What’s in It for Me?

The weirdest thing about this whole church shopping phase we’re in is that I have consciously to ask what I can get out of it. I never wanted to be a “what’s in it for me?” person.

Yes, yes, I’m familiar with the idea that some people like to espouse which says that even altruistic acts are never entirely altruistic because you always get something out of it. And I guess if you want to be that guy and say that somehow doing something for love of someone else (or Someone Else) is still “getting something out of it,” you can be that guy. Either way, I know myself well enough to be able to admit that even if a truly altruistic act is possible, and even though I don’t think the question a person asks when they’re looking for a church should be “What’s in it for me?” it’s entirely plausible that my current preference for small mainline orthodox churches indicates that I get something out of that type of worship and community–although I still have to figure out what that is. And I’m also not sure that that type of church is where we’ll end up at the end of all this. We might. We might not. We’re not making our decision based on that preference, is the thing–although it’s still a factor, as will be seen.

The real problem is this very conscious need I have for a church to officially endorse me. I don’t like having to base our decision so largely on something that sounds so self-centered and even mercenary. But that’s what it’s looking like right now.

As you will know, if you’ve been paying attention over the vast swathes of time elapsing between each post here this year, during the summer I did a unit of CPE. It was great. I am hoping to be able to blog about that for a while after this post, but anyway, it seems like a good vocational fit (which might actually, in three or four years (!) lead to a small income, unlike spiritual direction which is an even better fit and even less financially viable). The thing about chaplaincy certification is that it’s pretty “hoop-y.” There are seminary credit hoops, and equivalency hoops (if you don’t have the sufficient amount of seminary credit, which apparently a Master’s in Theological Studies doesn’t provide), and church membership and endorsement hoops.

Right this second? This might be my circus and these might be my monkeys ...

Right this second? This might be my circus and these might be my monkeys … Or I might be.

This is awkward for someone who has always been active in church and highly endorse-able and now, suddenly when she needs it, doesn’t currently belong to a church that can endorse her. This is further complicated by the fact that even though it appears that the accrediting body for chaplains will accept any form endorsement from a recognised church entity, each church itself has different requirements for endorsement.

Most of the small mainline churches that my Paul and I like so much belong to denominations with even hoop-ier requirements for endorsement than chaplaincy accreditation has, including, say, extra (and expensive) higher education through one of their denomination’s own seminaries (as opposed to that unaffiliated one I graduated from). And I mean, I get that if I’m going to join a denomination of which I’ve never been a part, and one of whose churches I just attended one or two times, I should get some solid info about where they came from and where they think they’re going and whether or not we’re a good fit for each other. But some of these processes cost around $10,000–and I just finished seminary. Also, some of the denominations and I are probably not a good fit for each other. Just that one little church and I would be. And so I wish that the one little church itself could get to know me, and I them, and they could endorse me by themselves.

On the other hand, there are independent (or loosely affiliated) churches which might well endorse me without any of that stuff if I spent some time investing in their community (also a reasonable expectation–I certainly don’t expect anyone to endorse someone they have no actual connection with or benefit from), but–well, here’s where our preference comes in after all. These churches are excellent, and faithful, and love God and people, but they are big. (Well, I mean, for New England, where there might be like 3 megachurches in the whole region and those are probably tiny compared to anywhere else.) They have contemporary worship. Which is fine, and I used to like that and I’ve even played the flute on “worship teams” in such settings, and if we went to one of these churches, I’d probably offer to do so again, but if we’re talking about preferences, I’m in the hymn camp. They have lots of ministries and lots of great people but–well, they don’t need us to help them with any of those things because if we don’t, they have a couple hundred other people who might or could or should.

The little churches my Paul and I would like to go to are lucky if they have a hundred people. They are located near halfway houses and they reach out to the people there, and contribute to food banks and homeless communities. And it’s not that these bigger churches don’t, but the littler churches are right in those neighbourhoods, and need the person-power. And both types of churches may be expressing deep and challenging faith in God, but–maybe as a function of my church-planting upbringing–I just get motivated by the small-church, all-band-together, close-knit, down-home kind of faith expression.

In the end, though, we’re open to going to either kind–as long as there’s some hope of endorsement for me eventually, but even more as long as we’re certain we’re where God wants us to be for this time. It’s tough, not to be certain, and it makes the hoops and the mercenariness of the process feel even more stressful and hoopy and mercenary. But we’re both praying and asking God to help us discern where He wants us to invest. We’re in this for Him in the end, after all. And in the end I hope we’ll discover that what was in it for us was actually Him.

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Going Shopping

It is a weird thing for this chick to be church shopping.

Kindly return your shopping carts to their assigned location. (photo credit Peter Griffin)

Kindly return your shopping carts to their assigned location.
(photo credit Peter Griffin)

Look, I was practically born in church, okay? My parents “planted” churches when I was little, and then they settled in one for 25 years, and I moved around some on my own, but half the time I was assigned to a church (or churches) to work there. Really, the only two other times I’ve had to get serious about finding a church on my own was when I moved to college (it took a year–I thought I’d found one but then switched sophomore year and stayed with that one for the rest of undergrad) and the first time I went to seminary.

I’ve attended and participated in churches across all kinds of denominations, and with all types of worship “styles” and liturgy and theological distinctives, and the reason I can do this is because I believe the Church is the Bride of Christ, and so if a church is shining the light of Jesus at all–even a little bit–and I feel called to be a part of that community, I will pretty much just dig in and be a part of that community. I think the most important part of what Church is and should be is a community that’s centered around Jesus, and so the type of music that’s played, or the public speaking prowess of the pastor, or the social status of the parishioners, or the dress code, or the relative absence or presence of financial resources are a lot less important than whether or not Jesus is there by His Holy Spirit, and whether that Spirit is creating community there.

I also think worshiping and fellowshipping in a place that’s relatively local to where I live is important. I believe that God can work through giant churches that draw from outside their local communities (and I’ve even been part of a few, though only for a very short time each) but–dare I be so bold? and who am I to say?–I’m not really sure that’s what Church is, or is supposed to be. I think Church (community in Jesus through the Spirit) can happen in those places–I’ve experienced it. But I guess I just don’t think Church is about numbers or rock music or perfectly scripted concerts services (what some euphemise, I hear, as “excellence”) or “what I can get out of it” but more about where I’m called and where I can contribute and be in community with others who are journeying with and toward Christ. So when I have cause to become a part of a new church, it’s usually either because I’ve moved or I’ve been hired (or both), and I work on settling in and trying to worship and commune with the people who have been called to that community, too. That’s not to say I do that perfectly at first or ever, but it’s my attempted approach to such things.

This summer, my Paul and I have been visiting a variety of churches within our basic local radius (last week’s was a stretch, geographically, so if we go again it will likely only ever be as visitors, but we did “get a lot out of it,” truly), trying to discern where God wants us to go next, and it’s just weird to me, because I haven’t ever had to wonder about it this much. It’s also different because this is the first time I’ve been trying to make these decisions with someone. I’m grateful that for the most part my Paul and I have had similar responses to the churches we’ve visited. Incidentally, I think all of our responses have been largely positive.

It seems like, while we’re open to larger Evangelical churches which are more similar to what I grew up with and where Paul’s been worshiping the last few years, at the moment we both prefer smaller mainline churches with fairly traditional services, but where the orthodox Christian gospel (God, the Three-in-One, made humans in His image. Humans messed up the relationship. Jesus, who is God, became human to show us what a human-in-relationship-to-God is supposed to look like, then died to take the penalty for our really really serious mess-up, and then broke the power of death by coming back to life a few days later, so that we can live in His life by His Spirit) is communicated in word and service. (Note to Evangelical skeptics: We have found at least three such congregations this summer, although one was on our Back-of-Beyond vacation a few weeks ago and we won’t be commuting up there.)

It’s kind of interesting, visiting all these places, finding out what our current church preferences are (and that they’re similar) and letting the experience continue to inform my ideas about Church, since I’ve been thinking about it so much this summer.

But it’s still weird, guys. It’s still weird.