Note: This entry is part of my Church Search series. Of course, you can read it as a stand-alone document, but I encourage you to check out the others for the fullest context.
Because we live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, in the buckle of the Bible Belt, there’s no shortage of churches—every “flavor,” all sizes, on every corner, and in almost every shopping center. We could spend months just visiting those within a few block radius of our house.
Having a "church home" is important to us—which I'll cover more fully in a future post—and we took the process seriously. We knew from the beginning that it’s not possible to remove that indefinable, discerning aspect of the search process (“There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place”), nor the personal, emotional component (“I feel at home here”). But being a bit OCD, I wanted to have some tangible criteria for choosing where to visit. We also knew that not every congregation would make it on our list to visit. (More on that later!)
So, we defined our search parameters. I came from a traditional Southern Baptist church, and my partner is Methodist; we wanted to find something that could appeal to both of us. We discussed what’s important, what is superfluous, what’s negotiable and what is mandatory. (e.g., We are both morning people, and enjoy an earlier service more than the standard 11 am. We've visited some churches that offered it and some that didn't. Let's call that one Negotiable.)
(Note: this list is not all-encompassing, and is in no particular order)
Local. We’d been active in three churches, but none were close to where we live now. After visiting many churches, we determined that we really wanted something in our community, so our search was narrowed. And so were our choices. These days, with my health, I’m not able to drive 45 minutes to church (the distance to our previous church), sit through the service, and then 45 minutes back home. Plus, it limits my ability to get involved in other activities during the week. And since I'm now "retired," I would enjoy that option.
Pastoral Permission. I’ve been a Pastor, and know how difficult it can be; I would never go to a church where the Pastor thinks a gay couple would cause problems. Regardless of what I believe, or if I agree/disagree, I have no intention of making that Pastor’s job any harder, nor do I want to cause conflict. I don’t see church as a sparring match, but as a support system!
Several Pastors politely declined. Some never responded. One pastor of a Disciples of Christ church—a denomination that has “come out” for inclusion of LGBT people—told me he didn’t think we would find “a church home” with his congregation and requested that we NOT visit.
On the other hand, the Pastor of a local Presbyterian church enthusiastically welcomed us. She felt certain the members were ready to receive us into the church family. She was wrong. We told her that while everyone was polite and cordial, we didn’t feel they were embracing us. She encouraged us to give it time, so we did. Then one day, after we’d been visiting for several months, she saw it. She called me the next day and expressed her dismay at how we were being shut out by the members.
Our search resumed.
Social Consciousness. I think the life and message of Jesus is one that demands an involvement with those Jesus said were His priority—the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed...the “least of these.” I want to be part of a church that sees itself as a source of help, of hope, of compassion, of justice, of change.
Organizational Overhead. I’ve make it clear that I think churches invest too much time, energy and money on maintaining elaborate, attractive facilities. While I can appreciate the atmosphere in a beautiful cathedral, the artistic inspiration of an elaborate stained-glass window or the majesty of a immense pipe organ...I’d be okay meeting in a home. In fact, the best times of connection for me (i.e., fellowship) have been in smaller groups, where there’s sharing, discussion, one-on-one interaction, intimacy and accountability to one another. However, I recognize that church buildings are such a modern paradigm that I have to put this one in the Negotiable (or Not Going To Happen) column. Therefore, it becomes Important that once we've made our decision to connect with a church, there would be opportunities to be involved with small groups—Bible studies, prayer or discussion groups, community outreach efforts, couples activities, etc.
Content. I love the Bible, and like messages that delve into its rich truths. Of course, I recognize that as a former Pastor, and a teacher of the Bible for 45+ years, I’m probably not the average church member. I do my own Bible study, but there's always more to learn, and it's nice to have a different perspective. I want to be inspired and encouraged. I'm teachable, and don't mind having my beliefs challenged, but I don’t want to be told what I must believe or that there’s only one way to believe. I want the freedom to question, and not made to feel guilty if I see it differently, or have doubts. Life is hard enough, so I don't want to be yelled at, or told I'm a bad person. Don't try to scare me into heaven with talk of hell.
Show me Love.
Tell me Good News!
My partner says, "I want a sermon that’s interesting, that I can understand, and will help me live better during the next week.”
I think that’s a great criteria.
Style. Since I once traveled across the country as a Speaker/Teacher, in many churches and denominations, I've seen a variety of worship styles. I know some find comfort and strength in a formal, liturgical "high church" environment, but it's not a style I prefer. (For the record, I'm also uncomfortable with the flip side—unstructured, "anything can happen" services of some Pentecostal/Charismatic services I've attended.) I love singing those wonderful old hymns, but I also like contemporary praise music. I am not (NOT!) looking for emotionalism, but I like knowing there’s a reason to be joyful in my faith journey. (After leaving one dreary church service, I told my partner: “Well God is dead, and that was His funeral.”)
We knew that finding a church with all or most of these elements would be a challenge.
However, before any of these factors could be considered, we had to know the church wanted us there.
Some would say, "Well, everyone is welcome in church."
Ideally...but that's not the full story.
We had to move Beyond the “Welcome” Sign!
I’ll share what that means in our next post.