We’re Church Shopping This Christmas
by Shelley Shepard Gray
I suppose it was bound to happen again sooner or later. At the end of the service, the pastor shared announcements, paused, and then asked if anyone in the congregation had anything else to add. After someone mentioned the food drive and another person announced his son’s birthday, things seemed to be wrapping up.
Then, out of the blue, the woman sitting in front of us said, “Everyone, we have new visitors here. Please meet Tom and Shelley!” Ignoring our stunned expressions, she motioned for us to stand up. “Come on. Don’t be shy. Tell us all about yourselves!”
I did the talking because what was happening was not my husband’s favorite thing. Not even a little bit.
When we drove home, Tom smiled at me. “I guess it was about time for that to happen again,” he said.
He was probably right.
See, we’re currently in the middle of what my husband and I fondly call ‘church shopping.’ After every move (and we’ve moved quite a lot), we begin a church search journey. I spend hours looking at maps, scrolling through search engines, and scanning church websites. Then on Thursday or Friday, we discuss our plan for Sunday and decide which church we’re going to visit that week. It’s exciting, a little exhausting, but we’ve got this procedure down pat.
Well, more or less.
I usually feel a certain bit of anxiousness every time we pull into a new parking lot ten minutes before a service is scheduled to begin. With interest, I watch the other folks pull in around us. Families with kids, teenagers on their own, empty nesters like us. Some members are old enough to be my parents. I fidget, making sure I have my checkbook to write a donation. I look again for my glasses. Make sure my phone has been muted—even though I’ve already checked and double checked those things a half-dozen times already.
At last, we get out of the car, my husband takes my hand, and we head in. I’m never certain of what the next hour will bring. Sometimes it feels like a great fit. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way at all. But our goal is always to eventually find a new house of worship that feels ‘right’ for us.
Some might feel uncomfortable about our ‘church shopping Sundays,’ but we’ve come to actually enjoy the process, especially since we go to a variety of denominations and look forward to experiencing an interesting mix of sermons and prayers.
Well, we enjoy everything except, say being asked to stand up in a roomful of strangers and explain ourselves.
No matter whether we’ve been in Texas, Ohio, or Colorado, I’ve felt that this journey to being churched is with God’s blessing. Who knows? Maybe He finds our wanderings to be amusing. Some churches have felt like good fits from the beginning. Others feel so foreign Tom and I know that it’s not the ‘right’ place for us within ten or fifteen minutes. We’ve sung hymns that Tom grew up on and listened to church members play Christian hits with the lyrics displayed on big screens.
We’ve gotten lost on back roads. Been one of ten worshipers in a tiny country church. We’ve visited churches so big that we had to sit in the very back corner of the third balcony. People have shaken our hands, given us welcome bags, cookies. We’ve been asked to stand up and talk. At others, we were completely ignored.
I wouldn’t change a single one of the experiences.
Perhaps it’s because we’re in good company. After all, we certainly aren’t the first people to search for a place to feel closer to the Lord.
This year, I’ve particularly felt this connection since Advent is upon us. Tom and I are no wisemen, but we’re certainly searching for a way to honor the Savior. We fumble and fret and ask questions and wonder and ponder. Our search has sometimes tested our faith and other times affirmed it. We’re continually inspired by the kindness of strangers and how willing folks have been to help make us feel comfortable in their houses of worship.
I often think of John 1:9, “The true light who gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” Just like in our Advent journey, I’m certain our search will one day be successful. We’ll find that light, feel like it’s shining for us, and at last join a new congregation.
Which means, I think, that my husband and I might actually need this church refresh and renew from time to time. We need to feel stretched a bit. To falter and stumble, and maybe even feel a little uncomfortable, too. We need to ask ourselves what we want to get from church—and what we are intending to give.
This past Sunday, Tom and I were back at it again. The sermon was from the book of Mark. There was a gentle reference to the star and the search and the anticipation. It was a lovely service. And, as an added bonus, no one even made us stand up and say why we were there. Was this the church for us? I don’t know yet. I have a feeling one day soon something will click and the Lord will give us a little push, saying that it’s time for this quest to end.
I’m not worried. At the end of the day, I’ll be richer for the experience. We’ll have felt God’s grace in all the welcomes and the smiles, the music and the sermons.
I’ll have spent many hours listening intently, hoping and praying and believing for the moment that is about to arrive. We’ll celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Along the way, we’ll be reminded that He is so good. Even to the most wandering believers in His flock.
Shelley Shepard Gray is a NYT and USA Today bestselling author. To date, she’s published more than a hundred books for a variety of publishers. Her latest release is A Christmas Courtship from Gallery Books.
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