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The Challenge of Church Shopping

by Cati Bennett*

Cati and Tom Bennett

Cati and Tom Bennett

Cati was invited to share her journey of church shopping that included visiting churches of different denominations, including UCC! Her experience and her ongoing search give us insight and encouragement: both what NOT to do, and why we have to keep on doing and being Church!

I have been going to church almost my entire life. Growing up in a military family, we moved around every couple of years, and church was one of the only constant things. I found the Episcopal services familiar wherever we went; I might have to make all new friends, get used to a new house and a new school, but on Sunday morning, I knew all the prayers by heart. However, my connection to church changed over the years. Church became embarrassing, because I was often the only one of my friends who went to church. My friends, who would sometime come with me, would ask, “Why are we kneeling?” or, “What does apostolic mean?” I often wouldn’t have an answer for them. I didn’t know why I knelt or what apostolic meant, yet every week, I said I believed in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” I was angry for a while as a teenager, angry that the church has asked me to say and do things I didn’t understand without giving me the time to think about what I was doing and saying. I wondered whether they thought I was too stupid to understand. It was during this period of angst and transition that I was signed up for confirmation classes. After I was confirmed, I stopped going to church.

It wasn’t until the death of a close friend in my second year of college that I went back to church on my own. Again, when everything in my life was swirling around me, a community of strangers offered me comfort. After I graduated, I worked for an awesome, ecumenical, campus ministry for two years; it was through these experiences that I found my call to ordained ministry. Since coming to seminary, I have had a lot of pushback from my denomination, and -after wading through a hostile ordination process for over two years- I decided to spend this summer searching for a different denomination. I needed to find a place where I belong, where I can serve, worship, and feel welcome. Tom, my faithful, obliging husband, and I set out to find a new church home, skipping from church to church throughout the summer. This process has led me to a few revelations:

1. It can be a little overwhelming to find a church.
Due to some of the frustrations I had with the Episcopal Church structure, I knew I wanted to try out churches that are more congregational. I also had the advantage of knowing people at seminary who could give me some pointers. Even with that in mind, I still felt like choosing a church was a bit of a game of roulette. All those little dots on Google Maps when I did a search all looked the same, and church websites were not always easy to navigate or reflective of the church’s culture. Once I picked a random dot on the screen, I then had to venture forth into the unknown. Tom is an extrovert, who is happy to meet new people. I, on the other hand, am more introverted, and I dread coffee hour. Dread it. The beginning of the benediction signals the approach of the time I have to mingle with people. When someone walks up to me, I feel relieved that I no longer have to stand there, pretending to study the crumpled bulletin in my hand. However, this relief is quickly replaced with tension, because I know what is coming. This leads me to my second revelation.

2. Church people say ridiculous things sometimes.
Please, don’t get me wrong; I like church people. I like talking with people and listening to their stories. I like church potlucks and even annual budget meetings. However, there is something different about coffee hour when it’s your first time at a church. There are the people -you may know the ones I mean- who descend upon any new person under the age of 40. They usually say things that are awkward at best, offensive at worst. My list of most used phrases:

What they say- “It’s so good to finally see some young people who appreciate church!”
What I hear- “We’re all worried our church is going to die out, and so we’re happy you’re here to carry on our traditions exactly as we like them.” Also, “People your age are generally godless heathens.”
What they say- “It’s good to have more twenty-somethings in the church!”
What I hear- “We don’t care about you specifically, we just want young people.”
What they say- “You should bring your friends to church.”
What I hear- “You aren’t enough, we need more people your age, because then it will tell us our church is doing something right (without us ever having to change anything).”

I know my interpretations are a little hyperbolic, but these phrases, spoken almost exclusively to young adults speak volumes. A simple, “We’re glad you’re here,” would suffice. I don’t think people would say to another visitor, “It’s good you’re here; we need more fifty year-olds in the church!” (Note: If you do say this, please don’t, because it’s really weird).

So, if finding a church can be overwhelming and visiting a church can be awkward, then why, oh why, do I keep trying to go to church?

3. Church has something good to offer.
I go because I can find something good there, something I have difficulty finding anywhere else. In spite of the uncomfortable introductions, I know church people mean well; they want to be welcoming, and they are excited to have a young couple in the church. I have faith we can move past coffee hour and actually become friends. My husband and I live far away from our families; church gives us a place where we can be a part of caring, intergenerational relationships. I love that church doesn’t have to offer the answers to life’s questions; it can simply create a space for people to question and experience life together. Rituals that connect us to the past, service and mission to connect us to our communities, and prayer and worship to connect us with God- these are good things. I mean, really good things.

So, yes, looking for a church as a young adult seminarian is a challenging process. I have found out more about myself and how I see God. Even though coffee hour can be awkward and meeting people is sometimes uncomfortable, being in community is important enough to face these things. I sometimes panic about never finding a place and never being ordained, but then I remember that our God is a God of abundance. There is a space for everyone and enough bread for the journey ahead.

*Cati Bennett is a third year M.Div. student at Claremont School of Theology.  She has experience leading youth group, facilitating interfaith dialogue, and working in campus ministry.  Above all, she is passionate about helping young adults explore the Christian faith and creating space for people of all ages in worship.

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