Friday, August 21, 2015

In Defense of Church Shopping

A couple of young adults - and good friends - in different parts of the country have recently and separately asked me about church shopping. Honestly, the integrity with which my friends have grappled with a question I assumed many young adults simply dismissed surprised me. In replying to one of my friends, I thought it might be useful to share a portion of my response (below). As is clear in what follows, I have a lot of personal ambivalence about the question, though not without some strong inclinations. That's all to say I'd be grateful for your own thoughts, insights, etc. in the comments at the end. Thanks!


To my friend, just moved to a new city:

"I'll be honest, I find it confusing when the church at large chides Christians for church shopping - not because I'm for church shopping, but because I wonder how else people are supposed to make sense of the existence, for example, of 6 Episcopal faith communities in Madison, a city that stretches 6 miles, end to end. If 2 churches are equidistant from one's home, it seems arbitrary at best to say one is obligated to only attend the church first produced in the google search. I don't have a good reason for why the church is structurally at adds with its admonitions against church shopping, unless the admonitions really mean loyalty to the Episcopal brand, which I'm all for but which is, in practice, increasingly an illusion of vestries and other denominational leadership. Even if that's the case, the idea that church shopping only refers to denominational infidelity is nowhere reflected in the way most denominational churches regard and/or record membership. 

"So, yes. Church shop. What it means to church shop well becomes an interesting and valid question for me, and I don't pretend to have anything like a satisfactory answer for that one beyond 'shop to buy.' My own short list would be a community 1) centered on the waters of baptism (i.e., Easter Vigil) and the Eucharist, and their attending rhythms of prayer, 2) with Christ the center of the preaching, related to a love of Scripture, 3) in which the gifts of the laity are visibly lifted up and encouraged, 4) and where youth are visibly valued and invested in. Even there, I'm probably forgetting something that puts me close to heresy. My experience does tell me that when most people talk about 'being fed' they mostly mean feeding others - finding a place for their own gifts to bless and serve others in and outside of the community, which is an important part of finding belonging and is probably another name for the opportunity to love and be loved.

"Pragmatically, studies show that - absent a dogged loyalism - most folks also need 6-8 friends in a community in order to call a given church a longterm (more than six months) home. And all of this assumes a monogamous relationship (one person + one community of faith). My brother and his friends attended 6+ youth groups back in the day, which at least calls into question the assumption of ecclesial monogamy as normative. Myself, I'm all for ecclesial monogamy and I am sympathetic to Brother Emile of Taizé and his contention that 'you are not obligated to be faithful to (the churches') divisions.'"


  1. Overall I liked your list of things to look for very much. Just a couple of things to add to the conversation. Everyone has natural gifts, but identifying our unique spiritual gifts given at baptism is vital because they are given for the life of the Church, to build up its members. Sometimes just focusing on natural gifts leads only to "jobs to do" rather than "ministries to serve."

  2. As for church shopping, I think it is preeminently important to find one that respects the truth revealed by God, rather than the individual desires of its constituency. One of the main purposes of the Church, besides worshiping the Trinity, is to form its members into the likeness of Christ through the mutual interaction of God's grace and a cooperative spirit. But cafeteria style shopping just to try to fit our needs and comfort level, makes it all about me. While we want to feel comfortable in a church, we might also look for something personally challenging in a church if we want to be stretched and grow more and more into the full stature of Christ. Before committing to a church that you think will feed you spiritually with the food of Christ, first be aware that no church is perfect because all are essentially hospitals for sinners. If it's not that, keep looking. And when you think you've found a marriage partner, don't be too quick to tie the knot. Date the parish seriously for a few months. Get to know what it's all about and what it's not about. Pray to discern God's voice as to whether this is a church where you can maximize your communion with Jesus. That's my 2 cents worth. 'Nuff said. wink emoticon

  3. Theological differences are kind of huge in terms of God's perspective of truth. Discernment rather than shopping might be a better word.

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Dear Bishop Sumner,

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