My Dear Theophilus -or- How to Pick a Church

At various times in my life, I have been:

  • a preacher’s kid
  • a teen who actually went to youth group
  • a youth pastor
  • a children’s choir assistant
  • lay preacher
  • other duties as assigned

Those are my qualifications for helping you pick a church. I don’t have any letters behind my name, I’m not ordained, and I have no forward motion on either at this time. So if you pick a church based on what I say and it’s the wrong one? Sorry. No refunds.

The disclaimer is now in place. Let us sally forth.

  1. Get to Know the Major Denominations
    1. Don’t even think about church shopping unless you’ve done some Internet research, because you don’t want this to happen to you. The setup for the story is that my church, Bridgeport United Church of Christ, is extraordinarily liberal. Across the street is a UCC church that’s mega-conservative. I think they might handle snakes in there, but I’ve never been, so I can’t say for sure (That’s another thing you need to know about church denominations- in some denominations, everyone believes the same thing. In others, each individual church can believe whatever it wants). We thought it was a little odd that a black family dressed to the nines came to our church one morning, and it wasn’t because they were black. It’s that we were all in shorts and t-shirts and their little girl is in the laciest, frilliest frock you can imagine, complete with big damn hat. They sit down without incident, but I noticed that they looked a little green by the middle. We’d just had a rash of gay marriages because back then, the state was issuing licenses to gay people. We celebrated gay weddings in church, and the black family in all their Easter regalia (in July) stood up and walked out. They had walked into the wrong church! It has always been my hope that the family would find their way back to us, because it would have been so fun to have more children. But at the same time, you just can’t go to a church that doesn’t line up with what you believe.
  2. Decide Whether It’s Long Term
    1. Once you get to a church, take a few weeks and really think about whether this is a relationship you could see continuing until you’re dead, because a) that’s a long-ass time b) you’re not going to be in the same place in your life for your whole life. If the church you’re in is Definitely. Not. It., do not waste another minute. What you’re looking for is a church that will allow you to grow. If you’re single, you want a place where eventually you can take your partner and kids, where you all have a relationship to a community. Life is long. Choose wisely.
      1. But don’t misunderstand me. If things get rough, even at a church you like, there’s no shame in leaving. People come and go to church for different reasons, and pastors get upset sometimes, but who’s the most important person in this equation? YOU! You’re the one giving your prayers, presents, gifts, and service (Methodist shout-out alert!) and a lot of the time, your hard-earned dollars. Don’t forget- the church never has you over a barrel, but it will sometimes feel that way if you decide to join any committees.
      2. Don’t join any committees.
  3. Do You Have Children?
    1. One thing that a lot of pastors struggle with is how to grow a church, because out of all the pastors I’ve talked to, not one of them had ever had a class in seminary on how to do just that. My dad’s experience, passed on to me, is that the easiest way to get adults to come to church is to get kids to come to church first. Families don’t come back to churches that don’t have good kids’ programs, because the whole point of the exercise was to raise their kid in a church, anyway.
    2. If you already have children, but do not have a church, the easiest way to find one is to find out where your kid’s classmates go. It will be less intimidating for them because they will already know people when they get there. Just make sure that you’re going there because you can also support the church- you’re not sending them to snake handlers just because it’s all the rage at Gymboree.
  4. Join Committees! Have MEETINGS!
    1. If, however, you have been at a church long enough to know how it works, then get involved. I would say don’t do ANYTHING for the first six months to a year. You know why? Because the biggest mistake that people make when joining a church is getting involved in everything because they want to plug in SO BAD! You know why that’s a bad idea? Because that will last about six months before you’re completely burned out and you’ll leave, anyway. It’s sad, but it’s true.
  5. Accept the Responsibility of Going to Church
    1. You don’t go to church to “learn about God and stuff,” although that’s part of it. I would say that church is 20% about learning your own theology and 80% about learning to work with people that you don’t like. Going to church is HARD when you don’t like someone, and it’s so tempting to just stay home. But it’s true. Most of the time, when people don’t come back to church, it’s because they’re avoiding someone. I won’t lie. I’ve done it. And I’m betting you have, too. Rise above it and put your big girl panties on. Your church is your community of faith, whether you’re on top of the world or have a Chevrolet’s weight in anxiety on your chest.
  6. That Sounds Really Crappy, Thanks, Leslie
    1. Here’s the thing. Church is as wonderful as you make it. I’m just telling you the truth about what happens inside them. Do not forget that even though you are in the house of God, it’s still filled with humans. But it’s our humanness and our messy lives and our outrageous fights and all of those things that MAKE US DIVINE, like the Velveteen Rabbit at the end of the book. Love makes us real.

Amen.

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