Finding a Church, Part 3: Sometimes all it takes…

22 08 2009

I spent the majority of   Thursday in the stock room of the store, hanging and sizing T-shirts, sweatshirts, and athletic shorts.  While I was back there, deliveries arrived from various companies, and the representative would often come inside and chat with the managers for a few minutes before heading back onto their delivery route again.

One, a middle-aged paper saleslady, lingered a little longer than most.  From the clothing racks, I could hear her discussing everything from healthcare reform to her church’s mission trips to Africa.  When I approached, she was discussing the book Unchristian, and I piped in and told her I had enjoyed that book last year.

She turned her attention to me, and upon finding out that I was new to town, added, “I don’t know if you have found a church home yet, but my husband and I have been going to XYZ Church for the past 5 years, and we really like it.”  She proceeded to tell me all about her church’s different ministries and why it felt like home to her.  I thanked her and told her that we might check it out sometime.

See that?  See how easy that was?  I tend to get nervous about inviting people to church, for fear of offending them or intruding upon their already-established spirituality.  But being the newcomer to town, I appreciated her invitation so much!  And even if I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have been offended.

Of course it’s not appropriate to walk around and harass random strangers into going to church with you.  But this invitation was natural.  I think, more often than not, we are in danger of missing obvious opportunities to represent God in the world than we are of being too aggressive.

The paper saleslady’s church is a well-known megachurch in the area, and I’m not entirely sure that we would find our home in a place so large.  But even in megachurches (and perhaps, especially in megachurches) a personal invitation can go an awfully long way.  I told her we might check it out, and you know what?  We just might.

Godvertiser’s post from a few weeks ago talks about first-time visitors and how we as a church can do better about extending hospitality to visitors.  One key thought from this article: “Another critical point to understand is that all this is not a mandate for the pastor or staff alone.  It must be lived out by everyone who attends your church regularly.  Just as everyone knows where the bathrooms are, they need to understand how to greet visitors and enfold the one-time visitors to your church.”

The work of evangelizing and inviting and welcoming is a duty for all of us.  Both inside and outside of church, we need to do a better job of looking out for people’s spiritual needs, jumping on opportunities, helping those who look a little lost, speaking well and explaining our churches to visitors.

Because sometimes, all it takes is something small.

Finding a Church, Part 2: Denomination

11 08 2009

There are hundreds of beautiful, historic churches in downtown Atlanta.  Whenever we go driving around, I look out the window and say things like “That is such a pretty church! … Look at that pretty church! … What a pretty church! … There are so many pretty churches around here … ” ad nauseum.  I think Jordan is altogether tired of having to hear about Atlanta’s “pretty churches.”

These pretty churches all tend to have names like: Peachtree Presbyterian Church.  Peachtree Christian Church.  Peachtree United Methodist Church.  Peachtree Episcopalian Church.  Peachtree Baptist Church.   (Like I’ve said, there are at least 10 streets called Peachtree).

So far, however, we have not attended a “pretty church.”  And neither of the two churches we have visited have their denominational affiliation in their name.

You see, we’re not altogether sure what denomination will fit us best.  On the one hand, this uncertainty is a great thing, because it means we are not limited in our church search.  We think we could potentially fit in at any of the Peachtree church types.  On the other hand, this uncertainty adds another layer into our discernment process: our visits must evaluate both the denomination and the individual church.

Denominations certainly are convenient.  When you attend Peachtree Presbyterian Church, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.  And when we investigate churches, a denominational affiliation gives us a clue into the church’s psyche and what they believe.  This holds true even for unconventional denominations, like Vineyard Churches.  We can pore over the denominational website and make a lot of inferences about the local church in question.

However, we both agree that while we may feel comfortable attending, for example, an Episcopalian church, it would be a huge step to actually transfer our denominational membership.  I know that is several steps away, but it leads me to wonder… is that the goal?  Are we supposed to find a church where we feel comfortable worshipping and fellowshipping (I know, that’s not a word)  for now?  Or are we supposed to be looking for a church to join indefinitely?  (This is particularly problematic in the case of Baptist churches, whose autonomous church structure means that each church can make its own rules and define its own beliefs.  But while I may feel at home within a Baptist church, I would not feel comfortable being a member of, for instance, the Southern Baptist Conference)

And another thing: I know there’s a trend afoot to leave off the denomination from the church’s name.  This apparently is an effective tactic, as it has certainly influenced our decisions about where to attend church.  Somehow, the “non-denominational feel” seems more neutral, less threatening, less polarizing.

However.  If you are,  in fact, affiliated with a larger ecclesiastical organization, I feel like  it is deceitful to not be upfront about that affiliation.  It really does matter to people like us.  And if you are “ashamed” of your denomination or feel that listing that would somehow drive people away…perhaps you should listen to that instinct and figure out why.

Finding a Church: Part 1

10 08 2009

We went to a new church yesterday.

We had pored over various church websites all week long and finally settled on a young church-plant that met in an old apartment building.  The service started at 10:30.  We left our apartment at 10:20.  Perfect timing.

Then we got lost (actually, what really happened was that we ignored our GPS).  By the time we pulled into the parking lot, we were 10 minutes late.  We didn’t want to be too conspicuous on our first visit, but we were comforted by the fact that other, apparently regular, churchgoers were just walking in.  So we went in, took a program, and found a seat on the very back row.

By 11 a.m., I knew we weren’t going to find our new church home here.  Jordan did, too–and we could read each other’s facial expressions and body language like an open book.  By the time it was time for the coffee break (yes, they had a coffee break during the middle of the service!) we contemplated leaving.  But, out of politeness, and not really wanting to leave our seats for any reason, we stuck around.

There was nothing “wrong” with the church.  It is a growing ministry that obviously “works” for those within it, and I commend it for that.  It just didn’t fit us, and what we were looking for.  I blogged recently about how uncomfortable that first church visit is, because you find yourself being incredibly judgmental about every aspect of a particular service.  It doesn’t feel right–and I know it’s not fair—but it happens nonetheless.

I’ve been thinking about those snap judgments, and first impressions, and how very important they are.  By the first 15 minutes at the first church we visited, we felt comfortable.  The church felt genuine.  It “fit.” (Why we’re still looking is another story).  However, by the end of those same 15 minutes at this second church, we felt totally out of place.  (Although I’m willing to bet that someone else could have had the exact same experience, in reverse)

What made that happen? I’m still not sure, but I’m willing to find out.  Over the next couple of days, as we seek out a new church to attend next Sunday, I’m going to be reflecting on what it is that we are looking for, and how we are evaluating our visits.

Churches are not one-size-fits-all, and our spiritual needs are certainly not representative of every seeker.  But surely, in the vast urban landscape that is Atlanta, there is at least one church that has a place prepared for us…

Church Shopping

19 07 2009

No church is perfect. Even the one you attend every week — the one you have chosen to join, the one that feels like home. Like an old friend, you know where its flaws are and accept it just the same … warts and all.

We’re currently searching for a church, and I have to say, the process of “church shopping” is incredibly unnatural simply because it turns that feeling of acceptance on its head. When you only have a one-hour worship service to evaluate every aspect of a particular church, everything comes under intense (and often unfair) scrutiny. On your first Sunday at a church, every word the preacher says becomes representative of the church’s creed; every note of music becomes representative of the congregational worship style. You find yourself caring about things like stained glass windows (or lack thereof); methods of taking communion; etc.

But something remarkable happens, the more and more you go back to the same church. You begin to make allowances as you see why they do things that way. The more people you meet and the more you become involved, the more you (hopefully) realize that this church is just another part of that same body of Christ.