How to choose a church

January 1994

Note from the author, February 1998: Since this was written in 1994, I've found a church which I feel is home. That's a story covered in later columns, so please consider this prolegomena, reflective of my life at the time written, but not currently.

My life's experience with churches has been mostly a series of disappointments. I wonder how many others reading this share similar feelings? I'd appreciate hearing from those who haven't given up the search but have had disappointments along the way. (If you've given up, this column isn't for you.) And though my frame of reference is Protestant, I'd like to hear from Catholics and members of other communities, too. No promises as to what I'll do with the input.

The church I grew up in was too liberal—too wishy-washy—stand - for - anything - stand-for- nothing. Once I knew there really was something to this gospel-salvation - lifetime - commitment-to-the-Savior business, I had to move beyond my childhood church.

My next church, a northern but evangelical Baptist congregation of 50 or 60 souls, seemed to meet my needs well, but the remote village it was located in did not; I had to move to the big city and leave my short-lived spiritual home behind.

In the big city I became a Presbyterian, in which tradition I was ordained, and I was happy for a few years in a large Philadelphia-area congregation that was alive and vibrant. But a call to start my own ministry led me to a series of campuses here in California and the search for a new church that began more than 20 years ago and still hasn't led to anything I can call home.

I tossed in bed one recent morning wondering where I've failed in my own search, and came up with little, but began to jot down some thoughts about what I'm looking for. These are purely personal and subjective, put here as discussion starters, not to persuade anyone who's otherwise inclined. But I hope they'll help those of you on a similar journey think more pointedly about what you're looking for.

Forgiveness, redemption, and restoration must be the message. Or as my Presbyterian predecessors put it, justification (salvation) and sanctification (becoming more full of God's Spirit). The message must be lived as well as preached.

The Scriptures must be preached as guide to living, dying, and living with dying. I visited San Francisco's most famous—notorious—congregation a couple years ago and the only reference to Scripture was in the gospel songs, the only reference to Jesus was Cecil Williams' declaration, "If I just had this much [a smidgen] of Jesus in me, how much more I could do!" That's not my idea of a church but a Hell-lay-lou-yuh Democratic club. Shuddering shades of Jonestown!

Fellowship must be important. People should be regarded as members of a body, not just volunteers to get jobs done. To this end, the professionals should be adequately paid, and dedicated to ministering more than fundraising. The church should have an adequate budget and a realistic way of including all members of the congregation in supporting it.

Community should be central. The messages, and the organization of fellowship, should support the members in their vocations. That includes everyday jobs like engineering and civil service as well as ministries to spiritual needs. Every member's spiritual gifts, and callings, must be looked after and supported.

Everyone's needs should be looked after, both those who lack physical necessities and those whose major problems may be workaholism or overwork. Most of this "looking after" should be the members looking after one another, but it won't happen if the professionals don't set it up well and continually support it.

The style should be contemporary but there should be linkage with the past. There's so much emphasis on being contemporary now that I feel our rootedness needs re-examination: The church is a continuum from Abraham to you and me. We may work at remembering those from Abraham to St. John, but seem to forget everyone between A.D. 90 and 1990.

The church calendar isn't important (I say this as the product of an Episcopal seminary!), but Christmas should be the high holy day, and there should be a Christmas emphasis for at least four Sundays (this may be "advent," but it should include at least the Sunday after Christmas).

There should be at least two Christmas eve services—Christmas eve is christendom's holy night—one for families with children to get to bed by 8 o'clock, and one that ends at midnight for everyone else. If the service is brightly lighted or if the senior minister is not leading, they don't have it right. Quietness, "Silent Night," and candlelight or Christmastree lights are the keynotes.

Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday--that's why Sunday, not Saturday, is our sabbath. The overall implications of Resurrection, as opposed to reincarnation, say, or spiritualism, are so central to our message they must be alluded to constantly, so Easter is nowhere nearly as important as Christmas (Christmas comes but once a year, "Easter"—ghastly choice of words—is an everyday matter).

There should be a special resurrection observance with the appropriate hymns ("Jerusalem," "He Lives!") on the Sunday after Jewish Passover, but as nobody's elected me Pope I can't change the calendar to make it as it should be, so I'll continue putting up with the present mish-mash.

Lent probably deserves more consideration than most "low-church" Protestants give it, but I can't decide how much and never went in for that Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday business at the churches I attended that observed them! Bringing a team from Jews for Jesus in to demonstrate Passover the week before Easter has a lot more meaning—and biblical basis—to me.

This is as far as I've gotten. The closest I've come to feeling at home in any California church was the Easter Sunday I visited the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. If I lived in Southern California, I'd probably join that world-famous congregation.

But then again, I deplore their civil religion observance, displaying the world's largest flag the Sunday before the Fourth of July and all that. That has no place; in fact, I'd have no flags at all in my church if I were Pope. To me, mixing civil religion and biblical religion is trying to worship both Christ and Caesar. So on the Sunday before Independence Day maybe I'd visit Hollywood Presbyterian?

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© 1995 Jon Kennedy