Last summer my family and I relocated from the suburbs north of Birmingham to the suburbs south of Birmingham so I could be closer to my favorite Waffle House. When you move into a new house in Alabama, your priority tasks are 1) get power and cable TV turned on so you can watch football, 2) find a church, 3) get water turned on, 4) relocate remains from Indian burial ground on property (if walls are bleeding or poltergeists interrupt cable TV service).
Yes, finding a church really is that high a priority, and we were excited about the prospect of joining one of the many thriving churches in the area.
Since we had so many options (seriously, I walk by three churches on the way to my mailbox), we wanted to really take our time and explore all the possibilities. This was our first step on a promising new journey, and we wanted to make the most of it.
Along the way, we discovered that we were pretty particular about what we wanted from a church. Churches that had bad websites were eliminated right off the bat, just like the Bible says they should be (“…and those that still useth Flash animation shall be cast into eternal hellfire and torment.” – somewhere in Hezekiah, I think). Once they cleared that hurdle and got us in the door we got really picky.
Even churches with basically the same theology in basically the same part of the country can have a lot of really distinctive quirks and unique corporate personalities. But you can usually still group them into some basic categories, and we hit a lot of those categories.
Herewith, our experiences in the south-of-Birmingham church buffet, with names changed to protect the innocent:
The Local Mega-Church That Everybody Goes To
This is the church with its own bookstore in the lobby and frozen yogurt on tap in the youth annex and more audio/video equipment in the sanctuary than was used to broadcast Super Bowl XLI. From the perfectly manicured grounds to the Disney-like use of logos and signage on every surface, it’s clear that they have all the resources in the world.
Resources are good though, because that means that they have things that are important to us like high-quality programs for our kids and exceptional worship music that my wife really enjoyed and I found quite tolerable.
Plus, this church is a little different from other mega-churches in that it has been heavily influenced by a previous pastor to use its resources less to enlarge the church and more to buy food for starving people in India and facilitate adoptions and things like that.
The people are almost uniformly nice and welcoming to visitors, and everyone who makes up the face of the church — whether paid staff or volunteers — seems to really have their crap together. Good first impression.
Super-Hip Modern Church with a Name That Looks More Like a Math Formula than a Church Name
You see these churches more and more, with names like “24fellowship” or “17:17Church”; the kind of church where it’s obvious that a lot of thought went into what the website’s URL would be.
This one had a distinctly hip vibe, but not coldly so. The members were very nice and welcoming. They met in a building that wasn’t originally designed to be a church, which just added to the reclaimed-barnwood hipness of the place.
Their worship music was also excellent, and during that portion of the service, people gathered around the stage like the mosh pit at a concert. We thought that was cool, but not really for us. We save our moshing for when it’s “70% Off Clearance!” weekend at Old Navy.
And that was the overall impression that we took away from our visit: cool, energetic, clearly engaging for some people, but not for us. Moving on.
Strip Mall Church Plant 1
We wanted to try some smaller, less established churches because they could use the most help, and we were keen on not just being passive spectators at our new church. And the cool thing about church plants is that they have a very high proportion of people who are more than spectators. The moment we walked in the door we were met by some very engaging people who would’ve gladly talked to us about the church all day and probably invited us to be deacons.
But in a fluky turn of events, we happened to be visiting on the day that the church was giving a spiritual gifts survey. There was no normal worship service and the pastor didn’t deliver a normal message. We just took a multiple choice test, found out our spiritual gifts (discernment and wisdom, y’all!), and went home.
It’s strange to think about, but they made a great first impression, and if we’d visited on another Sunday, that might’ve been our church. But we never went back. That’s the way the world turns.
Strip Mall Church Plant 2
Just a stone’s throw from Strip Mall Church Plant 1 (though in a different strip mall), we dropped in on Strip Mall Church Plant 2. We were met in the parking lot by a sweaty, wheezing, overwhelmed-seeming man who we would later find out was the pastor. That’s the kind of personalized service you just don’t find in bigger churches, where you normally have to work closely with the music minister to find someone who is that sweaty.
Again, all the people were very nice and earnest, but there was just too much about this church that gave me that feeling you get when you accidentally walk in on your parents talking about their sex life. I spent the whole service focused on suppressing my flight instinct.
The one thing I’ll always remember is that the room that they used as the classroom for the preschoolers had a door that opened directly into the parking lot. Who does that? Those kids spend all day praying for a crack of daylight like a convict in solitary, and when they see it, they’re gone. Let’s keep the kids in an interior room, how ’bout?
Joel Osteen-Influenced Church
Yes, there is one nearby. And no, just no.
Old People’s Church
In fairness, there weren’t only old people at this church. However, among the grown-ups, I think my wife and I lowered the average age by about fifteen years. And I’m no spring chicken.
This was the long-established, traditional, community lynchpin kind of church. It was very nice, and I’m sure very appealing to traditionally-minded people. But much like the hipster church was a little too hipster, the traditional church was a little too traditional.
In another flukey twist, it turned out that they normally had two different services: the traditional one, and a “contemporary” one that I imagine was supposed to appeal to youngsters like my wife and me. But on the Sunday we visited, the chapel that hosted the contemporary service was under repair, so there was only one service. And it wasn’t the contemporary one.
Rich People’s Church
A very nice church — fairly new, but built to look old — in a very nice part of town. They also clearly had resources, and I mean both the church and the church members. So much so that my wife and I were concerned that, if we joined this church, we might be the family that the other families saw as a charity case. “Just look at those Andersons. It looks like everything they wear is from 70% off clearance weekend at Old Navy. Let’s slip a hundred under their windshield wiper. ‘For if you’ve done unto the least of these…'”
Interestingly, this church was led by my favorite preacher of all the churches we visited, a high-energy guy whose cultural perspective really spoke to me. But as for the rest of it, I can’t really put my finger on it other than to say that the vibe just wasn’t us. After we hit the lottery, we’ll give them a second look.
In the end, we too ended up joining the mega-church that everyone goes to. We resisted it at first because it just seemed too easy; we didn’t want to go just because it was the default church for everyone in the area.
But when we went down our checklist of wants, we couldn’t deny that they had them all. And now that we’ve been there a few months, there’s no second guessing. The people are great, the opportunities to serve are plentiful, and it just feels like where we’re supposed to be. Which, checklist aside, is the only thing anybody’s really looking for.