Church shopping on the internet


The best way to find out what a church is like is to attend a service. But I am not too crazy about reckless experimentation. I am afraid I might waste a Sunday morning attending a worship service that I don't really enjoy, when I could have gone somewhere else instead. Maybe the church I visit pushes certain dogmas that I strenuously object to. I ran screaming from a theologically conservative church when I was a teenager; having rediscovered the idea of going to church as an adult, the last thing I need to do is reopen old wounds.

That's where the internet comes in so handy. I don't know what people used to do for their research. I guess they just took chances and church-shopped willy nilly; or maybe they found out about churches through acquaintances and gave them a try. It must have been an arduous process of sorts. But for me, my Sunday worship experience is too precious to waste on such adventurism. I value too much the spiritual high that comes from attending a meaningful worship experience to risk going to a service that instead deflates my spiritual expectations.

One problem with the internet is that church web sites vary widely in the kind of information they give. What I look for are some signs, some clues, of progressive Christianity and tolerance of my own heterodoxy. If they are affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, that is a good starting point. Another good sign is some expression of inclusiveness and theological openness. On the other hand, if I see words like "we believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God", or "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", or "everyone who doesn't believe the right things is going to hell", then I am not likely to be interested. If the church seems promising, I also like to see descriptions of what worship is like, and perhaps also some sample sermons--either text or audio.

Of course, it is only if I dip my toe in the water and actually visit a church do I really know for sure what I might be getting myself into. The web site only points the way; the actual experience may not meet expectations. But it is scary enough for me to go to a strange church; there is so much theological baggage that I carry, and I am highly sensitive to any hint that a church pushes a little too far in a certain direction. The important point is that even if a church seems good in theory, only by interacting with the congregation would I know if it is a good fit.

It was via the internet that I discovered the church that I've been attending the past few weeks. I knew it was affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, and it was also affiliated with the UCC, which is generally a very progressive denomination; but otherwise I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting myself into. I was so nervous about it that I went by myself and parked outside the church one Sunday morning, then turned around and went back. When I finally got the nerve to attend a service, it turned out to be as inclusive and theologically open as I had hoped, and the people were remarkably friendly. Whew.