Tales From a Former Vagabond

Mar 11, 2004 |Marshall Allen

Marshall learns what good parking and free lattes have to do with the perfect church.

Like all of us, I'm a fussy churchgoer with a finely refined palate.

Allow me to explain so the reverends out there can take notes. They say that "the customer is always right," so any music leader must know the songs that I find the most worshipful. I like contemporary worship choruses — but not if the lyrics are too shallow; and I like the classic hymns, but not if they're too boring; and it goes without saying that I never want to sing all eight verses! The preacher should be an orator who challenges, stirs and entertains his most important audience — me.

Furthermore, I can't handle a church where the sermon's too long or the parking lot too crowded. But don't dress your deacons in those flimsy faux construction vests to direct traffic. The aesthetic is too 99-Cent-Store-blue-collar-meets-Dockers, which we all know is distasteful. If you serve gourmet coffee from a stand called "Holy Grounds" (or some other cheeky name) I'll be pleased, but not if you charge for it. Let's face it — I'm gonna be tithing here, so the least you can do is kick in a free latte. I'm a paying customer!

STOP! OK, I'm exaggerating to make a point. I'm not really such a snob, although I'll admit that the finicky nature of the church shopper can be ridiculous. I know because I was a consumer-Christian for two of the less spiritually fulfilling years of my life. My wife and I were in our mid-20s when we moved to a city that boasted many excellent churches. So we assumed we'd quickly find a community that would be a perfect fit. Our motives were pure enough. We just wanted a place where we could worship, learn and grow in our faith. But we were also consumer-minded and therefore had opinions and expectations of what a church should provide us. We didn't want to commit to serving in a church community. We wanted a one-stop shop for spiritual growth, delivered with a bang and the appropriate amount of emotion every Sunday, between 9:00 and 10:15 a.m., thank you very much. A selfish outlook undermined our good intentions.

Here's how it happened. We started our two-year excursion by attending a typical nondenominational "community" church with some friends. The music and preaching were fine, but when I walked to my car on Sundays I had the uneasy thought that I might be more inspired someplace else. It was like the feeling I get when I'm halfway through eating Chinese takeout and I realize I am more in the mood for pizza.

After a couple months we left the church, searching for a congregation that boasted what we believed was the number one amenity we wanted — solid and challenging Bible teaching. We found excellent preaching at a local Calvary Chapel and were happy there for a season. But I soon dubbed it "Rock n' Roll Harley Davidson Chapel" because the worship musicians were throwbacks to the stadium rock era — circa 1977. We never knew the lyrics because they wrote their own songs, and their electric guitars were shaped at peculiar angles. These idiosyncrasies were tolerable for a time. But when the band chose Easter Sunday — when we prefer Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" — to debut its new album, well, we snapped. We never returned.

The next week we were bouncing again, this time spending a Sunday here and a Sunday there, Christian vagabonds anonymously searching the landscape for a church home. No church met my expectations, and I walked out of every service with some kind of critique: "I liked the music, but did you notice there weren't many young couples?" I'd say to my wife. Sometimes, I'd elevate the most minor irritants into barriers to worshipping God. In one sanctuary I fixated on a rattling air conditioner and became so distracted I wanted to Frisbee an offering plate into the contraption.

My problem, and I believe this is the problem with church shopping in general, was that I was operating under the assumption that a church should adhere to my needs, whims and desires. I wasn't willing to fully invest in a community of faith. I wanted convenience. I wanted church on my terms. I wanted anonymity — the ability to come and go without anyone expecting anything from me. The result was a nagging dissatisfaction and (more importantly) a lack of investment among fellow followers of Jesus Christ.

My former church shopping mentality — which I know has been shared by many — may explain why a recent poll shows that fewer young adults attend church than any other age group. According to a Barna Research Group study, millions of American twentysomethings, many who were involved in church in their teens, choose not to attend in their young adult years. According to the study, only three out of 10 people in their 20s attend church in a typical week, compared to four out of 10 people in their 30s and nearly half of adults age 40 and older. Church attendance bottoms out in the late 20s, according to the Barna study. Just 22 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 29 attended church in the last week, the study said.

Barna researcher David Kinnaman suggested in a press release that fewer young adults attend church because they struggle with "relational isolation brought on by their hyper-individualism." Hyper-individualism may be the distinguishing mark of the church shopper. If we're serious about our faith, we can't over-value our preferences to the point that we break relationship with God and others. Jesus Christ said his followers should deny themselves and follow him. When seeking a church, I think this means we search for a healthy congregation where we'll grow. But equally importantly, I think this means we search for a congregation were we'll be able to contribute to the spiritual growth of others. We should also look for ways to be in relationship with others — like small groups, college ministries, or Sunday School classes. The Christian life isn't about flying solo.

Now that I've abandoned my church shopping mentality, I have an entirely different outlook on the congregations I visit. For one thing, I try not to be distracted by a unique style of a service. It's my responsibility to invest in a worship service and nurture my own relationship with God. When I worship God through song it's more important that my heart and mind are focused on His holiness than on my musical preferences. The same applies to listening to a pastor's preaching. I don't need to judge a sermon based on whether it brought a tear to my eye or a smile to my face. By being open to God's teaching, I now try to appreciate how God is speaking into my life anytime someone teaches from the Bible. Losing the church shopping perspective has even helped me enjoy people more, because I don't second guess an entire congregation if I find personalities that don't gel with mine.

Perhaps even more important than personal growth, I've learned that as a member of a church community it's my responsibility to help nurture other people's relationship with God. For some reason, God wants to motivate each of us to share His love with each other, and with the world. Faith in Christ shouldn't draw one's attention to his own well-being, but to God's mission, His plan for reconciling others to Himself. Individual experience isn't the foundation of corporate worship. After all, anyone can worship God on his own. But the beauty of worshipping in a group is that it's a unified act of praise and submission. This strengthens the bonds that Christians share — and these bonds are undermined by the church-shopping mentality.

After two years of church shopping, my wife and I took the most obvious step to free ourselves from our rut — we moved 1,200 miles away, to California. Actually, we were leaving to attend seminary, but it gave us an opportunity to reflect on our failed two-year shopping excursion. As we left, we noted a melancholic absence of connection with any church community. No one at any churches would be missing us. Nor would we miss them. We resolved to change our pattern in our new home.

In California, we sought a community that was grounded in biblical truth, where they worshipped God with reverence, and where people were maturing in their faith. Also, we wanted to find a place where a young couple like us could serve. By God's grace, we found a church home our first Sunday in California and we've never been anywhere else.

Our church isn't perfect — the music is often not my taste and the preachers can ramble. But God has changed my perspective so I can invest without becoming hung up on my selfish expectations.

Copyright 2004 Marshall Allen. All rights reserved.

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