Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Know thyself, then find the right congregation for you

Churches have personalities just like you and I do.

Some are like youngsters--full of energy and life; others are like senior citizens waiting for the hospice nurse to arrive.
 Some churches are gregarious and exciting like a square-dance club; others are stodgy and boring, like an old library's basement stacked with newspapers nobody will ever read again.
 Some are engaged up to their eyebrows in politics, either in the secular world or their own denomination. Others are withdrawn and refuse to acknowledge the poorly clothed, starving people all around in their neighborhood.
We tend to think of churches as always being the same, particularly within a certain denomination. From my experience, that's a very wrong stereotype.
 In chapter 10 of my newly published book, Witness to the Truth I describe the wide variety of churches within Houston's Episcopal scene. The four were about as different as east, west, north and south. Yet they all four belonged to the same Episcopal umbrella.
 I could have written that chapter about four Houston churches within any denomination—Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, United Methodist and so forth.
 Often times this diversity has nothing whatsoever to do with the basic theology of the individual churches. It has much more to do with the geographical location, neighborhood, and personalities of the congregation and its leadership.

A grumpy, melancholy pastor produces a somber church.
 A congregation situated in an arts community is more likely to produce a creative ministry.
 A church based in a poor, ethnic neighborhood is more likely to have a heart for people in need of physical support.
 And a high-brow pastor preaching to an affluent audience is much more inclined to produce a church with aristocratic overtones.
 Finding the right church for you is easy if you know the kind of person you are and the kind of individuals to whom you best relate.  
 If you don't like chatty people, stay away from a socially outgoing congregation.
 If you don't like social do-gooders, find your own water level elsewhere.
 Know your own personality. Then figure out the personality of the church you are visiting. 
 Don't base your decision on a few people from a congregation or a few acts of kindness extended by individuals chosen to recruit for the church. 
 If you are the creative type, look for creativity.
 If you are the structured kind, look for organization.
 If you are outgoing, look at the church's social interaction.
 An interesting twist to this observation is when the church bears the title "First". You find this in many Protestant denominations across the country.  In my book I talk about "The First shall be Last".  A "First" church usually means the congregation has a history dating back to a city's beginnings. As such it is tied more to the "old guard" and "old establishment" in a town and reflects that group's characteristics.  Sometimes but not always this means the church is locked into tradition and not open to new ways of seeing and doing things.
 Many pastors wring their hands about their church's "back door" (new members who either stop showing up or who quickly exit). What they seldom realize is that once affiliated with the church, new members may figure out the congregation's personality and recoil at it, finding it's not what they expected.
 I contend that much of the turnover on church rolls could be stopped by better church shopping upfront.

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