Once again, my family finds ourselves in a new place looking for a new church. Unlike the other times in our marriage, this time could be much more substantial. There are, of course, no guarantees, but we always knew before that our church-decision was short term, and therefore probably wouldn’t hurt us if we made a poor decision. That said, I am rarely worried about making such a bad decision that it would be decisively negative, but I think you know what I mean.
Now that I have done this a bit, I want to “think out loud” about looking for a new church. A lot of this is for my own benefit, so I would love your feedback. Before I jump in, let me start with a couple of my assumptions. I am assuming a biblical orthodox community, and therefore will probably talk around that than actually state it. Also, I am assuming a church in a relatively close proximity to where I live, has a strategic and robust grasp of ministering to children, and who is reaching out in a variety of ways to the cultures around them – locally and globally. With that, let me get to what I have come to believe is one of the, if not the, biggest mistake we make when looking for a new church.
Unlike in my younger days, I am now primarily focused on the spiritual growth and development of my daughter. I want to find a church that will take part in her development as a Christian and person, her ability to know herself in Christ, and her mission in the kingdom of God. In light of that, I want a church that isn’t like me.
To think well about finding a church you have to know yourself. You have to take stock in the ethos you and your spouse create in your home, and what you fail to provide your children. If I find a church that is just like me, then what will most likely happen is that they will share my blindspots and my neglects.
Therefore, let me turn to some simple principles:
- I want to find a church that values what I deeply value but doesn’t champion it. For me, this is the academic life. In the broadly Reformed vein I work in, it is easy to find churches where I am lifted up in an unhealthy manner. Theologians can be the super-heroes in these churches. I don’t want to be that. I would rather be someone who was seen to be slightly suspect. I would rather have people recognize that my profession provides certain temptations under the calling of God than have them think that my profession was the peak of human existence.
- I want to find a church that champions what I neglect. For me, this means a church that really understands the difference between affective teaching and worship and emotionally manipulative teaching and worship. My home will have plenty of (relatively speaking) sterile academic discourse, much of it concerning God. I work in that mode because of the nature of the academy and it is bound to slip in. My daughter will, no doubt, be deeply formed by books and a general academic ethos, therefore I want my church to balance that out with affect. I want her heart exposed and spoken to, not that I will neglect this (Lord willing), but that she can grow to navigate her heart in its full breadth of emotional capacity.
- I want a church that champions a robustly creative and broad vision for our mission in the world. In this sense, I want my daugther to experience how she can be herself and be used by God regardless of her gifts. I know what it is like to grow up in a home where the Father is known by what he does in the faith. I know what it is like to have people tell you things like, “It must be so great to have your father as a father.” We might agree (hopefully!), but it still isn’t helpful. I want my daugther to experience the importance and relevance of the worshipping community and mission in a way she will not learn in our household alone. My daugther will get the importance of thinking deeply and theology, I will certainly make sure of that, so I need to make sure she experiences the full life of the community of God.
- I want a church that seeks to be ethnically and economically diverse. The academic world I live in does not do a good job with diversity (still). It is trying, but the reality is that, for the most part, theologians are white men, and the theologians I tend to be around most are white evangelical men of a certain stripe.
- Ultimately, I want a church that majors on love. For me, this means that I want someone to shepherd, actually shepherd a church. I want a pastor. I don’t want someone who is simply a teacher. I want a pastor. The church is where my daughter will come to understand family in its broadest sense – brothers and sisters in Christ. I want her to know the acceptance, admonition, encouragement, grace, mercy and love that only a worshpping community of God can show. I want her shephered by more than just Kelli and myself, but by sensitive, discerning leaders. I don’t need her entertained, I need her attended to.
Ultimately, our biggest mistake is that we find a church just like us, a church that makes us feel comfortable, and so we get lost in our strengths rather than walking through our weaknesses. To avoid this mistake, you must know what your strengths are, and come to understand the nature of your weakness and neglect. What kinds of things don’t you offer in the ethos of your household? I am unusual because I am a theologian, so maybe you need a church that is a bit more academic? I don’t know. You need to address that with discernment.
The flip side of this is equally important. If you find a church that addresses your neglect, then you address the church’s neglect. You are setting yourself up for a difficult role – the role of a prophet. It is often a lonely task. It is, importantly, a pastoral task that takes incredible discernment, patience, and trust. As put well by Barth,
“That the zeal for God’s honor is also a dangerous passion, that the Christian must bring with him the courage to swim against the tide instead of with it… accept a good deal of loneliness, will perhaps be nowhere so clear and palpable as in the church, where he would so much like things to be different. Yet he cannot and he will not refuse to take this risk and pay this price… he belongs where the reformation of the church is underway or will again be underway.”
I hope to continue to explore this theme in upcoming posts. I would love some feedback!