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Church Shopping: The JFK Approach

The truth is that churches do a lot of member swapping. In Southern Baptist life, for example, most additions to a church’s enrollment in a given year are not from converts, but from people looking for a new church home. While shoppers come in the front door, others slip out the back.

Technology has changed this market like most others. I don’t know whether to go with a film camera or a digital. What brand should I purchase? How much should I spend? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? As I work out answers to these questions, I am trying to find out which camera will best serve my needs. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Such a process is familiar to us in a consumer-laden society. We go through it in choosing almost everything: food, furniture, doctors, homes, schools and churches. Churches?
 
Yes. “Church shopping” has become an accepted practice in the last couple of decades. Rarely do people choose a church simply because it’s the closest one to their homes or because it is a part of a particular denomination. That’s the way it used to be. The rules have changed.
 
Today people shop for churches the way they shop for a camera. They look for a church that meets their needs or their preferences. When someone is choosing a church, the number one question seems to be: “What does this church have to offer me or my family?”
 
Other questions are relative. Does the church sing the kind of music I like? Do they have activities for my children? Are the people friendly? Does the preacher preach sermons that help me with my life? Is the church too large or too small? Do other people I know attend? Do I have things in common with the people of the church?
 
Imagine if we chose to enter into relationships with others based solely on what they could do for us! The truth is that this happens often. However, the bases of such relationships rarely, if ever, are able to sustain relationships through difficult times. When needs stop being met, relationships are often terminated.
 
This is usually the case when people decide to move to another church. One church has stopped meeting their needs so they go church shopping. Of course our needs change in life and churches also change. There are certainly times when it’s important to one’s spiritual growth that a search for a new church be made.
 
And to be frank, sometimes such a search is also good for the church one is leaving. Pastors and staff members engage in the same practice. Sometimes they leave for the same reasons members leave, and sometimes their decision to leave is also good for the church.
 
The truth is that churches do a lot of member swapping. In Southern Baptist life, for example, most additions to a church’s enrollment in a given year are not from converts, but from people looking for a new church home. While shoppers come in the front door, others slip out the back.
 
People slip out when their needs stop being met. Some look for a new church home, but many decide not to look at all. They become inactive members.
 
Church shoppers rarely, and unfortunately so, consider one factor. I call it the “John F. Kennedy” approach to choosing a church. Instead of asking only what a church can do for us, we should all ask, “What can we do for the church?”
 
Just as a relationship with a person isn’t likely to last if we enter it only for what we can get out of it, neither will a relationship with a church last if we are only consumer- minded. We need to think about giving as much as getting.
 
In time, churches will disappoint us because churches are made up of sinful people. In time, we are more likely to become disillusioned with a church if we are there just to receive and not to use our gifts to help the church become more than it is.
 
It’s always harder to criticize when we are helping carry the load. Sometimes, difficult times have to be endured, just as in other relationships. If we left a relationship at the first sign of conflict or the first time we found our needs were not met, what relationship would ever survive?
 
If the church you serve has stopped meeting your needs, before you go church shopping, you need to evaluate whether the church still needs you. Does God want you to use your gifts to make the church stronger, or do you believe God wants you to look for another body of believers where your gifts can be better used?
 
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a church because the church meets many of your spiritual needs. Church shopping is not a sin. But if we choose a church just as we choose a camera, eventually we will be looking for another one.
 
In addition to finding a body of believers who meet our spiritual needs, we should also consider how our gifts can help meet the needs of the church where we choose to worship.
 
That sort of relationship is likely to last much longer. It will build stronger Christians and stronger churches.
 
And stronger churches have fewer people slipping out the back door. 
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.
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