Church and the Church Shopper

'Church shopping' is an ugly expression, but it is a necessary thing for committed Christians to do at times. You may have moved suburbs, or cities, or returned from overseas. It may be that you have left a church for a good reason. In a city like Sydney with lots of decent churches around, Christians are then posed with nice problem of making a choice between good possibilities. Most people in this situation that I have encountered are doing this process in a good way for good motives.

How does the church that is being checked out respond?

The church shopper thing puts the church leader/planter on the horns of a dilemma somewhat. The church shopper is usually a person who is already a Christian and who has an expectation of what church should look like and what church should provide - and what they can contribute to church. They come from within the Christian subculture. Often what the Christian subculture says is ‘missional’ and ‘outsider friendly’ isn’t at all – it is just as tribal and ‘insider friendly’ as anything else.

Yet you really want church shoppers to choose your church because they are more likely to be solid members and potential leaders, and because numbers grow numbers. The more that a ‘buzz’ develops that your church is an interesting place to be, the better the experience will be for non church goers who walk in.

The genuine outsider is not a church shopper  as such because they are choosing, not between different churches, but whether to go to church or not at all. And this is the key point: what they think church should be is often at variance with what the church shopper thinks it should be. The outsider where I am situated in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs has often had a church school background and so knows some old hymns, and used to have a chaplain (so is familiar with the clergy and what they do). They have had mostly positive associations with this - they don't find a slight formality alienating at all. Quite the opposite - it is reassuringly like home.

But the church shopper, coming from within the local evangelical subculture, DOES. In my context, the genuine outsider is less troubled by traditional aspects of church (liturgy, hymns, collars for clergy) than the insider, who tends to come from a Sydney evangelical church where those things were consciously dropped, allegedly for outsider-related issues. So: we are more traditional for MISSIONAL reasons, but the church shopper finds this a jarring note, because they think that missional must mean informal.

So: do we change to suit the church shopper (and we need them) or do we change to suit the outsider (who needs the gospel)?


Feature photo: Paul Welsby