A church-shopper is someone (or more than one, such as a family or group of friends) who is looking for a new church. Sometimes this is due to a recent move, sometimes there has been some difficulty in a previous church, and sometimes church-shoppers are looking for a church more suitable to their present desires or convictions.
A persnickety person is someone who is hard to please, who is over-critical, or who fusses over matters of little or no importance. In my own experience, and as I’ve talked with friends of mine (who are pastors as well), I have been exasperated (mostly irritated, but sometimes angered, if I’m honest) by just how persnickety some church-shoppers can be.
There are many and varying bad reasons to leave a church, and there are lots and assorted bad reasons to want to join a church. Let’s assume that you have every good intention, that you are leaving (or have left) your previous church well (i.e., without bitterness or unresolved conflict), and that you really want to enjoy the benefits of healthy church membership.
What kind of church should you be looking for?
What characteristics should it have?
How are you prioritizing the list of features you’ve established?
First, you would do well to make a list. I think you should probably write down what you want in a church. So often, we have an undefined expectation, which can end up landing us in a church (or out of church) simply based on feeling.
If someone asks you why you liked this church and not that one, you can probably list a few differences, but what we really need is an objective way to know why a church is true, healthier, or will suit us best. You may have heard the saying “The goalpost keeps moving.” This can easily happen when we are looking for a church to join. But to prevent that, we can make a list of what we’re looking for in order to fix the goalpost to one point on the field, and aim for it until we hit it.
Second, you would do well to evaluate your list. With your list in one hand and your Bible in the other, try to find biblical grounding or rationale for the items on your list. This may seem too elementary, but I assure you that the exercise will be worth it. Try to find a Bible verse or passage that might provide a reason for why you have each item listed there, and write the Bible citation down beside each item.
You want to hear public prayer in your church each Sunday? Great! But are you sure this is biblical? Where does the Bible speak to the subject?
You want your church to prioritize the discipling of children? Great! But what does the Bible say about that?
You want your church to have excellent music? a good youth pastor? a small building? a food pantry? a particular liturgy? Fine… But where do you see these in the Bible?
How and where does the Bible give you warrant for each item on your list?
It will probably come as no surprise to learn that a lot of what we think about as “essential” or “necessary” to church life is more formed by our personal experience or preference than it is by reading Scripture. I recommend that you make some distinction between those items on your list that are biblical (i.e., have some biblical rationale) and those that are preference (i.e., have no biblical rationale, but you still feel strongly about them). This exercise should be both revealing and edifying.
Third, you would do well to evaluate your list again. Once you’ve done the good work of trying to distinguish your preferences from your biblical convictions, invite a friend or two to help you prioritize all of your items.
There are bound to be some preferences that we should be willing to forgo in order to join a church that aligns with all of our biblical convictions. So too, there are bound to be some biblical convictions that have a greater priority than others.
One example in my own church is the leadership structure. When I first joined my present church, there were a number of committees and only one pastor. My own convictions were and are that there should be a plurality of pastors, and that those pastors should bear the authority to lead the church. Only after several years did my church make the move from a committee-led church to a pastor-led church, but I happily joined before I knew that would happen.
What are some items on your list that you cannot live without?
For most of us, the answer to this question will spring from our understanding of the gospel and our beliefs regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But even here, there will be some room for evaluation. Can you be a member of a church that baptizes believers under 18 years of age? How about one that only baptizes believers over 12 years of age? How about a church that observes the Lord’s Supper every Sunday? How about once a quarter?
And don’t forget your first evaluation! If you can’t live without an item on your list that is a preference (i.e., it has no biblical rationale or verse citation to back it up), then you are probably acting like a persnickety church-shopper.
In a culture like mine (the fading Bible-belt of the Southern United States), there are numerous church options. Within 15 miles of my house, there are Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches, Baptist churches, fundamentalist churches, Pentecostal churches, and non-denominational churches.
Under these broader categories, there are big churches and small ones, highly programmatic churches and more organic ones. There are churches with solo pastors, several pastors, full-time vocational pastors, and bi-vocational pastors. There are churches with family integrated church services and others with a full range of children’s and youth programs that aim to segregate younger people from adults.
At the end of the day, the Bible clearly instructs Christians to be members of local churches. If you want to grow as a Christian, and if you want to help others do the same, then a local church is the context in which God has designed that to happen.
May God help us all to consider our convictions carefully, to be humble as we acknowledge our preferences, and to be charitable (not persnickety) as we aim to join with other Christians in our efforts to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.