Church shopping and church loyalty


I ran across an interesting posting from early April in the "wild and precious" blog, titled "In Defense of Church Shopping". The writer offers her response to the complaint from a pastor that "criticized the concept that churches are 'spiritual service providers.'" She argues, by contrast, that people have every right to take care of their spiritual needs. Furthermore, in response to the suggestion that people should not be concerned about whether they disagree with their pastor, she writes:

The truth is, anybody making this statement is probably a pastor. What is the point of worshipping week after week, listening to a person who preaches the Word and shapes the liturgy, if you have some fundamental disagreements with that person about that same Word and liturgy? Is this a tolerance test? Of course I'll disagree with any other human being from time to time -- we're human, after all -- but to state that agreement with the pastor should not be a criteria for whether one stays active in a church is an unrealistic and, frankly, disingenuous statement. You can bet the person making it, on his/her Sunday off, seeks out a worship service with a pastor they enjoy. (If they go to church at all).
She also offers the suggestion that the term "church shopping " could perhaps be replaced with "church dating":
And, as is true in my dating life (or my desire to have one, is more like it), I'm not really out for a long-term commitment just yet. I need a break from the hard work of that kind of commitment. I do want to just be able to enjoy the date without thinking too much about the future. Which means, next Sunday I may or may not want to spend time with you. I may want to go out with another church next week. Or I may be serially monogomous for a while -- a few months in this church, a few in that.
There is something to be said for this analogy between seeking out a church and dating. During one period of time, before I became fairly disillusioned with my ability to find a church that suited me, I felt like something of a "church slut", willing to flit around from church to church as long as any of them seemed to be in some sense progressive. Nowadays, I am more of a church celibate.

It is very possible that I am consigned to permanent religious singlehood, and that I will never get "married" to a church.

One of the problems is that I think that some people have a built-in concept of loyalty to a church or denomination because that is what they grew up with, but for those of us who are coming in from the cold, the dynamic is different. Those with a built-in history can put up with more disagreement with the pastor or other problems because it is "their" church that they are a part of. It is also easier for such people to be dissidents, radicals, heretics, or troublemakers. For them, there is a brand loyalty, whose role in these matters is sometimes quite significant. But what if you are a radical, heretic, or dissident who comes into a church from the outside? I feel uncomfortable playing the role of the iconoclast for a congregation of which I am at least initially an outsider. It isn't "my" church, I don't have the built in loyalty in the first place, and I don't go seeking out a church in order to be a troublemaker. If I had a history with a given church, it would be different.

I think the question, "Is this a tolerance test?" is a valid one. I don't expect complete agreement with everyone in a church, including the pastor. But if I'm not on the exact same page, I'd like at least to be in the same chapter. I can think of better things to do on Sunday mornings than sit though an experience I don't particularly enjoy.


Andrew said...

When my wife and I were "church shopping" years ago we ran into an interesting situation.

We had visited a church one Sunday morning but we both agreed that we would not be making a return visit. Later that week I got a call from the Pastor. He must have gotten our info from the check we had put in the offering.

He wanted to meet with me for lunch sometime. I told him that we were just visiting and that we were going to be at another church next week. This declaration seemed to annoy him, he went off on a rant about arrogant Christians bopping from church to church on a whim. They were just trying to find one that tickled their ears. He challenged me to listen to God and stay settled, and he expected to see us Sunday.

We didn't go of course.

The next week I got a letter from him, repeating much of what he had said to me on the phone.

I think his folly was typical of many Pastors. He had come to think of it as HIS church.

Mystical Seeker said...

Wow, Andrew, that is an amazing story. The pastor of that church was using a strategy that was almost guaranteed to have the opposite effect of what he was trying to accomplish.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Wow, a strategy I'd not heard of! I don't think I'll adopt it, though.

I respect the principle of the spiritual journey, which may mean not finding a permanent home. On the other hand, if a church is a community that is on a journey together (obviously most churches haven't gotten to this point of being true communities), then there needs to be commitment to the body itself. I've done enough moving around that I'm not a good advocate for staying forever, no matter what, but I'm more and more convinced that it's important to find a community to share in. But that's not what I wanted to focus on.

You mentioned the issue of being on board with the pastor/church -- if not on the same page, at least in the same chapter. It brings to mind the issue that faces/faced Barack Obama. People questioned how he could have spent 20 years (actually 16) as a member of Trinity UCC. The answer is he found a home, and even when not on the same page, he was in the same chapter. He didn't buy the more outrageous statements but accepted the importance of social justice that Jeremiah Wright preached. He stayed because it was his home -- even if he didn't agree on every point.

Kay said...

A long long time ago (well, not so long really) when I first started blogging (on Songs of Unforgetting) I was told, in essence, that I should go to a church where I don't agree with the pastor in order to try and create change from within.

I disagreed, of course.

Brook said...

I am reminded of one of the more nauseating moments working at a christian radio station a couple decades ago. there was a song they had in rotation (I can't remember the artist) that was a boogie-woogie doo-wop kind of song, the chorus of which was "don't you go doing that church hop, don't you go doing that church hop". aside from the horrible lack of art it represented, I remember even then having fundamental disagreements with the concept. Of course, there is a balance, and with all arguments, there is truth on both sides. I think "church" is literally a community of believers who are working out their faith together, and as such, I would suggest that the "Sermon" (or message) shouldn't be the focal point. I have friends who go to a church in their city, and some of them will often bring a book to read during the service. BUT, they are very involved in the COMMUNITY aspect of that church (functions, outreach to the homeless in the area, getting to know one another, etc...). I can see how involvment with each other in a community would be very difficult if no one ever got the chance to know each other before trying someplace else. Community and fellowship requires some level of consistent commitment. But if there is no connection (or indication that there could or should be) with the pastor or the people, I can't imagine why one would stay (unless they had the saviour/martyr complex thing that Kay seems to be alluding to). I think the major problem is that our concept of what "church" is has gotten very far off the mark.

Frank said...

The liturgical churches have a slightly different approach. Catholics will say they go to mass for the Eucharist. If there's a good sermon, that's a bonus but not necessary. A sermon is only one part of a service that includes the Eucharist, music, and other ritual.

This is intentional... its set up to prevent the ego of an individual pastor from getting too unwieldly. There are downsides too, such as the lack of improvisation during a mass or the lack of skill in delivering a sermon, sometimes. But among the benefits is that there is a tradition that is larger than any one pastor, celebrated through history and across the world.

The end result is that its easier to go to mass even if Fr. So-and-so is an idiot, because were are going for a different sense of communion. The service doesn't hinge as much on an inspirational sermon as it does for the non-liturgical churches. However, it could also be said that angst for the pastor is simply replaced with angst over the churc hierarcy, which makes its presence felt, as well.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, you raise a good point. I do think that a lot of Protestant churches tend to focus a lot on the sermon as the centerpiece of the service. Yet if you look for church as a way of connecting to God sacramentally, then there are a whole different set of expectations.

The lack of improvisation is also an interesting point. The one truly improvisational worship experience that I am aware of is the unprogrammed Quaker meeting.