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Top three (unconventional) tips for church shopping

MarthaSQA house doctor on my CBC morning talk-show casually included in his list of things that he wished his patients would do in order to live longer and better: “attend worship every week.” This was alongside other more standard pieces of advice like, exercise, drink water and eat vegetables. Just as research has confirmed that prayer had documentable and verifiable benefits in improving the chance of combating illness, or as more recently meditation has been touted as the cure-all for everything from depression to psoriasis, so the medical community is starting to list very practical reasons (live longer, raise healthier children, lower your chance of depression) why you might want to be a regular participant in a faith community.

“Church shopping” has become the typical practice for finding such a faith community. You browse the various offerings that meet your criteria: narrow down the list of denominations you might consider, check out the preaching, find out if they have programming that meets your needs. If you have children, you may open up the search field to a variety of other denominations in order to find the one that has nursery-Sunday-school-youth-group where your children can participate.

I certainly know people who have church shopped prayerfully and faithfully and have found a community where they have been able to put down nourishing and long-lasting roots. But I also know that approaching church as just one more consumer choice in a whole life of soul-destroying consumer choices can lead to worship communities that become bound, not to the life and sacrifice and resurrection revealed in Jesus, but to meeting a wide variety of individual consumer preferences.

So here are three unconventional—but life-giving—guidelines to consider in finding a worshipping community: 

1. Go Local

Our secular culture ecstatically extols the benefits of local eating. The same logic bears on local worshipping. The days seem to have long since passed when churches were populated by their parish—ie. the people who lived within a certain radius of the physical church building.  Most people in most of our congregations drive to church, and many of them pass several other church options on their way to their destination.  But as Local Eating seeks to re-connect—your body with a sense of physical relationship, and therefore responsibility for, the world around you—participating in a congregation that is in your own neighbourhood allows a number of possibilities to open:  walking or biking to worship, deepening your understanding of the people, the economy, the infrastructure, the graces and challenges in which you live.  Going local allows you to let go, for a moment, of choosing, and instead to allow yourself to be chosen.  You are chosen. By virtue of where you are, you are chosen to be part of this. Therefore, you have something both to give, and to receive HERE.

2. “What I can do”

President John F. Kennedy articulated something very true and important for his citizens: Ask not what my country can do for me, but what I can do for my country. It is a well-known quote, and yet his words run deeply contrary to how most of us live most of the time. We are so busy trying to meet our own needs, to find the right alignment of preferences that allow us to feel we have arrived somewhere, that we miss an (at least) equally important question: where do I have something to offer? So much of the dissatisfaction in our churches, not to mention our lives, stems from our disappointment that the place doesn’t measure up: the people are too gossipy and narrow-minded, the Sunday School too small, the service too long, the preaching too uncomfortable, the beliefs too loose or too strict or too unclear or too unpalatable or….

I have a friend who believes herself called to be a priest. She is Roman Catholic. And when I asked her why she continues to be Roman Catholic when she can’t be a priest if she stays there, her answer is very simple. “I have to stay in order to be part of how things will change.” It’s a faithful and surprising outlook. And while I’m not sure I could be so patient, I admire her for it.

Don’t look for the church that would select for you if it were into church dating. Look for the church where something is being asked of you.

3. The first ten minutes

This might not sound like much of a sales pitch for joining a faith community, but there is a critical lesson here about church selection: the first ten minutes are the worst.

When I am out running, I always feel most discouraged, out of breath, and negative in the first ten minutes. I am dreading how long I still have to run; I am psyching myself out believing that today I don’t have it in me to make it through; I am conscious of every struggling breath, every twinge in my side, every ache in my knees. And if I can just get through those first ten minutes, I begin to forget. I get into a rhythm. Adrenaline might start kicking in. I begin to focus on something other than myself.

You can look for the quick fix version of church, just like you can look for the quick fix version of diets. You can look for the church that will entertain and stimulate and impress. Does it sound like I’m criticizing churches that use popular music, hot coffee and catchy sermon topics to hook people? I’m not. I have been part of leading church communities that have experimented with all of these things, often times with a lot of success in reaching out to new people. But whether you are wowed right away or whether you end up in a place with music and rituals that feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, worship will in one way or another end up being those first ten minutes of running: you will be stretched in silence or self-reflection or hope or possibility that will feel like a long and uncertain path is relentlessly bearing down on you and you can’t breathe right and you don’t think you are really cut out for this. You will be able to name very long lists of things that you would rather be doing than this. And nobody will think anything less of you if you stay in bed and have a pastry.

And that’s when you need to know—about running or going to church—that the first ten minutes are the worst and that if you can just stick with it, you will start to forget yourself and you will find yourself in a rhythm that will make your heart sing.

The way that you choose to seek will implicate the things that you will find. I baptized an adult parishioner a few years ago. Shortly after his baptism, he came to me railing against the inability of some of his fellow parishioners to articulate their faith. “Welcome to the Body of Christ,” I told him. Being part of a faith community is sure to be disappointing at times. People will like different music than you, express their beliefs in strange and even unpalatable ways. Most churches have a problem with gossip and some parishioners will have opinions contrary to yours about when you should bow in worship and whether to kneel or stand to pray.

But through the grace of God, a faith community can also provide a rock solid experience of strength and support to individuals in a time of grief, brokenness, or crisis. Rising to the challenge of working through our quirks with one another in order to grow closer to God, committing to praying for one another’s needs and joys, discovering a foundation of prayer on which we can rest in our own time of need, these experiences are fundamental in learning this truth: I am not alone.

While it can be comforting to be surrounded by the ties of blood or by the bonds of friendships we have chosen, it is a greater testament to the truly relational nature of our biology—created in the image of God—to learn to walk with the people who become our brothers and sisters through the rather arbitrary bond of faith.

Blessings to you in your seeking, your finding, and most importantly, your being found.

Martha Tatarnic

About Martha Tatarnic

The Reverend Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines. Previously, she has served in congregations in Orillia and Oakville. Her focus in congregational leadership has been in empowering justice initiatives and outreach in the small church, starting a new service, the possibilities and potentials of Anglican-Lutheran partnership, and forming disciples through the power of music. As a young mother navigating family life through the continually changing waters of modern-day life, she is passionate about connecting the dots between faith – worship - Scripture, and exploring the concerns, joys, questions, stresses, worries, celebrations, of Right Here, Right Now.
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