Wow! I'm still not caught up. It's been quite a weekend. We got away for a vacation-ette Friday and Saturday. (Two days away is about as much as we can handle this time of year!) Then it was church on Sunday, a golf tournament, yard work and youth football on Monday. I haven't seen much of the Internet for the past few days, but we had a great time! We spent two days at Lake Michigan lounging on the beach and climbing mountainous sand dunes. It's a traditional trip for our family. In fact, it dates back to when I was a boy. I've probably stepped on every grain of sand in that park at least once, and I have the worn-out feet to prove it! But it all comes back to the joy of watching the kids playing in the waves and burying each other in the sand, and seeing my wife smile at the sound of waves lapping against the shore.
The area surrounding the dunes has changed a lot in the past 35 years. The small shacks I remember on the road along the lake have been replaced by large homes with prices nearing seven figures. The junkyard-resembling shops have given way to trendy shops and upscale restaurants.
I notice new things every time I make the trip. Over the past few years, I've tried to pay close attention to the churches I pass. I'm sure there are more than just the ones I've seen, but I sure haven't seen many. My mind drifts away to what each of these churches are probably like. The small Episcopalian Church must be very "high church" despite the less-than-gothic building. The Baptist church looks to be very fundamental-ish and cold on the outside. The "community church" seems very casual and seeker-oriented -- at least that's likely the stated goal. Of course I could be very wrong. After all I'm judging based on architecture and pre-conceived denominational stereotypes. But then again, isn't that how most churches are judged? Not just by visitors, but by church shoppers as well?
While talking to a pastor friend today, I found out that he's taking a 12 week sabbatical and is planning visits to 12 different churches. Part of the point for him is to experience different worship styles and see what other congregations are doing. As a pastor, I miss the opportunity to do that. On top of that, my vacations never seem to allow me the opportunity to experience worship somewhere else -- I always seem to be either on the road on Sunday or back for services at my own church, like this past vacation-ette weekend. But I wondered this past weekend which church I would visit if I were still in that area on Sunday morning.
To be honest, I would probably choose someplace which I figured would be quite different than my present church. Something inside me would want to try the high church approach, but I figured I'd probably end up at the community church with the sign out front announcing that they were saving me a seat on Sunday (with two actual chairs strapped to the sign). I really don't know how to go about selecting a church to visit, knowing it will only be a single visit. I mean, sure, there's prayer and asking for direction, but aside from an audible voice from heaven, a stray lightning bolt or a strong sense of the Lord's leading I end up falling back on architecture and stereotypes. Maybe you have a better method.
If I have no good method for deciding on a church to visit, why would I think the average church shopper or seeker would be able to tell a healthy church from a group of backstabbing, gossipping, hypocritical pretenders? It's true that most of these people would have some idea of the demographics of a congregation -- age, income, education, reputation -- going into a decision, but a church is often judged by the size and shape of the building and by the name on the sign out front. So how can we show that we are looking to honor God by our architecture and our church name?
I don't have an answer. I just figure that most people aren't above the surface-deep methods of choosing a church that I would fall back on. And that saddens me. Church shoppers look for their own needs to be met instead of focusing finding a place where they can love God with all of their hearts and souls and minds and stength and loving their neighbors as themselves. If a building looks nice and the name doesn't offend, the church gets a look. If the shopper's checklist gets enough checkmarks, the church gets a second visit. It's a sad commentary on our self-centered lifestyle. And I know that I'm no different. That really saddens me.
"Lord, help my worship to be more than just trying to meet my own needs. May everything I do be done to bring glory to You."