Does Christ Teach You to Church Shop?
Dr. Jason Van Vliet
This is how it might happen. You have a certain niggling, sinking feeling because you don’t see Brother X in church as often as you used to. At first, you are not even sure that your feeling is correct. After all, people do get sick. Or maybe he has a girlfriend in another congregation. Maybe he is out of town due to work. Maybe. . .? However, sometime later the grapevine feeds you some information. Apparently, Brother X is also worshiping at the New Hope Christian Fellowship.
New Hope is a recent church plant in your area. It’s quite successful, too. In a few years it’s already drawing hundreds of people, and more are joining every month. New Hope’s senior pastor is a dynamic man who preaches in a way that grabs people’s attention and connects to their lives. New Hope has a band, and they sing all the well-known praise and worship choruses. Doctrinally, New Hope might be described as a Reformed-Baptist-slightly-Charismatic congregation. In other words, they emphasize sovereign grace, reject infant baptism, and are at least open to spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.
Not wishing to rely on the unreliable grapevine, you speak to Brother X directly. He confirms that, yes, he is attending New Hope Christian Fellowship. Moreover, he doesn’t see anything wrong with it because, as he reports, “I’ve never felt so spiritually alive in all my life.” How should you to respond to a statement like that?
What’s church shopping?
The fictional scenario described above falls into the category of what is commonly called church shopping. Of course, different people mean different things when they use this phrase. So, what exactly is church shopping? After all, fruitful discussions begin with clear definitions.
Let’s begin with what church shopping is not. Let’s say someone discovers that he is part of an unfaithful church, that is, a church that does not “govern itself according to the pure Word of God” (Belgic Confession 29). For some time he tries to bring about positive change, but all his efforts are systematically stymied. There will come a point when this believer will seek out a faithful church of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not called church shopping. At least, it shouldn’t be called church shopping. That’s called seeking a faithful church, along the lines of Articles 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession.
However, the situation is quite different when someone does belong to an earnestly faithful yet admittedly imperfect church of Christ. If, while belonging to such a congregation, someone starts checking out, and worshiping in, another church due to various personal circumstances or preferences, then he may very well be engaging in what is commonly called church shopping.
What motivates people to begin shopping for another church? Recently I spoke to a group of youth from some Ontario congregations. Youth generally have a pretty solid finger on the pulse of ecclesiastical life. Together we agreed on the following list of eight reasons, in no particular order, that people begin church shopping:
They want to avoid admonition or discipline
They want a fresh start because of bad experiences in their present church
Friends or family members start worshiping elsewhere
Looking for a boy- or girl-friend
Looking for more relevant, “talk-to-me-where-I’m-at” preaching
Feel more at home in worship atmosphere elsewhere because it’s more casual, more upbeat, and has praise and worship music
Just feel more spiritually alive in the other church
Slipped into a (hyper-)critical view of their own church to the point of seeing negatives almost everywhere
Although this list is certainly not exhaustive, it does cover some of the common reasons that people start attending other churches. At the same time, this list does not precisely pinpoint what is often at the heart of the issue: the growing centrality of my desires with the communion of saints. In other words, pulsating through the various reasons for going to another church there is a steady beat of “I like,” “I want,” and “I prefer. . . .”
The tricky part, though, is when the desire of “I” seems to be pious. Turning back to the scenario above, if “I” want to be more spiritually alive than ever before, that must be a God-pleasing thing, right? Well, that’s an excellent question, and it deserves a thorough, biblical answer. So, let’s work through this one step at a time.
Whose church is it?
Even though we casually speak of “my church,” or “our church,” we all realize that the church belongs to Jesus Christ. He bought the church with His own precious blood (Acts 20:28). Therefore, the church belongs to Him (Rom 16:16); it is even His very own body (Eph. 5:23, 29; Col. 1:24). We also confess this in the Apostles’ Creed (“a holy, catholic, Christian church) and Lord’s Day 21 (“gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself”). For this reason all members of the church must be emphatically and genuinely Christ-centered.
The challenge arises, though, when this biblical teaching has to be applied consistently. When a desire to worship in another church arises, is that truly because Christ directs you to go there? Some people will readily respond, “Yes, I feel in my heart that Christ is calling me to go elsewhere.” But how can this “calling” be verified? What if this “calling” comes up from me rather than down from Christ? After all, our hearts are highly skilled at deceiving us (Prov. 28:26; Jer. 17:9). So, instead of relying on our fickle hearts we should turn to Christ’s faithful Word, the Holy Scriptures (1 Pet. 1:10–11).
For example, the Word of Christ clearly speaks of an everlasting covenant that the Lord establishes from generation to generation (Gen. 17:7). And the Spirit of Christ also confirms that the promises of the new covenant extend to the children of believers (Acts 2:39). So, would the same Christ, who affirms the inclusion of believers’ children in the covenant of grace, turn around and direct someone to worship in a church which excludes young children from that covenant of grace? That would mean that Christ is contradicting himself, which is, of course, impossible (Heb. 13:8).
Moreover, when someone begins worshiping elsewhere and says, “I’ve never felt so spiritually alive in all my life,” other questions need to be asked such as: “But what are your actions doing to your brothers and sisters in the congregation to which you belong? Are they being edified by your sporadic attendance?” If we’re truly focused on Christ, that’s a pressing question because it is precisely Christ who taught us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and our spiritual siblings in our own congregation are among some of the closest neighbors that we have.
In short, the point is this: since the church belongs to Christ, we need to submit to Him, as he reveals His will in his Word, in all that we do. It’s one thing to speak of Christ; it’s another to truly submit to Him.
A catholic church
However, someone will surely object, “Yes, but the church of Christ is catholic. We sing that every Sunday. So, whether I worship in one federation or another, whether CanRC or New Hope, it all comes down to the same thing. Together, we’re all part of the catholic church of Christ.” Yet speaking about the catholicity of the church in this way is not the way that Christ speaks about catholicity. The catholic church is gathered from all nations, not composed out of all denominations. A quick glance at Psalm 2:8, Matthew 28:19, and Revelation 7:9 confirms that catholicity has to do with Christ calling His people from many different ethnic backgrounds. It does not mean that all the different ecclesiastical streams eventually flow into one, big, catholic river.
A holy church
In addition, the holiness of Christ’s church is often misunderstood. For many the holiness of the church is located specifically in how well the members of the church obey the Ten Commandments or the Great Commission. Following this approach, if there are sins of money or mouth in the church, or if members are not sufficiently excited about evangelism, then the church is no longer regarded as holy.
To be sure, disobedience against God’s commandments and a lack of desire to spread His gospel are serious and sinful matters. However, if we begin by locating the church’s holiness within her members, we start in the wrong spot. The holiness of the church begins with Christ. He makes His people “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6). To put it succinctly, to be the holy church of Christ means that Christ sets us apart to be different than the world and devoted to Him.
Yes, we are to be different than the world, also in the way that we view church membership. In the world, if a certain membership serves you well, you keep it. If it doesn’t serve you well, you take your membership elsewhere. For example, if being a member of the local YMCA suits your fitness plans, so be it. But if joining the local racquetball club works out better for you, you can always switch your allegiance. No problem. That’s your prerogative. Just remember, though, that your membership in the church is something holy, something different, something set apart. Church is not about what serves you best. Church is about how you best serve Christ (Mark 10:43–45).
Church involves matrimony, not the mall
We often mention it, but how often do we meditate on it? To be part of the church of Christ is to be involved in a marriage relationship to no one less than the eternal Son of God. If you contemplate that revealed truth for a while there is something deeply disturbing about the term “church shopping.” The church has everything to do with the most gracious and glorious marriage of all time. Witness the affirmation of the Apostle Paul in the middle of that well-known passage on Christian marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33, “This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church” (v. 32). In other words, if you’re talking church, then you’re talking marriage. At least, if you’re talking the way the Spirit of Christ speaks, then to be involved in the church is to be involved in a marriage.
So, since church involves marriage, is it even proper to speak of church and shopping in one and the same breath? Shopping is one thing, marriage is quite another. The psychology and practice of shopping has no place, whatsoever, within the holy bond of matrimony. This already applies to earthly, time-bound marriages. It applies all the more to the heavenly, eternal marriage.
Shopping has its proper place. If you need some mammon for your daily existence, by all means go to the mall and shop. However, being a member of Christ’s church is something quite different. It’s holy. It’s holy matrimony with God’s own Son. And within marriage the operative word is love-filled faithfulness, not shopping.