Church shopping is weird. It seems normal today. But it’s a very strange idea, when you think about it.
The notion of “church shopping” first became a possibility in 20th century America. Consider just how odd this concept would be in any other era of the church. The early church, spread out across the Mediterranean, met in homes. Individuals and families who came to believe that Jesus was Messiah and Lord would naturally go to the house church of their neighbors who told them the good news. And because of the church’s small size, there were very few homes in any given geographic region that met. The only hint of any competition we see in the New Testament is Paul addressing the Corinthian Church:
“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”[i]
Notice how different this is from our circumstance, though. Even while claiming the authority of different teachers (Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), or Jesus), these groups were still meeting and worshiping together! Even so, Paul demolishes such divisions: there can be none but Christ who is the authority. But they were at least meeting under the same roof.
Today, doctrinal distinctions are only the beginning of our differences within the church (I am Reformed; I am charismatic; I follow Bethel; I am a Furtick guy). The fact that we split up over doctrinal differences is a given. How we choose a church based on things like worship style and programs—that would have been completely foreign to Paul.
Fast forward to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church on through to the Reformation and you had, actually, a fairly similar experience of the local church to those in the early church. The Roman Catholic Church is a church that spans the globe and yet is made up of various parishes, with nary a square foot overlapping. For a millennia and a half there was no choice of what church you attended: you attended your local parish. The Reformation, believe it or not, didn’t change this reality. Due to the geo-political realities after the Reformation, very few people had a choice. Most were still given one choice. Whether you were a peasant in Luther’s Germany or Calvin’s Geneva or in Roman Catholic Naples, you attended the only church available to you.
The reality we currently live in, then, where I can select any number of dozens (or hundreds!) of churches within a 15-mile radius of my home is a radically contemporary phenomenon. And in a post-denominational world, it is even more exacerbated. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, such choices existed, but most people were rooted within one tradition, we and thus the appearance of choice was nothing more than an appearance. Today few people have a strong denominational commitment, and churches have followed this drift into a post-denominational reality.
What this means, then, is that there has become a mutually reinforcing consumeristic beast that has grown up in the church marketplace. In this world we choose churches based on how we have been trained culturally as both consumers and churches are reshaped as retailers of a spiritual product: peddling our wares with little differentiation from the shopping mall.
Church shopping might feel as natural as selecting your favorite grocery store, but we ought to pause and consider the ramifications of having church shopping be part of our lives. There are gifts of church shopping. It is a good thing to be able to leave a church when it stops proclaiming the gospel or offering self-help instead of the Word of God. I am grateful people can leave churches where there are abuses of power. But the ease at which we can and do move from church to church comes with a significant cost attached.
How are we to be the contributors to the family of God we are intended to be when our posture is that of a shopper? How are we to care meaningfully for the people of God when we are perpetually dating the church? How are we to pray for the needs of the leaders and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ when we are perpetual “just checking things out”?
Church shopping is odd. It’s time we recognize its impact on us and God’s family.