This may not be one of my more popular posts. But then again, if popularity were my goal, I’d be doing many things much, much differently. My aim is to speak the truth, even when it’s difficult and unpopular. This might be one of those times.
Before I get into the meat of the article, I want to say something. I’m not being critical of you for church shopping. I understand there are times when it’s necessary. It’s an American luxury to have so many choices. I’m working on an article that deals with some of the times it may be acceptable to find a new church, some of them being: When you move, false teaching, lack of community, and an inability to use your gifts. But before we get to those, I want to deal with the idea of church shopping at a philosophical level.
So, let’s assume your church has started teaching that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh. So, the apostle John said in 1 John 4: “This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming; even now it is already in the world.” So, if your church is teaching that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh, that would mean they are being misled by the antichrist. After talking with the leadership of the church and addressing the issue you’ve learned this is the teaching the church has chosen to embrace. So, it’s time to find a new church.
Unfortunately, most of the time people leave a church, it’s not for one of these reasons. As every pastor has had to experience, I’ve heard my fair share of excuses for leaving. But that’s for a later post.
Our typical approach to church shopping usually has us looking for a church in a similar way we look for a restaurant. If you’re a family with kids, you’ll likely look for a church that has the best program for your kids. If you’re a little up there in years, you might look for a church that has more traditional music. If you’re young and single, you might look for a church with all the coolest and latest bells and whistles (and probably where other young single people already go, you know, just in case…).
In other words, our general approach to church shopping is to look for what we want and then try to find it. We think that if we can find a church that has the things we want, we’ll be able to settle down there and be happy. But is that the truth?
What is happiness anyway?
Over the years, I’ve heard so many people say, “But I’m just not happy at my church.” I’m usually pretty polite about this, but I want to say, “Yeah, so?” Without getting on too much of a soapbox about happiness and our idolatry of pursuing it, we need to understand that happiness is the world’s intermediate replacement for what God really wants us to experience which is joy. Joy is so much deeper and better than happiness. Happiness is fleeting. And when that “happy” feeling fades, we find ourselves feeling like something is wrong. The only thing that is wrong is our overemphasis on happiness.
In fact, the word happy doesn’t really appear in Scripture. Some translations translate the word “blessed” as happy. For instance, some say “Happy are the people whose God is the LORD!” (Psalm 144:15) but the word is actually blessed. “Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord.” Either way, notice that it doesn’t say, “Happy are the people who get everything in their life to go the way they want it.”
True happiness or Joy is the result of trusting completely and entirely in God alone. Yes, there is much we can do to help ourselves be joyful by being grateful, being generous, and refusing to allow our state of heart to be affected by circumstances. The desire to find happiness in things beyond ourselves is actually an “echo of Eden.” God designed us to find true happiness and joy in Him. So, no matter how many things in this world we use to try to find happiness, they will always disappoint, because we weren’t designed to find happiness there.
Church shopping myth #1: Finding the right church will make me happy.
Sometimes, for a while, this happens. But eventually, something WILL happen in every church that can make your experience there “unhappy”.
Which brings me to the real problem with church shopping: it misses the point of church entirely.
Church isn’t about getting your needs met. There is nowhere in Scripture that presents the idea that we should find a church that meets our needs.
In fact, church is precisely the opposite. In the body of Christ is where we sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others. That’s what Jesus commanded us to do when He gave us the new covenant. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus gave his life for his followers, we’re supposed to sacrifice our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Galatians 5:13 – “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
We incorrectly limit the idea of “flesh” to those sins like sexual immorality and gluttony. But that’s not accurate. The “flesh” is our desires.
You may think I’m pushing it, but I’m really not. Using our freedom in Christ to pursue a church that meets our needs is following our flesh and not serving the body of Christ.
“…not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil 2:4)
Church Shopping Myth #2: I deserve to be at a church that meets my needs.
The truth is, we aren’t supposed to go to church to get our needs met. We go to church to meet the needs of others. If we all seek to serve and meet each others’ needs, then everyone’s needs get met. But if even a small portion seeks to get their needs met, it becomes a burden on all the others.
Paul said: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) A few verses later he says: “for each one should carry their own load.”
But, this isn’t the reality of the modern American church. We come to get our needs met. We choose a church based on our needs. So instead of everyone carrying their own load and distributing the needs of the body amongst the whole, the needs of the body get distributed among the minority while the majority take.
It’s commonly said that 10% of the people do 90% of the work in any given church. I’d say it’s closer to 20% to 80%, but still not a balanced approach. In our church, we’re much better than this. But, there are still some who do quite a bit more than others.
If each person needs one thing and every person has something to give, the system works. But if each person needs one thing and not every person gives something, then soon there will be those who have to give two things or three things to make up for those who don’t give anything.
But here’s the thing: church isn’t about getting your needs met, it’s about serving. God gives gifts and the point of those gifts is not so we feel better about ourselves. In fact, the gifts are given for the benefit of the body: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7) The gifts are given to manifest God’s presence here on the earth, to unify the church, to exemplify God to an unbelieving world, and ultimately to bring glory to God. (https://iblp.org/questions/why-did-god-give-us-spiritual-gifts)
Imagine if you will, a member of the early church coming to talk to you. You know, one of the ones who was oppressed and literally persecuted. Someone who risked their life lost the opportunity to work and more for their faith. Or imagine the church in parts of the world where people walk miles each way to attend. Like a church in India where people walk all day Saturday and spend the night in the church to be there for Sunday.
Imagine if they were to come and talk to you about the criteria you’re using to find a church. “Well, we just need a church that has more of a focus on ________.” “We need a church that has a better __________ program.” “We need a church where the pastor is more _________ and isn’t so _________.”
I can imagine their response. “Wait, you have a _________ ministry!? And there are churches that focus on ___________? And there are so so many churches that you get to choose between them? Wow, we just had the people we had and were grateful when we didn’t die.”
We have the point of church reversed. The point is not to get our needs met. The point is to meet the needs of others. Jesus said that “The son of man came, not to be served but to serve.” We need to go to church for the same reasons.
Myth #3: Finding the right church will make me a more mature believer.
As much as we would like to put the blame on our churches for our lack of personal spiritual vitality, we know the real reason our walk with Christ is dead. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone when you only talk to them once a week.
Look, I’ll be the first to tell you how important Bible teaching is. But here’s the thing, when I preach a sermon, I only present about 1/30th of what I studied and have learned in my life about that topic of a selection of scripture. I can do my best to teach you what I know, but studies have shown that you’ll only remember about 5-10% of what I say. That means you’re getting about 1/300th of the actual material.
Did you know that coloring sheets originated as a discipleship tool? Because people didn’t have access to the scriptures and couldn’t read, they used pictures to teach. My wife has been teaching our kids about the printing press. The kids have a hard time grasping a world where books aren’t everywhere. We have thousands in our house. And I have hundreds more at church. We have a shelf full of Bibles at church. That was unheard of a few hundred years ago and is still unheard of in parts of the world today. Not to mention the millions of books that have been written about the Bible and the infinite number of materials available online. I mean, we really don’t have any excuses for not growing in our walk with God on a daily basis.
You walk with Christ might temporarily improve when you find a new church, but odds are it won’t last. Once the newness wears off, you’ll fall back into your old habits and drift away from God.
Yes, I think churches should focus way more on discipleship. We have spent a great deal of effort on this for years at our church. But, I’ve learned something too. You can’t make people want to grow in their walk with God. If they don’t want it, it doesn’t matter how good the discipleship program is, people won’t adopt it into their lives.
Can I tell you the blunt truth? If you’re not growing in your walk with Christ, it’s not your pastor’s fault or your church’s fault. There is no one to blame but yourself. And that doesn’t need to feel condemning. It’s the truth and the truth actually sets us free. In this case, you’re in bondage to the idea that your spiritual maturity is someone else’s responsibility. It’s not. Pick up your Bible and read it. When you’re finished, read it again. Talk with someone about what you’re reading. I can’t want it bad enough for you.
So, you might find an amazing church with an incredible discipleship program, and you might say that’s what you’ve been looking for. But, if you don’t go through the hard, transformative work of discipleship, nothing will change.
I’m not complaining
I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I’m not. While we have had these kinds of issues in our church over the years, we don’t seem to at the moment. We will.
What I want is to somehow help us stop treating the church like a commodity, like a restaurant or a cell phone or internet company. It’s not about comparing service plans to see which company (church) has the most bang for your tithing bucks to offer you.
To make it simple, if the words “but I just want a church that _______” are driving your search, you might need to go back to the drawing board.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on David Lindner