Imagine the scene. You’ve just moved to a new city. You are starting a new job, picked out a new house, and are getting your children registered for school. You are learning new places to shop for groceries, and essentials like toothpaste and shampoo. Everything is changing quickly, and your head is spinning from all of the newness of life. Add to this scene the important task for those of us with deep faith, where will our family plant roots in a local faith congregation? How do we decide which church to attend?
I may be the worst person to try and lead this discussion as I’ve never actually chosen which church to attend. As someone whose occupation has always been in paid ministry, often the congregation chooses me, not the other way around. While I have some say in the sense that I can choose to resign from a job, or choose not to accept a job offer, for the most part my choice, and the choice of my family, has often been a process of elimination; we attend the congregation that offers me a job. I don’t know what it’s like to walk into a congregation knowing no one and trying to find my place. I probably can’t fully understand the dilema of trying to find a church home for my family.
At the same time, my position also places me in a position to speak with many people who are looking for a community to call home. Sometimes this happens with the first time visitor as they walk in on Sunday morning. Other times, it is speaking with a member who has attended our congregation for many years, but is wondering if a change is the right move for their family. This position has allowed me to hear many reasons for why one might choose a particular congregation; or perhaps why they are choosing to look somewhere else. Sadly, in my weaker moments, I find myself playing the game and highlighting what I think will be positive character traits that might convince a family to worship with us. I say my weaker moments because I fear that often we choose a congregation for the wrong reasons.
Why do we choose a particular congregation? Many times the choice is based around whether we “like” the church or not. We enjoy a particular worship style. There are many individuals are own age and stage of life. The congregation has a strong children’s ministry or youth ministry. I can easily get plugged in, or I can easily stay anonymous in the back of the auditorium. Perhaps the congregation has a more relaxed feel, or it has too relaxed of a feel. Something makes us like the congregation, and thus we choose to attend.
Or perhaps the reasoning is based on truth, or at least our understanding of truth. We agree with the overarching theology. We agree with the way a worship service is designed, the emphasis on baptism or the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, or even the role of women in the life of the church and the organizational structure.
All of these things are important. Proper theology is important. Truth matters, and congregations can’t just make up their own set of truth, they must follow scripture. At the same time, it’s important be in a congregation that will help meet the needs of your family. Having a strong youth ministry or children’s ministry is important. Finding a congregation that has others your age or stage of life can be essential for developing friendships. However, what might be even more important is how a congregation takes care of the poor in their community? What outreach do they have for those in prison? Do they provide resources for the homeless or working poor? Do they encourage service to the community? Are they concerned about the least of these?
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about the judgment day, when the Son of Man will come in all of his glory and judge the nations. He will separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the wicked, and invite the righteous into their eternal reward while the wicked are sent to eternal punishment. According to Jesus, the one trait that seperates them is their care for the least of these. It’s not did you get your theology correct, it’s did you care for the poor and hurting around you. It’s not were you in relationships with others who are very much like you, but did you become present to those who are often all alone. Did you care for the least of these? Because when you care for the least of these, you care for Jesus at the same time.
Perhaps we need to change our criteria about why we choose a particular congregation. Instead of asking, are there people my age, and do I like the children’s ministry, maybe we should ask, how do they treat the least of these? Is it a place that loves its neighbors? Do they not only care for their own, but do they care for others? And will they help me learn to love the least of these more fully? Will they challenge me to see the hurting and broken who sit right outside our doors, and will they help me learn how to love the least of these?
It’s a different paradigm for looking at church, but perhaps it will be a healthy change.