Tuesday, September 19, 2006


(January, 2002) Church-shopping is tricky. Many people mistakenly shop for churches like they shop for cars or hamburgers; it’s easy to imagine these folks banging on the altar rail and hollering, “Hey, can I get some service in here?” But searching for a church is like looking for a neighborhood to live in; walking in the door and waiting for someone to take care of you doesn’t cut it.
In Venango County we have more churches than Wal-Mart has parking places. Rough figuring here in the research department shows that if we divided up every man, woman and child in the county between churches, each congregation would only have about 600 members. (That’s not counting Wal-Mart itself, which as near as I can tell, is church to some folks.)
Theology aside, there are matters of style that serve to divide churches up when you’re shopping.
Formality. Some folks like the feeling of a formal occasion at church, with a level of pomp appropriate to a coronation. On the other end of the scale we find folks who think church should be more like a family picnic (though even the looser churches draw the line at shorts and a gas grill in the sanctuary). Would you rather hear a sermon by The Right Reverend Father Blortmeyer DD, or by Pastor Bob? Should the congregation remain silent, applaud, or holler back at him?
Members. Some churches gear more towards people who are “finished,” people who are basically established and okay in their lives. These churches ask their members to lend a hand, but rarely ask if those members need a hand.
On the other end of the scale, we find churches that specialize in “unfinished” people, parishioners struggling with life. In these churches, members are expected to trot out some personal tragedy on a regular basis.
Demographics. Most Venango County churches are too small to include a true cross-section of the community; most specialize. There is, for instance, a church in Franklin that includes a zillion teachers. There are churches where you are more likely to find a flock of flying pigs than an actual low-income person.
Not all county churches can handle the concept of Single Adults; single or divorced folks may come and sit, but the church isn’t really geared for those who go stag. Nor are all churches child friendly. All churches pay at least lip service to interest in young folks, but in some cases that’s only if the young folk (which can mean anyone under age 50) behave “properly.” One church displays on a welcoming marquee the silhouette of a mom, dad, and two kids; but then, they also complain frequently about how noisy the young people are. I predict they will soon have plenty of peace and quiet.
Pre and Post Reformation. In this county you can go basically Catholic, Catholic Lite, Protestant, or Very Protestant. Here you must decide if you prefer worship led by trained professionals or enthusiastic amateurs.
Whole Worship. Heaven deliver me from churches where the worship experience is a mammoth sermon plus a prayer or two and some snippets of music. Memo to preachers: if you haven’t made your point by the end of fifteen minutes, you’re never going to make it. I have to wonder about ego when a minister feels that the voice of God can only be heard is if it’s coming out of his mouth. But I could spend a whole column on preaching styles, and there are other things that matter in worship.
For me, music matters. We have a wide range of musical offerings in area churches, even some modern-type churches that involve Things That Plug In. Some of these are very good; some are very… um… enthusiastic.
This must be judged over time; few church choirs sound the same Sunday to Sunday. Prolonged exposure can tell you whether the church prefers the Gaithers, Handel or variety. It will also tell you if the church has a commitment to music ministry or not.
Watch for high-tech worship aids. Some churches have added big-screen service guides (Follow the Bouncing Bible). It’s much easier than balancing a bulletin and hymnal, but the screens are a bizarre eyesore in some sanctuaries, like a t-shirt on a crucifix.
Finally, the critical part in any church is to remember it is not just what you think you can get, but what you can offer. As with marriage, if you’re not really ready to offer anything, you may not be ready to chose. There are still some critical differences between county churches and Wal-Mart, but neither worshipping nor shopping are spectator sports.

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