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Choosing a church

A follow up to What is a Christian?

The post “What is a Christian” got a huge response, in public comments, on the Facebook page, as well as in emailed observations. I undertook I would produce this follow-up post.

I certainly do not regard this post as in any way a definitive response – not even as my own final opinion. Hopefully this will be read as yet another contribution to an ongoing dialogue.

Many comments focus on the appalling experiences people have had in and through the church. We can all rattle off scandals, abuse, and hypocrisy of Christians, and of Christian communities. On the one hand such horrific evils highlight that church is a significant reality. It is not just the church that is the source of such scandals.

Money, sex, and power are significant realities in our human experience. They can be sources of great good when appropriately used, and sources of great evil when abused. The church is a similar reality – the church is a source of great good when appropriately used, a source of great evil when abused.

Furthermore, although there is some truth in church (the Christian community, the body of Christ) being a goal, that has to be balanced by the greater tradition that the church is a means – God and union with God being the goal. Getting means and ends (goals) confused always leads to confusion on the (spiritual) journey.

As well as responses from people who have been members of a church community that has hurt them significantly, or who look at the unattractive reality of abuse, there are others who have written to me expressing their struggle to find a church community that allows any discussion or dissent.

A different issue worthy of note was an example of a person coming to faith later in life, realising the significance of church/Christian community as part of that, but not having any opinions favouring one Christian tradition over another. This person is finding the experience one of “listening to all of the disparate he said she said voices shouting out like barkers at a carnival trying to tell you that their booth is the right one for you.”

I could easily list off my own list of things I would look for in a Christian community or tradition – but I would just degenerate to being merely another barker at the carnival.

We still mostly organise our communities of Christian communities “denominationally.” In my opinion, however, this increasingly reflects less and less the reality of people’s experience. Most Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, many Anglicans/Episcopalians, and possibly others may still exhibit denominational loyalties – so that they would look primarily for a church community within their denominational allegiance. But increasingly, if one images these denominational lines vertically – people find support and adherence in groupings that may be imaged horizontally. People will look for a community that has great programmes for young families, or that has a strong teaching and preaching ministry, or that has vibrant contemporary music, or that has a strong commitment to justice, contemplative prayer, and so on and so on (far more than the denominational flavour of the community). Some communities, of course, will have different combinations of these.

The divisions within Christianity clearly are a tragic scandal. Part of my perspective is that we need to learn to see that the differences being argued about are minor minor minor – in comparison to the unity at the heart, if we can just learn to listen to each other (that includes really learning to listen also between religions and to those who claim to have no faith). I think our unity needs to be found elsewhere than in lists of things we mentally agree on, and all the boxes needing to be filled in correctly.

In looking for a Christian community I am assuming you would seek one that you perceive to be orthodox, however you understand that (including in teaching and practice in relation to baptism and eucharist). But alongside this I would place some of the following, not necessarily in any order:

  • Is the community outward looking?
  • Does it care for people beyond its own faith-community (including poor people overseas) – and not just seeing such care as bait and switch to get them into the pews of the community (and contributing financially)?
  • Is there a primarily “Godward” focus – a community celebrating itself is wonderful – but is there a significant focus on God?
  • Is it inclusive? Of dissent – or is only one viewpoint permitted? Is there room to grow? Is the primary leadership at least stage 5 of Fowler’s Faith Development scale (having a strong personal position as well as being open to different ways of authentically being Christian)?
  • Is there appropriate oversight and accountability, and transparency – particularly about leadership and finances?
  • Is there a good variety ages and stages?
  • Is there support, in teaching and action, to support people through hard times – not just affirming solely our happy experiences?
  • Is there support, in teaching and action, to carry people through joyful times – not just presenting a burdensome spirituality?
  • Is the community open and welcoming to new people as well as healthy in retaining those who have been there a long time?
  • Does the community have a holistic spirituality – with a healthy positive attitude to God’s creation including sex, music, medicine,…

What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Choosing a church”

  1. I think these are some great points. If by seeking a community you “perceive to be orthodox” you mean one where their general theology fits (or at least fits closely enough) yours, I totally agree. I admire and learn from many other traditions, but at the end of the day, I am fundamentally what I am (Episcopalian), and if the broad scope of another community’s theology is hard for me to connect with, I’m at a loss. To your list, I might add 1) Does the community actively support the faith education and spiritual development of its members? and 2) Does the community’s liturgy speak to your heart and mind? Does their liturgy help you to connect to God, help you express your joy at your union with God, and send you into the world filled with the drive to do God’s work? Does it connect you with the past (traditions, people) but empower you to function today? The liturgy may not do all those things perfectly or equally every day or week, but for me at least, if the communal gathering in worship doesn’t at least do most of those things most of the time, all the other stuff will be nice but disconnected.

  2. I am fortunate that my church has the qualities you list, although I don’t think inclusion has been truly tested. I would agree with Matt’s additions, particularly (2). This is where I feel dissatisfied. Worship does not speak to me. I am not fond of the contemporary, wall to wall music at our church. Many love it, but I find it jarring after a while. I put up with that because of the beautiful outward focus of the church.

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