Church Hunting: What People Want from Church

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.

Growing into Salvation

Have you ever wished that you were taller or had eyes of a different color? Or maybe you wondered why you were better at basketball than someone else or could play the piano like a virtuoso. Some things are programmed by heredity and DNA. But not everything. There are things we can do to nurture growth and development, or we can hamper it.  

The same is true in the spiritual realm. Those who are in Christ cooperate with the Holy Spirit as they grow in grace and obedience. They may also hinder the process. In 1 Peter 2:2, the apostle tells us to “crave spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” The Greek text literally says that we grow “into” our salvation. It almost sounds as if there is a mold, and spiritual growth is the experience of being poured into it. In a way, this is true. The shape of spiritual growth in its final form has already been determined for us. It is not a list of behaviors but a person. We are growing into “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

But the process of growth is not automatic. There are some Christians who seem to be stalled in their spiritual development while others grow more quickly. What makes the difference? Is there a secret to spiritual growth? The primary means that God uses to nurture our growth is the word of God. Peter describes it as “pure spiritual milk” and tells us that we should “crave” it. This command is a little surprising. It implies that we have a responsibility to be disciplined in our intake and cultivate our hunger. In a way, Peter tells us to develop a taste for God’s word.

Spiritual growth is not automatic.

When it comes to ordinary food, we develop a craving by tasting it. This is also true of God’s word. But many Christians find that the taste for God’s word does not come automatically. They may begin to read Scripture and find that parts of it are hard to understand. There are many stories in the Bible, and they don’t understand the background. Or maybe they don’t enjoy reading. So they begin but quickly lay the Bible aside.

Acquiring a taste for the Bible begins with a conviction about the Bible itself. We read it because it is more than a book. It is the word of God. Our belief about the Scriptures is the same as the Thessalonians, who “accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God,” which is at work in those who believe (1 Thess. 2:13). The truths of the Bible not only work on us. They work in us. God’s word transforms those who crave it.

Prayer is another practice that contributes to our spiritual development. There is more to spiritual growth than learning to perform a series of spiritual tasks. It is growth in our relationship with God. If Bible is the primary means that God uses to speak to us, prayer is how we talk to God. When we pray, we not only make requests, we also worship, unburden our hearts, and spend time in God’s presence. Prayer is not conversation so much as it is communion.

We do not need to go to great lengths to get God’s attention when we pray. Nor do we need to make clever arguments. Jesus assures us that God not only hears our prayers but also says that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). “He is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade him,” John Stott observes. “He is our Father–a Father who loves his children and knows all about their needs.

In most cases, spiritual growth is not something we experience in isolation. God has designed the spiritual life so that it flourishes best when it takes place within a community of believers. The Bible’s name for that community is church. Ephesians 4 says that Christ has gifted the church with individuals whose ministry is “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). Those that he lists include pastors and teachers who exercise a ministry of God’s word. They proclaim the gospel and teach the truths of Scripture. Those who are trained by their teaching implement what they have learned by building up the body of Christ.

We do not experience spiritual growth in isolation.

We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We think of church as a place we go to worship. But the Bible speaks differently. On the one hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the apostle Paul describes how the Corinthian believers “come together as church.” According to this, church is something we do. It is the act of coming together as those who worship and follow Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, the apostle also speaks of church as an identity. Church is what we are. It is a community of those who belong to Christ.

Christians come together as church to experience the reality of God’s presence through worship. Another reason the church gathers is to hear the word of God taught. When Acts 2:43 gives a snapshot of the life of the early church, it says that the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Christians meet together to study God’s word to know how to be the church when they go their separate ways. A church is a community bound together by what Jesus Christ has done and what it has been taught.

In the natural realm, eating and exercise go together. Food provides fuel for growth and activity. The same principle holds in the spiritual realm. Spiritual development comes when we combine spiritual nourishment with obedience to what we have learned. Ultimately, however, it is God who makes us grow. God has given both the word and those who teach it. His Spirit grants us understanding and empowers us to obey. Spiritual growth is not an accomplishment for which we can take credit or feel pride. Like everything else in the Christian life, it springs from grace. Those who grow spiritually “grow in grace” (2 Pet. 3:18). Just as God is the source of our spiritual life, He is the secret behind our spiritual growth.

Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

Since You Asked

I was on the radio yesterday morning. It was one of those call-in programs where people ask questions about the Bible. The regular person (the man who has all the answers) was gone. So they called me. I didn’t mind. But I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it. My answers were too tentative. Too qualified. Too many long pauses while I tried to locate the chapter and verse. On radio the rule is talk first and think later. Or at least, think while you talk. I can do both. But I find that it usually works better if I think first.

Still, I stumbled through to the best of my ability. Do this sort of thing often enough and I suppose you eventually come up with a supply of stock answers. I have answered questions on the radio often enough to notice that they are almost always along the same line. The questions themselves are not exactly the same. But they usually fall into the same basic categories. They are the sort of questions that everyone asks:

“If God is a God of love, why is there suffering?”

“Will God really punish the wicked?”

“Are we free to choose God or does he choose us?”

“And just who does God think he is anyway?”

 About half-way through the program (somewhere between the question about the Nephilim and the one about the origin of evil) it dawned on me that most of my callers were not looking for answers so much as they were hoping for air-time. They were not asking questions. They were making a point. And they are not the only ones. We all ask questions like this. We say things like, “Is there a reason you left your unwashed dishes in the sink?” or “Do I have to do it myself?”

 These are questions but only in the technical sense of the word. They are not intended to solicit information. Not really. More often than not the answer is implied in the question. So why do we ask them? Sometimes we ask them to make the other person feel foolish. The point made by the question is self-contradictory. More often the question is intended to provoke a response. The Bible is full of these kinds of questions.

God, in particular, seems fond of them:

“Where are you?”

“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Who do people say I am?”

 If the Bible is any indication, we are just as prone to ask such questions of God:

“How long, O Lord, how long?”

“Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

“Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect another?”

 Usually, our aim in asking God such questions is the same as my callers. We hope to make a point. We want God to see the inconsistency of his position. We aim to provoke him to action. And sometimes, we are even interested in his answer.

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

Are You “The One?”

During a faculty workshop on leadership yesterday, it occurred to me that churches and Christian organizations are drawn to messianic models of leadership. Our prayers and search processes seek to reveal “the one” who will lead us into the organizational land of promise. Occasionally the search uncovers an individual who ushers in a “golden age” which lasts only as long as that leader’s tenure and is usually un-repeatable.

More often it results in disappointment. The search for a messianic leader proves unfruitful and the organization settles for an “ordinary” person who must lead in the face of unrealistically high expectations and the inevitable criticism that comes when their leadership falls short of the ideal. This cycle of search and disappointment is mirrored by leaders who share the same kind of idealism in their expectations of those who are led. The gypsy church member who wanders from church to church in a futile hunt for the ideal pastor has its parallel in the restless pastor who moves from congregation to congregation searching for “teachable” elders or a “responsive” flock.

The most revealing moment in the workshop for me came when the presenter cited Patrick Lencioni’s observation that functional teams succeed because they “acknowledge the imperfections of their humanity.”  This is not the natural tendency of idealistic cultures. Because we expect so much of our leaders, we are more prone to criticize their imperfections than to acknowledge them.

No wonder we are so often disappointed. If Lencioni is right, the first step to successful leadership does not lie in finding the perfect leader but in accepting our collective imperfections as a leadership team. Lencioni’s observation assumes that leadership is a community rather than an individual discipline. It is a messy practice marked by imperfect choices, occasional chaos and constructive conflict.

Downward Facing Dog

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Image via Wikipedia

 

 Al Mohler made headlines recently when he criticised the practice of yoga. According to an Associated Press report, Mohler stated that yoga’s idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine is “just not Christianity.”    

Of course, Christians who practice yoga are not using it to reach the divine consciousness. They are hoping for a more earthly benefit. They want to relieve tension, lose weight or tone their muscles. They are pragmatists not religious syncretists. Though I suppose the one may too easily lead to the other.    

In view of Mohler’s criticism and in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel that I must confess that I too have dabbled in yoga. That is to say, I tried the yoga module on Wii Sports. But not for long. I think it was the pose called “downward facing dog” that defeated me. I tried to follow the directions but somehow it turned into “Fat Man Without a Natural Sense of Balance.” I must admit that at that time I did not question the spiritual roots of yoga. Only whether it was really possible for me to arrange my limbs in the position I saw displayed on the screen. And who would help me get out of it if I succeeded.    

Working For God: Part I

Before I entered the ministry I worked for the General Motors Corporation trudging up and down the floors of the company’s world headquarters in downtown Detroit delivering telegrams. Every floor seemed to have its own culture. There were the computer technicians in their white lab coats in the basement who always seemed glad to see me. A few floors up the sales managers greeted one another in the hallway and talked about their golf game. I could feel the competitive tension between them when I stepped out of the elevator. 

High above us all, like the gods of Olympus, the president and vice–presidents were housed on the fourteenth floor. Visitors gained access to their wing by passing through a large glass door that served as a kind of veil into the holy of holies of the corporation. All who entered underwent the scrutiny of a stern looking security guard. This floor was a place of dark wood and dim light. The air was heavy with important decisions. Intimidated, I passed through those offices like a ghost, rarely speaking and barely noticed.

Although I liked my job, I spent much of my time wishing I could be doing something more “meaningful.” Eventually, I got my wish. I quit working for the automobile company and entered the realm of “vocational ministry.” I soon discovered that “full–time–ministry” had much in common with the world of work I thought I was leaving behind. It is tedious at times. It too has its share of mind numbing meetings that seem to go on forever and produce little result. I found that those in the Christian workplace could be driven by the same goals and beset by the same problems as their secular counterparts. I should not have been surprised. While I consider my chosen vocation to be more than a job, it is still work. This is not a bad thing. “Work,” Eugene Peterson has observed, “is the primary context for our spirituality.”

Ministry is my vocation. It is also my career. This is both a blessing and a curse. Its curse is that it means I am tempted to approach my vocation with the mentality of the hireling. One who is merely a hired hand will do the work but will not take responsibility for the outcome. The hireling does only what must be done and will do no more. When the task demands more than expected, one who is merely hireling does not possess the degree of commitment required to meet the challenge (cf. John 10:12–13).

Yet despite this threat, it should be noted that Jesus Himself introduced the metaphor of the “worker” into Christian ministry. It was Jesus who sent the disciples out and told them that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). The apostle Paul used this standard as the basis for his guidelines to those who provide for the church’s elders (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Because my vocation and my career are the same, I enjoy the privileged of devoting myself without distraction to the calling that I love. I don’t have to try to fit it in around my regular job.

Those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially deserving.  Ministry is our work. It is good work, worthy of our time and energy. Hard as it sometimes is, it is work that is well worth the reward which is yet to come.

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #10: Feeling Inadquate

Anyone who has seriously considered all the challenges a pastor must face cannot help feeling inadequate. The task is immense. The stakes are high and the things which are most important to us in our ministry are usually things over which we have little or no control. Like the apostle Paul we ask, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:16).

 The answer to this question is that we are equal to the task. Not because of the strength of our personality, our native intelligence or even because of our spirituality. Instead, “our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). Despite this biblical assurance, feelings of inadequacy do not magically disappear once we enter the ministry. They may even increase the longer we serve, as we discover just how dependent upon God we are for success. Nevertheless, God has promised to make us “competent ministers of the new covenant.”  

 This demands an important caveat. The competence that the Bible promises is mission specific. It is a competence related to the gospel. Contrary to popular dogma, you cannot do “anything you set your mind to.” In the body of Christ the eye is not meant to function like the hand. God supplies ability to each according to their gifts and calling. John Newton warns, “If you had the talents of an angel, you could do no good with them till his hour is come, and till he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.”

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #9: Preaching Beyond Our Experience

Pastor4
Image via Wikipedia

 

I once heard a pastor lament, “My prayer is better than my preaching and my preaching is better than my life.” One of the great challenges of the pulpit is that of preaching beyond our experience. We are the first to feel the sting of the sermon’s reproach. In preaching against the sins of others, we censure ourselves. This is not hypocrisy. Those preach to others must preach to themselves first (Ro. 2:21; 1 Cor. 9:27).  

Preaching also takes me beyond my own experience because by it I offer hope for those whose sin or suffering may exceed my own. I do not have to have personally experienced all that those who hear me have experienced in order to speak with authority about their situation. I do not need to become an alcoholic to offer hope to the alcoholic or an adulterer to speak with authority to the adulterer. Jesus has already “been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The word of hope that I have to offer is based on his experience not my own.  

 One obvious implication of this challenge is that those who preach must do so with humility. We do not speak as those who have mastered all the disciplines of grace. There may be many in the congregation who are further along in their walk with God than we are. But we need to be just as wary of exaggerating our sins for the sake of credibility as we are of exaggerating our victories. We do not preach ourselves but Christ. It is God’s word not our personal experience that is the standard by which others should measure themselves.  

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #8: Prophet or Priest?

I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.

 The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11).  The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).

 Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them.  Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.

 The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?

Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.