I wanted to write about how choosing a church is kind of like dating.
But before I talk about that, I think I have to talk a little bit about what church is. Or rather, what I think it is supposed to be.
Because I think there is a very common misconception of what that is. You see, it seems to be a very common perception that church is a building you go to on a certain day of the week where you sing spiritual songs and pray and listen to a message. And really, picking a church in this paradigm is all about whether or not the style of music/liturgy/sermons are appealing to you.
flickr: Val Entertainment
The original word for ‘church’ used by Paul was ekklesia. What’s interesting about this word is that it is sometimes translated as ‘assembly‘, and when you look into the period of history that Paul lived in, you find that the governmental body of Rome that is somewhat like America’s senate was called the assembly. And the assembly of Rome was often referred to as the body of Rome, much like the Church is supposed to be the body of Christ.
So the Church, really, is supposed to be the governmental body of Christ with Christ as head, just as Caesar was the head of the assembly of Rome. All this to say that the church is not just supposed to be about singing nice songs and praying, but is supposed to bring about the kingdom of God on earth much as the Roman assembly would enact the decrees that bring about the kingdom of Caesar.
But it’s about more than just that, even.
Jesus modeled for us a life of love that embraced all who came into contact with him – even his enemies. He even said, while hanging on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for then know not what they do.”
You can’t live a life of love alone.
So assembling into congregations is really supposed to be about fellowship, and learning how to love. It’s about learning how to disagree peacefully, and grow in the process. It’s about iron sharpening iron – smoothing out our rough edges. It’s about relationship. You can’t do this alone - you need other people to learn how to be patient, and gentle, and kind.
With these ideas in mind, I submit to you that finding a church is somewhat like dating.
As in dating, we enter into the relationship questioning whether or not we are compatible for the long haul. Often, we look for “things in common”–points of resonance.
But a relationship doesn’t work if all you’ve got are common interests.
Just as there would be nothing fun about a dating relationship if the person were dating were exactly like you in every way, there is no purpose to church if everyone you’re doing church with is exactly like you.
“Hi. We’re Mike.” | flickr: izzyplante
A relationship needs something to make it interesting.
Relationships grow because two people find their differences to be fascinating and they seek to explore and understand those differences.
Just as dating is really about finding out of two people are “compatible,” as in, could a more long-term relationship survive and thrive between these two people, so is finding a church about exploring the possibility of a more long term relationship between oneself and a larger community.
I’d like to submit the idea that finding a church is not about finding the “perfect” church, just like you will never find “the perfect person for me.” Believe me: that search will never end, and if this is the way you go about dating, you’re the one with the problem, not them.
Just as in a dating relationship, when searching for a church I believe there comes a point where you take the plunge–where you decide to take the church as it is, flaws and all.
So the question really becomes: if I enter into a long term relationship with this church, will it be a healthy relationship, or an unhealthy relationship? And so I’d like to explore a few ways of discerning the answer to this question.
1. Is the congregation homogenous?
This is, consciously or subconsciously, the first thing that would tip me off that the relationship with this church I’m visiting would be unhealthy. If everyone in the church seems to be one certain type of personality, dresses a certain way, talks a certain way, and likes the same things, I would run. Because this would be an immediate indicator to me that this community can’t accept diversity–they want to either assimilate those who enter their community (changing *them* to be just like *us*), or cast them out.
Homogeneity would indicate to me a rigid adherence to a system of purity codes. And I don’t care if I entered a church and found that everyone there had tattoos and piercings, either. If that were the case, it’s just a different kind of purity code where the entrance fee is to look like us and act like us and talk like us.
For me, the number one thing I would look for in a church congregation is a place that is comfortable with diversity–and not just in the ways people dress and act, but also diversity in views.
This shows a security in the church’s collective identity that does not feel a need to destroy individuality, but is willing to engage differences and seek understanding. Because I think the world needs all kinds of people – we need people who are different to challenge us and make us stronger, and we need to find ways to make room for those who are different so that we can go through this process of growing together.
2. Does the church have good dreams and goals that go outside of itself?
When you date someone, you probably want to know what their goals are. Do they have a plan for their life, and do they want to go someplace and do great things, and is there room within that plan for you? And it would be a warning bell–or it should be–to find out that those goals are egotistical and narcissistic.
Enough about me. What do you think of me? | flickr: Instant Vantage
Likewise, I would look for a church community that has goals that go outside of itself. That is to say – if the church’s only goal is to improve its own status (more people, bigger buildings, better sound equipment, recognition in the world, etc.), then this is probably not going to be a healthy relationship.
Rather, I’d look for a church community that is concerned with how to be a part of the outside community in a healthy way–a church community that is interested in having a positive effect on the outside world, rather than being so narcissistic and egotistical as to only be concerned with having a positive effect within the church community–to hell with anyone outside.
If a church community does not feel concern for what’s going on outside, it’s not really going to do a good job of ministering to those inside either.
3. Does the church put too much emphasis on the peripherals?
There are some things that are important, and some things that are not important – the latter category being what I have referred to as “peripherals”.
When I was still a single man, I once went on a date with someone who had won a rather prominent beauty pageant. I was thrilled to be able to brag to my friends about this…but I very quickly figured out that a relationship with this person would never work out.
The reason I came to this conclusion is because I discovered that she was very passionate about clothing, and shampoo, and really general topics that I honestly had absolutely no interest whatsoever. And the funny thing is that I have had great friendships with people who were interested in things that I was not very interested in, but when this is all someone wants to talk about, it’s never going to work.
It’s fine with me if a friend has an interest in shampoo and clothing, and they can even talk about it in my presence…up to a point. Once they get past that point, I’m going to tune out and start thinking about how to make my exit, to be quite honest.
In the same way, it’s nice to find a church that likes the same kind of music in their worship service that I like, and is filled with people who embrace casual dress (well, I like a jeans-and-t-shirt church, but it’s fine if you don’t). But if that’s their number one defining factor that separates them from other churches? You might have a shallow relationship on your hands.
I’ve been in churches that dogmatically held to the idea that no proper church would sing from anything but a hymnal during their churches, and that bothered me because I thought hymns were an extremely boring form of music. But what I really should have been bothered about is that the music style was so important to these churches that it trumped relationship. But likewise, if the only selling point for finding a church is that they have contemporary worship, that’s going to be a shallow and unfulfilling relationship as well.
4. Does the church welcome questions and challenging ideas, or does it try to control the truth?
This could really fall under the first topic, but I wanted to flesh that idea out a bit more. Because I think that if you find a rigid authority structure that responds to questions and challenges in a hostile way, this should be an immediate warning sign.
Just as you might run the other direction if you discovered that the person you were dating flies off the handle when they are challenged, finding out that the authority structure within your church responds in this manner would be a warning sign that you are in an abusive relationship. The leaders of your church should not be uncomfortable with challenges and questions–they ought to be secure enough to know their own reasoning and still be comfortable if you do not share their opinions. Augustine once said:
The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.
5. How does the church talk about those that are not part of its community?
This point is really building off of 1, 2, and 4, but I wanted to flesh out the idea a little bit. So does the church you are in talk about those that are not part of its community as if they were enemies? Does the church have an “us vs. them” mentality? Or do they see everyone as a potential friend? I would look for the latter.
If a church sees itself as part of a holy crusade to defeat everyone that does not adhere to its purity code, you’re going to find an abusive environment within. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says in Rom. 12:17: “never pay back evil with more evil.” Later on, in verse 21 he says: “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”
The point is, sure, it’s possible that the people your church is talking about are working towards evil. But you’re never going to overcome evil with more evil. So look for a church that does overcomes evil with good.
I hope you found these ideas to be thought provoking and interesting, and I sincerely hope that all of my readers are able to find some sort of community within which they have many meaningful and long-term relationships.
Geoff is a Pub Theologian and a geeky/nerdy programmer with three super cute kids and an awesome wife who puts up with his quirks. He is also a Progressive Metalhead, which means he listens to loud music that’s also snobbish. Geoff reads way too many books – especially the ones he’s told not to read - and is proud to have been called a “dangerous hairy tick”.