How To Choose A Church

Whether one is simply curious about Christianity or has been steeped in church culture for a lifetime ... it is difficult to choose a church without getting a little overwhelmed by the possibilities.
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[photo: erin dunigan]

I have been serving congregations in San Francisco for about 20 years and have a pretty good grasp on the Christian church landscape of San Francisco. One of the wonderful aspects of San Francisco's diversity is the breadth of church manifestations that exists here: conservative to liberal, high church to house church, young and hip to intergenerational to down right old ... we have it all. Whether one is simply curious about Christianity or has been steeped in church culture for a lifetime ... it is difficult to find somewhere without getting a little overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Whenever folks come to visit the church I serve, I always encourage them to do a little "church shopping" during this time of discernment. Now I know some folks, if you are still reading, are rolling their eyes, "Great, just another marketing-lingo using pastor, jerk!" ... but why not put the same kind of intentionality into searching for your spiritual home as you do in looking for someone to care for your children, finding a good doctor or even discovering a great restaurant? Of course you will not be paying for services rendered, but you certainly want to make sure that you find a good fit.

So let me offer some advice, if you are looking for a church home here or anywhere else. I am sure there are lots of lists out there, but here are a few things I would suggest.

Five helpful tips to keep in mind

  1. Visit at least three times in a row or at least pretty close together. While every church should strive for consistency, one Sunday may or may not be reflective of the community as a whole.
  2. Visit the church's website and read blogs if there are any, click through multiple layers so you get a sense of the culture of the community. If the pastor or others in the church blog, twitter, etc. read and follow them.
  3. Find out what others are saying about the church by using review sites like Yelp and others. Ask friends or ask people who are there, "Why do you come to _______?"
  4. Check your unhealthy cynicism - (healthy cynicism is called snark and is fun) - and assumptions at the door. If you are sure you won't like it even before you go, odds are you won't. Open yourself up to the possibilities God may have in store for you ... even in a place that on the outside might not seem like a good fit.
  5. When you visit, go ahead and engage folks ... ask questions, take them up on offers for conversation and observe how folks treat and engage with one another.

Five Filters to install

  1. No church is perfect, so discern your non-negotiables in terms of style, size, feel, theology, etc. Don't be totally tied to them, but at least recognize what you think you may want.
  2. Churches are, at our best, a gathering of misfits trying to figure this whole life thing out, so do not judge the church based on a single interaction with a single person, you are probably one as well.
  3. Churches cannot be all things for all people, so don't please don't expect them to be.
  4. Summer is a bad time to visit churches, shop when there will be some consistency of leadership and attendance.
  5. Sometimes you will just know when it is a good fit. Trust your gut and the vibe you pick up.

Number one thing for me if I were choosing a church

A church should care more about your spiritual health rather than your attendance at their particular church. If you get a whiff of the idea that you are an offering unit, membership number or potential worker bee, run, run as fast as you can and move on to the next place.

There are so many wonderfully loving, justice seeking and faithful congregations here in San Francisco, that this time of searching can be really quite liberating. Feel free to ask questions here if you want and/or lift up any of your congregations.

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