I travelled 3,000 miles from Pennsylvania to California for my undergraduate education. At the start of my freshman year, the distance seemed daunting but I reveled in my newfound independence. Like many young adults, I found myself facing a myriad of decisions that would solidify my worldview and identity. It was time for the values and opinions of my upbringing to evolve from my inheritance to my choice.
This was particularly true regarding faith, which oftentimes is either fully embraced or abandoned at this intersection for college students. I was comfortable in the Pentecostal church my family attended for over a decade. However, I wanted my faith to be my own—this included engaging in a community I could call home in my new state. I longed for an authentic community of people I could identify with and confide in, people with energy and who weren’t afraid to clap, dance or bust a move if so compelled (evidence of my Pentecostal roots). In addition, I was immensely curious about denominations with which I had no experience. As a result, my simple search led me to inadvertently hop around to different churches for all four years in college, allowing me take away some significant lessons. Here are five confessions of an ex-church-hopper and lessons for those doing the same.
1. Trying new churches can be exciting—enjoy the process.
Church-hopping on its face has received a generally negative stigma in the faith community. In all honesty, looking for a new place on Sunday and anticipating how it would unfold was pretty fun!
I would take trips with friends from different church backgrounds, including Baptist, Church of Christ and Presbyterian. It was always interesting to see how each Sunday would turn out. If you are genuinely in search of a new church community, have fun with it!
2. It can also be incredibly exhausting—commit to a number of visits to avoid church burn-out.
Now it’s time to get real. Change can be fun, but it can also be draining! My freshman year of church hopping I was accompanied by several friends—all on their own search—as we navigated our own journeys as “fresh adults.” A year later, I found myself slightly anxious on Saturday nights. Which church would I choose? Should I repeat another? What if they think I’m being flakey for not coming back? Who will go with me? These questions haunted me relentlessly. I even admitted to myself that I wouldn’t return to a particular church simply because of the social politics of people asking if I’ll be back or what I’ve been up to. I realized I was playing ping pong with five or six churches instead of committing to one at a time.
Church-hopping can be a great learning exercise but it does take stamina, especially over an extended period of time. Be prepared for that but don’t let it discourage you. Simply set a loose goal to visit a church a certain number of times to have a proper immersive experience. This will better allow you to engage with each community without confusion and could quicken your decision making.
3. Enter each community as a student—not a judge.
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I believe that when people’s life experiences intersect, incredible growth occurs. Entering various church communities was an amazing opportunity to do just that. I learned such a level of empathy and respect for the diversity in churches. I’ve witnessed the judgment and hurt Christians inflict upon each other in their denominational preferences. Many joke about how Sunday is the most “divided day of the week.”
Understanding begets empathy which begets respect. Even if you decide a church is not for you, there is insurmountable value in engaging with them thoughtfully. For example, I attended a church that did not use instruments in worship. Being used to pounding bass with solid guitar in my worship experience, I thought it would be a huge distraction. However, I focused my energy on being a student of this community instead of a judge, and to this day have a fondness for the gorgeous acapella harmonies they sang. Open yourself to the chance to learn instead of judge.
4. Don't go from church-hopping to shopping—it's not about you.
By the time I reached my senior year, I would consider myself burned out on church. Not because I was over-invested in one but I was invested in “none” and fatigued by the search. A shift occurred in my perspective a couple years in. I went from looking for what I liked most to being a consumer and focusing on what I liked the least. I would be more concerned about how funny the sermon was or if the people were interesting. I became the center of the conversation. Looking for problems with churches and how they can best serve you is not only oxymoronic, it’s the antithesis of community. Communities thrive when members are motivated to serve one another in Christ-like love. You will always find “problems” with churches because they are communities of exactly that—PEOPLE! All of us are flawed in some way or another. The church is not a museum of perfection but a haven for the broken. Go to church with a discerning spirit of how you can contribute your gifts and talents into a community, not how it makes you feel. Do not go to hand out demerits on a superficial basis or else your search will endure to no end. While it’s okay to hop (for a time), it’s never okay to shop.
5. Invest in community—no matter what that looks like.
Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock.com
At the end of it all, I never settled into one specific church. And while I do regret not plugging into one, I came to realize I had community elsewhere. I believe Jesus meant it when he said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). From my close group of friends, to the International Justice club I ran, to the weekly bible studies I attended, I was plugged into several life-giving communities. Never depreciate the value of fellowship that doesn’t fit the picture in your head. The church is not defined by the building, music or preacher but by the heart and souls of the community. Go forth in your search with this in mind and happy hopping!