I moved to a new city recently. Aside from my coworkers, I don’t know a single person here, so that means I’m flying blind when it comes to tracking down a solid faith community.
If you’ve ever visited a new church, then you know the moves. You want to visit, but you don’t want it to be a whole thing. No welcome team. No “visitor reception packets.” Just let us have a cup of coffee, worship and a sermon, and let us go home to make up our minds about this place in peace, thank you very much.
Wait, you say, can’t you just ask your coworkers for help? Psh, I could, if I was a rookie. Let’s make one thing clear: I work alone. Only sticklers waste time “consulting their friends” about churches. I set out in my new surroundings ready to people-watch, take names and fill out precisely zero “connection forms.”
I know this is going to blow your mind, but that plan bombed. Sunday after Sunday, I slid into the back row of churches with names like “New Life Community” and “Zenith” only for them all to run together.
Sure, there were style changes, but after about a month I had a steady progress sheet of “alright” churches. What was wrong with my church-shopping game?
After a month of botched church visit attempts, I sucked it up and did something neither I, nor anyone I know, has ever done as it relates to their church-shopping experience. I asked for professional help.
Kara Powell is executive director at the Fuller Youth Institute. It’s her job to look at youth movements in churches and comb data to learn exactly what young people want in a church. At this juncture, I had no idea what I wanted. I knew the kind of church I liked, but finding it was proving tough. If anyone could help me get my bearings, it was Powell. She’s a pro.
Powell has researched over 250 churches in the United States. Most congregations, she says, are shrinking in size and growing older. It’s vital that these churches find a way to engage with millennials, but the research says that “old-school” church values like dense theological teaching or pious worship aren’t as important to young people as another, perhaps more “new school” factor: community.
“For people in their 20s, the need for community with people in their life stage is obvious,” Powell says. “A lot of churches think that community needs to be really hip and cool, but that’s not what we found. It was more about community that was warm and welcoming. Warm is the new cool when it comes to young people.”
I could track with that. I became a Christian in college, and one of the things that made for an instant evacuation whenever I tried out a church was if I feltthey were pandering to me. If a space was modeled after a coffeehouse or a production studio or, heaven forbid, a “loft,” I was going to ghost on them faster than a wildly awry Tinder date. “Don’t be cool,” I wanted to tell them. “Just be real.”
So my time with Powell reoriented me toward a new goal: Don’t find a church, find a community.
Done and done. That sounded simple enough, so I figured that’d be the extent of my professional advice. “Slow down,” Powell says. “There are some new rules to follow.”
RULE NO. 1: ADHERE TO YOUR PREFERENCES, BUT DON’T BE AFRAID TO FLEX.
I’ve been doing things my way since the start. If it’s my taste to go to bigger churches with a modern worship style and scholarly teaching, I’m gonna stick with that. Indie-acoustic churches or suit-and-tie affairs? Please. I know how I like my Jesus, and that means served up without a fussy, geriatric choir.
Powell said I should spend roughly 80 percent of my time church-shopping at places that fall within my personal church values and about 20 percent of the time experimenting. “This is one of the best times to question your assumptions on what church means to you, so don’t waste this opportunity by only looking at churches that fall into a narrow strike zone. Question your initial assumptions.”
So, in other words, try a different style one out of five times? I can work with the brass on that.
RULE NO. 2: TRY MULTIPLE CHURCHES MULTIPLE TIMES.
That violates one of the pillars of my MO: “Don’t let them remember your face.” I’m trying to stay invisible in there, and now Powell’s telling me to revisit the scene of the crime? Ridiculous.
Powell says once you’ve discerned an elite tier of churches you like, go back to each of them one or two more times. “You can’t always judge the depth of a community in a first visit. Go to a small group or an outreach where you come to understand how committed this church is to being authentic and caring about their neighbors. You can tell a lot about a church by what it says on a Sunday morning, but you can tell more about a church by what it does outside of Sunday mornings.”
Visit a church at a non-Sunday function, she says, like a Tuesday small group or Saturday feeding of the homeless. I had to admit, seeing a church outside of its Sunday morning context made sense.
RULE NO. 3: SHOW UP EARLY, AND ASK QUESTIONS.
Powell cut to the chase: “It’s tempting when you’re visiting a place to slide in as unnoticed as possible, but I think it’s a mistake. You find out a lot in the five minutes before or after the worship service starts. So I would say get there early. You learn a lot by watching people greet each other as they come in.”
I’m no stranger to people-watching during service, but to be honest it’s more along the lines of “let’s gauge all my dating prospects” or “let’s take surreptitious pictures of the guy trying to stay awake” than the things Powell was telling me about. Her point: If the goal is to find community, I need to pay attention to the kind of community the church fosters.
Powell’s advice: Show up five minutes early, then have one five-minute conversation before you leave: “Try to meet a leader. Whether it’s a senior pastor or worship pastor, introduce yourself and say it’s your first time. Ask what they love most about the church, what they’re most excited about for the upcoming year at their church or what their biggest prayer is these days.
“Based on their [affectation] toward you as a guest, what does that tell you about the church itself?”
A pretty far cry from my usual visiting techniques, but I understand where she’s coming from.
RULE NO. 4: PUT JESUS FIRST.
The critical, unbreakable rule Powell gave me: “Pay attention to how much they talk about Jesus.” It sounds obvious, but Powell says when a church is putting the life of Christ forward, it’s reflected in how they engage with the non-church community around them. When a church is growing and letting Jesus lead, they demonstrate with their involvement with their neighbors and impact in the lives of their congregation.
Plus, on a ground level, a church that talks a lot about Jesus is prioritizing the Gospel above their own presentation.
“Christianity and Christian culture can kind of be awkward or confusing, but Jesus is always compelling,” Powell says.
In other words: Jesus didn’t pander to people or put on a front to make Himself more appealing, and your church shouldn’t either. The message of Christ should stand its own.
RULE NO. 5: DON’T GO IT ALONE.
This is when Powell laid down the final-act plot twist on me: Try not to fly solo. Church-shopping shouldn’t be a solitary affair, she says.
“Ideally this is a decision not done in isolation,” Powell says. “[Find] a close friend or mentor who could listen, ask questions and help you figure out what you’re feeling or thinking.”
It wasn’t the churches that were failing me in my streak of mission screw-ups, it was me who was failing the churches. I needed to invite someone into the church-shopping process with me because Powell says it isn’t enough to try and discern things on my own.
Finding a new church is rarely as simple as picking a new go-to pizza place. Church-shopping in a new city is about having intention with the community. That’s how you find out who’s really living the Gospel and who’s just putting on a performance.
So now when I visit a church, I’m less like a spy and more like a tourist trying to soak up every experience that I can. It involves a little more vulnerability than I’d like but, if you can’t be vulnerable at church, where can you be?