As a pastor, I always lamented the proliferation of church shopping that happened as visitors were “checking out the church.” It felt like a cross between fraternity rush week and the lottery to see whether the new family would pick our church or whether they’d end up at the church down the street with the bigger youth program and larger facility.
Well, now the tables have been turned. Four months ago, I left the church I planted in Oregon to accept a new call as the Assistant to the President at Fuller Theological Seminary (my alma mater) in Pasadena, CA (that story is for another blog post). And so, for the first time since 1996, instead of me being called as a pastor to a church and thereby given automatic celebrity status, my family has been looking for a church. Of course, our first hope and desire was to find an ECO church. And even though a couple ECO churches are within driving distance, we increasingly felt a desire to connect with and serve the people in our city, which meant finding a church in our city.
Honestly, the process has been surprisingly difficult and drawn out as we visited seven churches over our first three months. While we really do enjoy connecting with diverse expressions of the body of Christ, our recent experience includes the fatigue that comes from visiting a different church each week, the lost feeling of walking into a new space where you know no one and don’t recognize the songs being sung, the heightened sense of missing the congregation we came from, the discouragement of hearing the question from our kids on Sunday morning “Where are going to church this time?”, the sense of inadequacy that we had not discerned God’s will for a church, the newfound ability to relate to people who give up altogether searching for a church, and the temptation to frame this process as a selfish and consumeristic evaluation of what meets my needs.
It seems pretty clear that much of the church search can easily devolve into an exercise in sociology (where are people most like me? what group dynamics feel most comfortable?) rather than a process of spiritual discernment or theological convictions. I really have no idea how Jesus or Paul would respond if they were asked the question, “How should I choose a church?” Because for them, they would not think of ecclesia (the Greek word for church) as something you merely attend and certainly not something you choose. Theologically, our core understanding of election teaches us that we have been chosen by Jesus and by virtue of that, we automatically belong to the Church. Belonging to Christ and belonging to His body are inherently connected. It’s hard to imagine Paul writing to “the Baptists in Ephesus” and then separately to “the Ephesian Presbyterians.” No, the believers in a city, in that parish, belonged together and to one another.
So while I have much more empathy for the sometimes bewildering process of finding a local church, now that we have landed in a Reformed body in our city, I have a renewed and deepened appreciation for the local congregation, for the body of Christ as the anchor for our family’s discipleship, worship, and mission. The ministry of our local congregations is absolutely vital in enabling the people of God to live fully into their callings.