Americans shop for everything — so why not churches? I’ll admit I’ve never liked the phrase. It reduces believers to consumers, and it implies that there’s this perfect-for-me church everyone can find, just like the right outfit. Ideally, our connection to a community of faith goes deeper, especially because there can be big differences in the teachings between even Christian denominations.
As a practical matter, though, most of us move at least once in our lives. My hubby and I recently made the jump to upstate New York. Being Catholic, we had the denomination nailed down, but we still had to choose a new parish. Where to start?
Based on our experience, I’ll share these tips:
- Gather recommendations from friends. We started this before we even moved, asking friends of friends for their recs. Whenever we found out that someone we were connected to had some tie to our new city, we emailed or sent a Facebook message. We got a lot of different perspectives, then prepared a starter list of churches to try. People engaged with their faith were the most helpful.
- Check out websites. If a church doesn’t have a website, that’s a tip-off that it’s more old school. Assuming it does have one, don’t go by graphics (although many churches could do a better job there). Look for info beyond service times, whether about the church’s mission or special events — anything that might be interesting or useful to you. When I got excited about one parish vision statement welcoming people of all types, though, my husband pointed out that was only a first step — you do need to visit the church before choosing!
- Listen for talking when you get there. Some people are used to the anonymity of slipping into and out of church without comment. But if community is important to you, watch for people mingling, and listen for some hubbub before and after the service. Both are good signs that members get to know each other. A vibrant parish gives off an energy you can feel, and relationships with other members should feed your faith.
- Actually read the bulletin. Take it home. Make a note of what activities are offered and what messages are shared. The parish we chose advertised a wide range of events — an artists’ salon, a support group for the bereaved, a special Mass for doctors, a book club for retirees and more. Think of a bulletin as a mini-newspaper showing what this community cares about. It should be relevant to you.
- Get numbers. Ask about the actual parish size. And don’t stop there. Survey the demographics at different times. (A 7:30 a.m. service will invariably be grayer, while a 10 a.m. may be jammed with little kids.) A good mix of ages overall is a good sign. Also consider whether a school is affiliated. It will make the congregation younger. On the other hand, if you find kiddos distracting, you may prefer a church without a school.
- Seek out staff beyond the priest. Is there a deacon? Parish manager? One minister can’t do everything. Having other staff members gives the church the bandwidth to do more than regular services and baptisms, weddings and funerals. The titles of staff members (like youth minister and social justice coordinator) will tell you what the parish emphasizes by showing what it puts point people on.
- Find out whether it’s run by a particular group. Most Catholic churches are diocesan (run by local dioceses). Some religious orders staff certain churches, though, and that can affect the way the church is oriented. The Jesuits (Pope Francis’ order) run many universities and have a reputation for education and more. The Paulists are often associated with evangelism and relevance to modern American life. Other orders have different emphases. But even diocesan parishes can vary widely, so don’t conclude anything without checking a church out.
- Ask about young adult activities — or the interest in getting some started. It’s worth praying about whether, instead of joining a church that’s already dynamic, you might be called to help make your neighborhood church more of a draw for younger people. The church we ultimately joined is large and vibrant, but sometimes has a small turnout at events for twenty- and thirtysomethings. We feel called to get involved and help organize things.
- Actually join! Don’t forget this step. The church wants to count its members, and when it comes time to get married or baptize a child, it will help to be a registered member. While it may seem easier to pull out whatever bills happen to be in your wallet each week for the collection plate, registering will ensure that your contributions are totaled so that you can deduct them from your taxes at the end of the year. The church can set you up with your own donation envelopes, but setting up an auto-pay might be the easiest option of all.
- Think about how you can give. Again, don’t stop with being a church shopper or consumer. A church isn’t just there to feed you, right? One wise blogger calls for being a “job seeker” rather than a shopper when it comes to finding a church. Remember that you’re there to give to and enrich the congregation, not just to take. Your presence — especially as an energetic young person — definitely matters.