I’ve done a fair share of shopping in my lifetime. I’ve shopped for shoes, for good restaurants, and for colleges. One thing I’ve never done is shopped for a church.
So begins my part in the latest shopping trend. Just two months out of college and two weeks into a new job in New York City, I’m starting my brand new life as a working woman. I have an apartment, I have a paycheck (albeit miniscule), but I still don’t have a church.
It’s not an easy transition to make. My experiences with Mass at my alma mater, Fordham University, were some of the richest of the past four years. The emphasis on Ignatian spirituality, the incredible community, phenomenal preaching, support and fellowship that occurred every Sunday night at 9 p.m. in the University Church ignited my faith life, and heightened my awareness of the way God can work through others. But knowing I can no longer call that church home is disheartening. How can I ever find a church and a faith community that has everything my college campus ministry had?
Over the past five months, President Barack Obama and his family have been visiting local churches and meeting ministers in the search for a new spiritual home. After notoriously breaking off his relationship with former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright last year, Obama withdrew his membership at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In D.C., the Obamas have had a bit of a chaotic church shopping experience — as lines formed hours before morning services in anticipation of the President’s arrival. The fear of feeling on display is what reportedly led Obama to select Evergreen Chapel, the nondenominational church at Camp David, as his family’s primary place of worship.
The Obamas’ shopping experience sheds light on what seems to be a growing trend among young spiritual seekers. After a move, graduation, or relocation, many find themselves visiting multiple places of worship, and weighing all options to find a spiritual home that works for them.
The young and the parish-less
After graduating from college, Shannon Crounse tried to recreate the same sort of faith community she had participated in throughout her past four years. A 23-year-old forensic consultant for FTI Consulting in Manhattan, Crounse had a wealth of Catholic churches to choose from when she began working two years ago. In her quest for the perfect church, Crounse first tried to replicate her college Mass experience. “I was looking for a young congregation, lots of activities, excellent preaching, a strong pro-life group, great music, etc.,” she says, but she had trouble finding everything in one place. “I quickly realized that the experiences I had while attending Mass at college could not be recreated, and I had to change my whole perspective.”
Crounse decided to take the referral approach, asking friends and relatives for advice on places to check out. “I tried out different liturgies over the span of a few weeks,” she says, but she found the process challenging. “Not only was each church different, each time slot for mass had a different feel to it and it was frustrating to try to find the perfect mass for me.” Crounse also had to resist the constant urge to compare a church to what she had experienced in college. She signed up for activities at a number of different churches, but soon began to wonder if she was being a bit too picky. “Just because a church didn’t have a strong pro-life group didn’t mean there weren’t opportunities to partner with neighboring parishes or to even start my own group,” she says. “I began to realize I needed to focus first on the mass itself, and other desires secondary to that.” After trying out many different masses, Crounse finally settled on a church. “It continues to be a struggle to build the same type of community that existed in college,” she says, “but I am happy knowing that the place I chose fulfills my spiritual desires first.”
Tyler Reinagel had significantly fewer choices when he moved from New York City to attend graduate school in public administration at the University of Georgia. “Going from a community where there were half a dozen parishes within walking distance to one where there were two parishes in a six county region was different,” he says, “options were limited,” Originally from Georgia, Reinagel felt somewhat prepared for the transition. “The Archdiocese of Atlanta as a whole tends to be more evangelical than the Archdiocese of New York, and this was an adjustment that I anticipated,” he says. Other changes weren’t as seamless. Shortly after his move, Reinagel began going to the local parish in Athens for daily mass. “I was turned off from day one,” he says. “All of their efforts were driven toward fundraising to move to a new location in a more affluent community and homilies were typically guilt-driven.”
Reinagel had a specific thing in mind in his church search. “The most important thing for me was finding a community that wanted to engage in dialogue about the church teachings and the ‘grey areas’ of social justice,” he says. He found that in the Franciscan Catholic Center at the University of Georgia. “There were groups for undergraduate students, graduate students, young professionals, adults and retirees that allow them to engage in social justice issues, participate in alternative spring break trips and engage in other ways with the community.”
Reinagel and Crounse eventually found churches where they were able to get involved and share their faith with others, but both admitted there may be no such thing as the perfect match. “I think the downside to church shopping,” says Crounse, “is that you almost become too obsessed with finding your perfect church, and you forget the importance of just building a strong community with your parish.”
A buyer’s market?
Though church shopping may enrich the spiritual life of the searcher, there is a risk of it becoming too much of a consumer culture. A 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal reported on “mystery worshippers” — a spinoff of the “mystery shopper” idea. Like undercover clients hired by shops and restaurants to review services, mystery worshippers are churchgoers hired to asses the quality of music, preaching, cleanliness, and so on. Mystery worshippers serve to give churches the point of view of the new parishioner, using a standard star rating system. [EDITOR’S NOTE: BustedHalo.com is building a similar system to rate churches online.]
Many churches are also getting creative in other ways, creating focus groups and satisfaction surveys to get feedback on how best to turn shoppers into parishioners.
Hints of religious consumerism have sprung up online as well. Growing websites like churchshoppers.com offer dating site-like services to “match people with the right church for worship,” based on factors like denomination, preaching style, music style and children’s ministry. Churchshoppers.com also plans a classified section where members can browse through ads for speakers and musicians, or sell their unwanted equipment and furniture. But as such online marketplaces expand, do seekers benefit from the advice and resources, or miss out on the larger purpose?
While some may see the concept of church shopping as another example of the clichéd “cafeteria Catholicism” — picking and choosing faith specifics — others don’t see a problem with shopping around. “I don’t really perceive any downsides to church shopping,” Reinagel says. “I think at its core, religion really is a consumer-driven thing. Any church has a basic need to survive — there are bills to be paid and a desire to have the butts in the pews. A church needs to offer something that is going to attract and retain people.”
No matter what that “something” is, church shoppers should be cautious of placing too much importance on minor details and overlooking the greater picture. “It’s important to maintain your own personal faith community with God and those who made a significant impact on your spiritual life,” Crounse says. “That is what will always remain consistent — no matter what church you finally decide to register at.”