So, you’re looking for a church.
The question is, where do you start? And what do you look for? The task of finding a community where one can connect, worship, and serve can be surprisingly challenging: while 73 percent of Americans identify as Christian, only 35 percent attend church. If church is meant to be the gathering place for Christians, and America is spoilt for choice in terms of churches, why is it so hard to find a good “fit”?
Not long ago, my husband and I were in the same boat. Brand new to the U.S., we scoured the internet looking up churches in the area we’d be moving to. Many seemed to have potential, but no one church seemed to jump out as “the one”. If there had been a church-matching service like this one, we may well have signed up:
The truth is, finding a church can be hard. But it is also true that the consumerist culture we live in makes it harder than it needs to be. Like Nick and Molly in the Church Hunters video, we are in trouble if we set out to find a “perfect fit” church catering exactly to our felt needs and comfort levels. We live in a world where we can customize our beverages, playlists, work hours, itineraries and even the news that comes our way.
But we can’t customize God’s people. One of the wildest things about God’s Church is just how messy its make up is.
A ‘Biblical’ Church
The early church at Corinth would not have been on anyone’s shortlist if they were church hunting.
The Corinthian church—an eclectic ecclesia if ever there was one— was made up of slaves and masters, men and women, and people of vastly different cultures and religious upbringings. Jews, Romans, educated men and those who had never been taught to read all gathered together because they had this one thing in common: they’d pledged allegiance to Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.
Problems abounded: some were getting drunk over the Lord’s supper, there were lawsuits among believers, and internal scandals about sex (including incest, promiscuity, prostitution and more!)
There was constant bickering about spiritual gifts and their proper use, as well as quarrels about money, leaders, and who baptized whom. The Apostle Paul had a great many corrective remarks to make to this young church (of which we just have two of his letters preserved), but yet it is of this same church that Paul writes: “I give thanks to my God always for you” (1 Corinthians 1:4).
The Corinthian church was riddled with problems, but if you wanted to experience what God was doing in the world, that glorious ruin of a church was the only option in town.
Believers today, by contrast, are spoilt for choice—with spoilt being the operative word.
The Problem With Choices
The ability to choose can quickly lead us to ingratitude: in a world of plenty we become spiritual picky eaters, snubbing our nose at fare which the starving would grab at if they could. CS Lewis shrewdly observed the spiritual dangers of this position in his Screwtape Letters. In his fictional advice to a young demon tempting a young Christian, he writes:
Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches … The search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.
We are not called to be connoisseurs and critics of church: our preferences in music, service style, church governance and how relevant we feel the teaching is can be the enemies of our becoming participants and pupils of church as God wants us to be.
Stories of long-term spiritual growth and fulfillment in church are, in many ways, similar to stories of long-term growth and fulfillment in marriage: what matters more than initial compatibility is long-term commitment to growing together, working through conflict, and learning as broken people to love other broken people well.
A wise friend offered this advice to graduating college students who would be moving to new cities and have to start the search for a church again: “Join a neighborhood church—warts and all—and love God’s people there to the best of your ability. There are no perfect churches, so join an imperfect one and find God there.”
No Perfect Churches
As it turns out, for those hunting for a church, this is profoundly good news. If there is no perfect fit in church—and the search for one is not only futile but fatally flawed in its outlook—then we can take a deep breath and relax.
If God could be present and active in the disaster that was the Corinthian church, he most certainly can show up in our neighborhood churches. This is not idealism, it is faith in action. As Paul Miller writes in The Praying Life, we need to learn to see the church through “rose-colored glasses, tinted with the blood of its savior.”
The question is not so much whether we can find the right church, but whether we have eyes to find God in the church right in front of us.
“I’ve tried not to stay here… But I love the Church, it turns out. It is the thorn in my side and and the pillow under my head and my mother and my drunk uncle.” -Audrey Assad (@Sea Podcast with Justin McRoberts)