I grew up in church. My earliest memories include my dad leading acapella worship and my mom doing everything from preparing communion to leading Vacation Bible School. We didn’t live near extended family, so the people occupying the pews were our family. I’m not sure I was ever able to accurately discern the difference between a Sunday service and the fellowship that happened around potluck tables. Both were holy, healthy experiences for me.
Joy. Connection. Community. Those words best articulate my earliest experiences with church and the body of believers. That was, until the church split. One decision tore our tiny congregation right down the center-splintering my one source of security.
Eventually, we found another church, a new place to belong, and new people to call family. Funny though, I am not sure I ever understood the reason our tiny church split. How did some people feel the need to stay, while others [like my family] were gone in a flash? What was the motivation on each side of the decision? Was one group right and the other wrong? I wrestled with these questions. Truth is, I still wrestle with something similar.
Back then, I remember an urgency to “find a new church home.” It seemed like there was a stigma attached to being a wanderer, much less a church shopper. As if somehow our faith was invalid and under suspicion because we were in transition.
Why would a weight of shame be affiliated with visiting churches? From this, I developed a belief that church “shopping” was an indicator of the depth of a person’s faith. The rhetoric sounded like…Strong Christians could find God anywhere, and shouldn’t be consumed with the style of preaching, programs, etc. In other words, no need to church shop. Maybe it was where I grew up, or the conviction of those surrounding me that shaped my belief. Either way, it was ingrained in my thinking. Church shoppers had a questionable faith and should not be trusted.
My family has been walking in a season of transition for a few years. We are wanderers. We felt a specific call to step out of the church we attended for many years and step into something new. Sounds easy enough, right? The fact of the matter is, we have yet to discover the easy part of this season. Without specifics of what the something new was, or a blueprint of how to get there, we became instant nomads.
We visited this church, that church, and every other church in our area. We were, as it turns out, church shopping. Church shopping. I sensed my own insecurity rising about this, and that’s when questions started coursing through my mind. Where did “church shopping” get a negative rap? How did it become a derogatory idea? When did it become taboo for a family to find the new place God was moving them?
We ask for recommendations for specialists. We interview potential childcare providers. We take a new car on the highway to see how it drives at high speeds. We try on the shirt to make sure the size fits. It is in our nature to check the fit on most things we welcome into our lives and homes, so what makes trying on a church so ghastly?
I have stood in numerous awkward conversations where the topic is church affiliation and the question, “Where do you attend church?” hangs in the air. I’m the girl who says, we’ve been attending this church, that church, church online, and home church—which apparently makes people extremely uncomfortable.
I have yet to uncover in scripture where church shopping is discussed as sinful or where it’s abhorred by the Lord. As I pondered this very thing, I discovered that over the years I allowed my church membership and tradition to become my identity. I served innumerable hours in various ministries within the church, and that service became my worth.
My trouble didn’t have anything to do with the church. The trouble was me. The trouble was my fear of what walking in obedience meant for everything I knew and loved. Staying in one place for a long time was my end goal. I long imagined my teaching ministry being rooted in the place where I served year after year; the same place I called “home” for two decades.
Here’s what I’ve learned in this long season…I have a strong need to belong and I value loyalty. However, if loyalty to a church is elevated above loyalty to obedient faith, it’s misplaced. God isn’t limited to that church or denomination. A gathering of believers can happen in the most unlikely places: a music studio, a living room, in a cul-de-sac, or movie theatre. I had to become a church shopper to remember the beauty of the Church in all its varieties.
Being an outsider has not been easy, but walking in the valley makes the view from the mountain top so exquisite. Our family is not there. We aren’t standing on high and lovingly looking at our valley experience. We have pitched tents along the rugged terrain in the middle of the unknown. We are chasing the call and cause of Christ outside the camp; on the fringe. Tradition is no longer our boss. Roles no longer give our lives meaning.
Obedience in this season has not been easy. Leaving the known felt stupid and unwise. Discomfort has been along for most of the past two plus years. In the middle of the awkward unknown, our faith has been stretched in ways we could not have imagined. We’ve traveled roads and encountered opportunities we would have otherwise missed if we’d stayed put.
You see, church shopping wasn’t about evaluating the performance and programming of this church or that one. It was a lesson in learning to appreciate the many expressions of faith. It was an opportunity to remember all we had forgotten. When you move, you automatically have a different perspective. Movement has a way of revealing new things. We moved from one faith mile-marker to the next along this journey of faith.
For anyone who’s ever felt betrayed by someone’s unexpected departure from your community, this is for you. Consider the back story that may have led to their decision to leave. It was probably more difficult than you know. Don’t complicate the situation by assuming a message not explicitly given.
For the church staff weary by the revolving door, this is for you. The hours you invest in planning and preparation matter. Some people will enter your building only once, but what you offer will be life-giving. Always love the unfamiliar faces. Don’t feel compelled to overdo it. Some shoppers don’t have the capacity to do anything more than sit and listen. Remember to think of yourself as a pit-stop. Offer a place to rest and a cup of cold water. It matters to those searching.
For the tired soul afraid to church shop, this is for you. For the scared soul afraid to take on the stigma of being a church shopper, this is for you. For the exhausted soul receiving value from a role you’ve held, this is for you. Follow the prompting. Chase your faith outside what you’ve always known. Listen to the voice calling and go. Don’t let fear boss you into status quo.
This church shopper will save you a seat. There’s room for your doubt. There’s room for your fears. There’s room for your questions. There isn’t room for shame, judgment, or condemnation.
Ask, seek, knock.
Don’t be afraid to shop.