My wife Sarah and I recently moved to Baltimore and are knee-deep in that time-honored tradition of relocation: church shopping. Sarah teaches in city public schools and is in a graduate program, while I commute daily via train to Washington, D.C. As a former pastor, it's definitely a new rhythm for me -- especially since this time, I'm on the other side of the pulpit, sitting in the pew.
Church shopping is a particularly American phenomenon. In a consumer-saturated society, it seems that folks are looking to find the best congregations to meet their spiritual needs (or maybe, more pragmatically, the best slate of programming to meet individual and family desires). You know, something to fit all our particular niches and cravings,
a 60 to 75 minute service, in and out; casual but not too casual; small groups, cell groups, transformation groups, prayer groups, youth groups, yoga groups, foodie groups. Do they have a skating ministry? How about the coffee -- is it fair traded? Is it any good? Not to mention: Will the preacher actually challenge me? Will the people? Will the church be alive?
In jest, a friend of mine recommended that we make sure to "get the best deal" in whatever church we decide upon. But what kind of church do we want?
Last year, Time magazine reported on a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study that said some 44 percent of Americans have either changed their denomination or religious tradition altogether. We're not looking to change our denominational affiliation or tradition, but with our denominational family's nearest church being more than 30 miles away, we are in a unique place to explore what's happening in the local church scene.
Here's what we want, or at least hope for, in a local church: A group of people called out together to live for God's kingdom in real time, in a real place. You know, a community that invites one another and others to truly live for God's glory and our neighbor's good and holds one another in all our brokenness, fragility, and journeying on the way. The coffee can stink and the preaching doesn't need any gimmicks, as long as there is a commitment to one another, and the gospel being lived out. (OK, maybe we can work on the coffee.)
Recently, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams relived his coverage of Hurricane Katrina on its five-year anniversary. In exhorting the news media, I also think he challenges the church:
?The politics of all of this are very simple. If we come out of this crisis and in the next couple of years don't have a national conversation on the following issues: race, class, petroleum, the environment, then we, the news media, will have failed by not keeping people's feet to the fire.
The church's role, in our post-Katrina society, is to not just keep people's feet to the fire through conversation but to act for transformed lives and communities, and to make sure that there isn't another "Katrina." I hope we can find this in our churches.
Adam Phillips is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church and the faith relations manager at ONE. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Baltimore.