by Stacy Keogh
I’m not much of a shopper. Mother worked in retail for most of my childhood and insisted I keep an eye out for trends and fashion, but I never really cared about wearing what was “in”. Okay I admit: I probably couldn’t pull off wearing the latest fashions anyway, but my disdain for shopping goes beyond the standard I-don’t-want-to-fight-mall-crowds rant. If I go into a mall in search of a black shirt, for example, I know what I’m in for.
It’s not the mall crowds I fear, it’s the variety of options. Am I looking for short sleeve or long sleeve? Cotton or polyester? Crew neck or V-neck? Then I have to find the right price. I can’t buy anything too expensive, because that would go against my personal principles of living simply and being mindful of more socially conscious ways of spending my money. But then, I can’t buy anything too cheap because I’d be back the next week buying a replacement due to a torn seam. Not to mention that a cheap shirt would probably have been made in a sweatshop somewhere in southeast Asia, so buying that shirt would go against everything I stand for as a sociologist.
For me, shopping is not about buying a shirt. Shopping becomes an introspective, existential crisis. So imagine my views about having to shop for something so much more meaningful, personal, something more eternal: Church shopping.
As much as I oppose assigning economic adjectives to all things spiritual, church shopping is essentially just that. It requires constant calculation and rational-choice thinking. What am I really looking for on Sunday morning? Or maybe Sunday night? Big congregation, or small congregation? Worship with a praise band, or through hymns and liturgy? Sermons focused on the interpretation of scripture, or topical studies? The list goes on.
At this point in my spiritual life, I can say I’m fairly sure I know what I’m looking for in a church, but that doesn’t make the decision to commit to a particular congregation less stressful. I have learned not to require life-giving, soul-quenching, earth-shattering services every Sunday morning. Rather, I have learned that church is more about being with a group of people who equally affirm and reaffirm our faith. It is the ultimate sense of belonging, belonging to something Sacred.
Indeed, the feeling of belonging in a church community is a sentiment that cannot be replicated in any other social institution that exists. (Believe me, I’ve looked). That is why making the plunge to commit to a community can be so stressful, so crucial to our spiritual lives. Belonging to a community is an identity. As opposed to making a commitment to buy a shirt, committing to a church is a two way street. Church becomes what we make of it. We find a way to serve the community, and are therefore served in return. Once we let ourselves experience the collective energy of others in the room as we worship our God together, it changes us, just as we change the church. And until we commit fully to giving ourselves to a community, we will not feel connected.
As I settle in to my new life in Spokane, I have realized that it doesn’t matter how many churches I try on or visit. If I am not feeling connected to a particular congregation, it may well be my own issue. I’ve made the mistake in the past of moving too soon from a church that’s a good fit. Community takes time, and learning to accept a congregation requires patience and grace. Grace to those preaching, ministering, and worshipping with us. As an educator, I know full well that it is difficult to have a flawless, awe-inspiriting lecture every class. I also know that despite my great efforts, I will not deeply impact each student at the conclusion of every course. But I do know that the students that put the most effort into the class tend to get the most out of it.
All this to say: Church shopping is, at the very least, a way to experience the variety of options for a spiritual-seeker. The good news is, if you keep searching for what you are looking for, there are enough options to prove that you likely will find a place that fits you. And God meets us there.
Stacy Keogh is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Whitworth University. Dr. Keogh is active in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and has been a member of a variety of religious communities including the Church of the Nazarene, Society of Friends, and Roman Catholicism. Her sociological training in religion inspired this post.
Church sign is from here.