worse scenario is one where innovations in worship cause us to fix our attention on the one who leads worship. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude,” Lewis observes. If he is correct in this, today’s performance style, which focuses so much attention on the worship team or a worship leader, is more likely to be a distraction than an aid.
Location, Location, Location
There are a handful of other factors that people usually consider: like children’s programming, whether one has family members in the congregation, and opportunities to volunteer. But the only feature in the Pew survey that rose to the level of the three mentioned above was the church’s location. This is a surprise, given our mobility. Before the advent of the automobile, one’s choice of a church was constrained by a combination of personal conviction and local geography. For most attendees, church was unavoidably local. This also meant that you usually worshipped with the same people among whom you lived.
Those days are unlikely to return. Nor should we necessarily assume that closer proximity meant a better experience. If there was an advantage, perhaps it was that the limits of one’s geography also produced a kind of reflexive stability. You stayed in the church because you had no choice. In this regard, those churches were more like households than spiritual shopping malls. Worshippers did not see themselves as customers but as members of the same large family. This is the primary metaphor the Bible uses when it speaks of the church. The church is called the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). Those who are part of it refer to one another as brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Tim. 5:2).
The Bible’s family metaphor is a needed correction in an age when churches are more likely to feel like a Starbucks than a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). The reminder that the church is a family will help with the letdown that inevitably comes after hunting for the perfect church, only to discover that it has the same rough edges you saw in the one you used to attend. You can choose your friends and even your spouse. But your family is given to you.