Thursday, March 31, 2005

So what are they shopping for?

I work in retail over half the year. If you've worked retail before, it's likely you've had days when the general public has made you generally anti-social. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is when a customer will lie to you... straight to your face... in an attempt to get rid of you. And the lie comes in just two words: "Just looking!"

Now I've watched people obviously going through a mental checklist, mouthing the words of something they are trying to find. I've seen someone searching high and low for a price tag so they can tell if whatever it is they are looking at is the right price. After asking these people, "Is there anything I can help you find?" or "Are you looking for something in particular?" I'll see the panicked look in their eyes and the two word lie comes shooting out of their mouth like a spitwad from a third-grader. "Just looking." I know, I know, they're too embarassed to admit that they are looking for something special like a price or a particular style. But why? Why won't so many people just come out and tell what they are shopping for?

I've put this post off for a while. I don't want to sound critical or like I'm ragging on anyone. It's a pet topic of many I'm sure, and it was reignited in me when I stumbled across a post on a Christian blog about a visit to a church -- a church shopping excursion, if you will. I'll not provide the link again (although if you search around here, you'll likely find it) because I don't want it to be about that one post. It's about the attitude of the church shopper in general. And as a pastor of a church who sees some of these folks come and go, I get curious. What are these people shopping for? And why won't they tell us?

I remember being a church shopper. We wanted to find a church in the town we had moved to instead of commuting 45 minutes to be a part of my home church. All I can remember looking for is for friendly people and some meat in the sermon. I'm not sure what my wife was looking for, but she's the one who finally decided which church she wanted to be a part of. Fortunately, I agreed with her. I think her decision had as much to do with being a part of a ministry as anything else. At least that's the way it worked out.

But what is today's "looker" shopping for? At the aforementioned post there were concerns about doctrine and altar calls but it seemed the first consideration was the people -- not the friendliness, but the social class. The poster mentioned not wanting to be around the country people's churches filled with "those people" as he called them. Of course as the pastor of a country church that one struck a nerve with me. I'm not sure what the infatuation is with the yuppie class. It seems that the biggest churches I know are made up mainly of white collar, upper middle class folks and they're a little thin on the poor, blue collar types. I hope that's just bad perception on my part and not a reflection of reality. I'd hate to think that people in this country can only handle their "own kind" or those of equal status. But I know there are some who are shopping for a higher class of Christian.

My concern with people is the manifestation of love for people within the congregation. As a single man I once visited a church on Sunday where I walked in past the turned heads of congregants. I sat beside a couple who wouldn't acknowledge my presence. After the service I walked out past the people who were busy chatting with their little groups. I was there for over an hour, participated in worship and was never spoken to by any human being. The one person whose eye caught mine turned quickly away. It doesn't matter what social class these people are, I wouldn't want to be a part of that church.

Another biggie these days seems to be the music. Obviously there are plenty of differences in style: hymns, choruses or anyplace in between. But it's almost as if the music is treated as entertainment instead of an avenue to worshipping God. I'm all for putting forth your best effort in musical worship, but as I understand the Bible the intended audience is God, not the couple in the 15th row. The post I'm deliberately not linking went on and on about the "unpolished" nature of the worship leader and the worship band. To me, polish is not necessary but authenticity is.

I remember the first Sunday at my current church. At that time we had an organist who was mostly deaf. She played well, but if she turned her body wrong and her fingers slipped off the right keys and landed on the wrong ones, she never knew the difference. That first Sunday morning her fingers were dancing all over the keyboard and chills were dancing up and down my spine until I wondered what I was doing there. But I understood that she was offering what she could and would sometimes make mistakes. In God's ears was she really playing sour notes?

The other things that seem to come up a lot are youth programs, solid Bible teaching and application, and convenience. And I certainly understand a family with teenagers wanting something in place to help the kids strengthen their faith. However sometimes it becomes about being the church where the "cool kids" are. I've seen the literature urging youth leaders to recruit the kids who are already seen as cool at school. I hope there's a lot more to those groups than being popular. It's a shame when youth ministry becomes nothing more than another clique.

The Bible teaching is usually evaluated by the speaking abilities of the senior pastor. No matter how Biblical the teaching, if the pastor can't hold anybody's attention it becomes useless. Again, I understand that. But not every church can have a dynamo in the pulpit. And sometimes the best pastors are not the best speakers, but they do love the congregation with all their heart. The sermon is just a fraction of what a pastor does, but to a church shopper it's likely all that matters.

Finally the convenience factor comes creeping in. Proximity to home and service times play a big role for a church shopper. Location used to be the sole factor before transportation became so easy. Now people will drive a half-hour to be a part of the church that fits their lifestyle.

So is this the answer? Is this what "just looking" actually means? Are church shoppers looking for the "right" class of people, a professional musical presentation, programs for "cool" youth, an exciting sermon and a lifestyle fit? What happened to the idea that you go to a church to serve and worship God? Why have we made Sunday morning all about pleasing US? Am I nuts here? What am I missing?

I'll close this with the comments I left at that other Christian blog concerning his church shopping post.

My question is simply, "What are you looking for and is that truly what you should be looking for? "Not applying this to you, but I've met plenty of church-shoppers in my life. Most of them (including me, when I was doing it) are acting out of selfishness -- what can the church give me, not what can I do for the church. I pastor a small country church -- one infested with those "country hick" people. We can't sing well. On a good Sunday we have 60 people in worship, 15-20 of them kids. We can't offer bells and whistles. We offer Jesus. We offer Him from the heart. We have problems here and problems there, but the goal is to worship and serve Jesus. It seems that for far too many people, that isn't good enough. If your goal is being able to worship God and serve Him to the best of your ability, then best of luck finding that place although it shouldn't be that hard. If your goal is being comfortable, then perhaps you should reconsider what you want. I certainly don't know your heart. I just know the temptation to find the discomforts and to miss the presence of God and I hope you don't succumb to that temptation.

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