(This is my response to a reader who wrote to ask how she, a new Christian, might best go about finding the right church for her.)
The way to go about finding the church that’s right for you is by doing the same thing you do when you’re searching for the right pair of shoes for you, or new car: you go shopping. Shoes have to fit just right; you’ve got to test drive a car to know if you really like it; and you’ve got to try a church out a few times before you can tell whether or not it’s the right church for you.
Churches are like people: they have distinct and unique personalities. And just like you don’t automatically get along with every person you meet, you’re not automatically going to like every church you visit. And if you visit a church that you don’t feel comfortable in, that’s perfectly fine. It just means that’s not the church for you.
When I first became a Christian (at thirty-eight years old), I figured all Christians worshipped in just about the same way: they sat in their pews; their pastor made a speech and read some of the Bible to them; they all sang a little; they went home. Insofar as I’d ever given it any thought at all, I had no sense that there was much if any variation on that basic procedure.
So on the first Sunday morning following my newfound desire to attend church, I climbed into my car, started driving, and figured I’d pull into the first church I came across. They were all the same, weren’t they?
As it happened, the first church I came across that morning was a Lutheran church. Now I am a huge fan of the Lutheran service; back then, though, I wasn’t sure what to think of a service that started with a man in a full-length white gown swinging a big metal incense ball at the end of a chain slowly making his way up the church’s center aisle, while behind him came a long and stately procession of somber, long-robed clergymen. Bringing up the rear of this curious parade was a man in a thick, high-necked, gold brocaded robe who, as he walked, held high above his head an outsized book bound in silver that I guessed was the Bible, or some other kind of very important holy book. At that point, though, I was so confounded by what I was seeing that I wouldn’t have been all that surprised to learn that the book the priest was holding over his head was an ancient tome imbued with the talismanic powers necessary to appease the ancient Mesopotamian god Rah.
Okay, I’d have been a little surprised to learn that. But it’s safe to say I was out of my element in church that day.
The following Sunday morning I tried out another church, which I also did the Sunday following that—until, ala’ Goldilocks, I found a church that fit me just right. (Today I am an Episcopalian–which is to say, I now worship in a service that is almost identical to the Lutheran service that, lo these many years now gone by, so confused me. I am also now proud possessor of the knowledge that the metal swinging incense ball on the chain often used during the worship service at liturgical churches is called a thurible.)
Before setting out to find a church, you would be wise to ask yourself the sorts of questions that back then I didn’t know enough to ask myself. For instance, do you tend to be more of an extrovert, or an introvert? Are you more conservative, or liberal? Do you think you might be more comfortable with a formal, structured, traditional sort of worship, or with a looser, more modern style of worship? Do you think you’d feel more comfortable worshiping in a smaller, more intimate setting, or in a giant building packed with hundreds or even thousands of people?
In other words, before setting out to find a church for yourself, take some time to consider what sort of person you are, and what sort of church you might then naturally prefer. Because no matter what your individual needs or preferences might be, chances are outstanding there’s a church within a few miles of where you now live right now that will meet or exceed those needs.
Also, don’t overlook the power of the Internet as a means to help you in your church search. Most every church keeps a website of some sort on which it presents a wealth of information about itself. From a church’s website you can get a sense of that church’s size, the programs it runs or emphasizes, its core beliefs (usually found under “Mission Statement,” or “Statement of Faith”), its history, the missions it supports or sponsors, the activities it offers, some background or insight into its staff, etc. The Internet is really a wonderful tool to get you headed toward just the kind of church you’d like.
Once you’ve attended two or three services at a church that you think might be the right church for you, don’t be shy about finding out anything you might want to know about that church. Definitely make an appointment to speak with its pastor, who should be glad to give you that time. Make sure you bring with you to that chat a list of questions you’d like the pastor to enlighten you on. Ask him about the church’s philosophy, its theology; ask for its stance on whatever political or social issues you think are important. Whatever seems to you a thing worth knowing is a thing worth asking about. Pastors are usually proud of their churches, and proud of the work their churches are doing. Rare is the pastor who won’t want to share with you whatever it is you’d care to know (and, we hope, rare is the would-be parishioner who sticks around any church whose pastor is not entirely forthcoming about everything his church is and is doing). Helping people learn about his church is a vital part of any pastor’s job, so don’t be hesitant about asking a pastor to do that with you. Trust that pastors love those sorts of conversations. Who, after all, doesn’t like to talk about their job?
Finally, be surprised to be surprised. My wife Catherine and I were still looking for the right church for us when one Sunday morning, for no particular reason, we decided to visit an Episcopalian church a mile or so from our house. Within the first five minutes of that morning’s service, Catherine turned to me, with tears in her eyes. I, too, had experienced a great welling in my heart.
And just like that, out of nowhere, we both knew that we’d found our church.