Have you ever seen the early morning worship programs on television? The packed congregations, the huge church venues, the smooth-talking evangelist who delivers the perfect sermon… Church seems to be where the action is. That there are so many new mega-churches popping up all over the world suggests that a lot of people are desperate for spiritual guidance and fellowship. But with so many churches to choose from it can feel like a minefield. Are you one of those seeking to make a step in this direction and feeling overwhelmed by the profusion of options? Don’t hit the panic button just yet.

From corner shops to Amazon

Just like many family retail businesses have disappeared from main streets or been swallowed up by shopping malls, many churches have been forced to adapt or face the inevitable. Times change. Many older generations were born into a denomination—it was automatically assigned at birth. Yet today, there are so many choices around that anyone interested in finding a good church can simply do a Google search and get locations and customer reviews. Online shopping for a good pastor or congregation? Why not? We do it for everything else; from choosing the right shampoo to finding a quality used car. It’s the equivalent of shopping at your local supermarket 20 years ago, to doing your shopping online now.

The online experience has changed the way we do everything. Technology has impacted the way society organises finances, education and even national security. On a personal level, it has made everything accessible, and the world that was once large and mysterious can now be explored for the most part from your smartphone. These are huge cultural and generational changes from how things were a mere 20 years ago.

It would be naive to assume that the cultural impact of the digital age—that remarkable ability to simply click and have it—has not influenced the church experience.

Change: uncomfortable, but necessary

As advancements in education, culture and technology open our eyes to the ever-changing world we live in, many concepts about church have changed. There was a time when the Catholic Church considered it a sin to believe that the earth orbited the sun instead of the other way around—I know, it’s hard to believe. But ignorance is bliss for many. The threat to churches then and now was and is simply a probing of long-held beliefs and traditions. The personal walk of faith is no different. Incremental increases of knowledge and experiences shape one’s ideology. Core beliefs are re-examined and, if they are scripturally correct, they can weather the storm.

It has been that way through the centuries. New ideas, new social norms, the clash of races and cultures—all these various influences caused conflict as people instinctively felt their way of life and their core beliefs were being threatened. But when the dust settled, a society was usually stronger, a community more diverse and faith enriched.

Similarly, the convenience of access to so much information at any­one’s fingertips because of the internet and the free flow of information globally, has allowed the uncontrolled spread of erroneous ideas, as well as important truths—the genuine seeker has a lot to sift through! It’s the online shopper’s dilemma: Compare prices, compare options, compare brands…spending hours trying to find the right item, and at the end of the process you’re still not completely satisfied. But it’s still better than squelching through the Woolworths car park on a rainy day—at least you can do this from the comfort of your own home.

‘What’s in it for me?’

The risk though, with the consumer approach to your spiritual walk, is that you lose sight of what matters. The well-produced television commercials or the early morning broadcasts are carefully choreographed stage productions, and it can be difficult to filter through all the options. Many large churches spend millions annually on marketing and, whether we want to hear it or not, church business is a billion-dollar enterprise. Texan author Kathy Howard observed in an article for Crosswalk that “many churches have also fallen into the consumer trap…swayed by the attitude of the Christian consumer…the church uses lights and sound, razzle-dazzle and giveaways to keep us coming back for more.”

For someone who hasn’t spent most of their life within a community of believers, it can be overwhelming knowing where to start. If you approach simply as a “window shopper”, the risk is that you’ll gravitate towards all that glitters. Writing for Dialogue, UK freelance journalist Vanesa Pizzuto explored the consumer-­driven culture of the church experience today, concluding that “the style and experience of worship matter. But by placing an exaggerated emphasis only on these attributes, we may lose sight of the substance: Jesus.”

The church should not only offer you something, but provide an avenue where you can serve others. Christianity is all about service, as Jesus was. We are followers of Christ, working within a community of believers. We all have something to offer. Whatever talents, skills, education, recreational pursuits, or training you possess, can be used in service for God. On your quest for a suitable church, it is a factor that should be considered: What can I bring to this community?

Core beliefs

Finding the right fit is important. It creates a feeling of contentment, of ownership, of “consumer satisfaction”. Yes, you are looking for a product when you shop for a church. Not something as tangible as a pair of jeans, but something far more significant: a spiritual home.

We all have this inherent need to belong, and a church community plays a vital role in fulfilling that need in our spiritual life. But while a lot of time and effort can go into considering all those different factors, basic doctrinal beliefs sometimes get overlooked. Many want somewhere just to find comfort after or during a rough period in life; others to socialise with their friends. Some young parents just want a place to provide a sound moral foundation for their children. Others attend because they like the pastor or the location of the church is convenient—these are all valid considerations.

But if you’re looking for something that has more substance—a community that could positively impact your religious growth in the long term—then a church that upholds a clear understanding of the Bible (Old and New Testament) is essential. You need a church that allows you to be of service to the cause of Christ as you grow—not just to be a consumer. You need a church with strong, engaging leadership and good Scripture-based teaching. A church that takes an interest in the spiritual, social, vocational and lifestyle deve­lopment of its members is a healthy place to begin your journey.

A church that reflects Christ

What draws us to a church initially may be the very thing that drives us away in the end. It can be difficult as a first-time “shopper” to get it right—even a mature Christian will take their time settling into a new congregation when they set up home in a new location. Some church-hopping may be unavoidable. The need for spiritual relevance in our lives finds its identity only in God. So, if you’re seeking biblically sound advice and growth, then you don’t just follow the hype. The purity and beauty of one’s faith do not exist in the extravagance that grabs attention, but in the grace of its execution. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Christ should be the focus of your journey. After all, both new and mature Christians are seeking to simply follow His example—that is what it means to be a disciple.

We do not follow a church, nor do we follow a pastor. I think that many of us involved in Christian congregations get hamstrung by the inherent belief that our church is our faith, much like many of us associate the clothing brands that we wear or the sporting teams we follow with our identity. Faith is something far more personal and much less commercial. And devaluing it to something that you can return within 30 days only leads to continued dissatisfaction.

In your quest, it’s important that you compare and research the fundamentals. Much like when you shop for the right winter jacket online, looks aren’t everything. If it isn’t going to protect you from the elements, then you’ll only look pretty while you freeze to death!

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Finding a church that places emphasis on good Bible teachings, encourages a closer walk with God and allows you to ask uncomfortable questions, will go a long way in helping you find satisfaction.

Intimidated by the minefield of options, but still have questions? If a church is not something that immediately draws you in, then I would recommend you find a Bible-study group near you or register for an online Bible-study class. Then research and question the fundamental beliefs of the pastors or churches you are considering and, if their teachings don’t align with the Scriptures, then perhaps they are all hype and entertainment and not really what you are looking for.

Nigel Byng is a freelance writer based in West Palm Beach, Florida, with roots in the Caribbean and experience working with marginalised groups in the UK. He is passionate about showing how the love and grace of God transcend the limits of our understanding. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.