A Suburban American Conundrum

She was smart.
She was outgoing and funny.
She was well-liked and popular at her high school.
She was the kind of girl everybody liked, and everybody had a different reason.
She was serious about her walk with Christ and couldn’t seem to get enough advice, insight or teaching.
She was a girl who had bows in her hair, and like the Talking Heads told us, nothing is better than that. Is it?

And, I’d never met her.

I’d only heard of her from the girls who attended the junior/senior girls’ Bible study group that met on Wednesday nights. And that Bible study was stacked with girls who were smart, outgoing, funny, popular, likable, seriously growing young women. There was a lack of bows among them, but the other stuff was better than that. To this day, that group remains as one of my favorite group of young ladies that were a part of my ministry, and this girl stood out among them.

Eventually, I met her, though. And, asked her where she’d been going to church. Her response was the first time I’d heard someone actually say something like this out loud: “Well, I go to [insert Huge Area Megachurch here] on Saturday night because they have such a great worship time. I go to [insert First Traditional Denominational Church here] because they have such a great focus on missions and service. I go to [insert Church Plant of First Traditional Denominational Church here] because they have such fun fellowship stuff. And I come here to [insert Token Area Bible Church here] because, well, everybody knows your small group Bible studies are the place to come if you want to dive deep into what the Bible says.”

I knew it was going on. It simply had never been laid out there that plainly.

She considered herself a part of the Body of Christ.
She considered herself a part of four different churches.
She was active.
She was serving.
She was growing.

But yet something rubbed me the wrong way.

Now, before I go any further, you need to know that I’m a traditionalist by nature. I believe National League baseball is the way the game SHOULD be played. I believe in picking a team and sticking with them your whole life. I like family, nuclear and extended. I stick with my friends through the good and bad. I believe in brand loyalty. I believe in patriotism, and especially when it looks like dissent…hence I’m a firm believer in the U.S. Constitution. God, country, and family. Baseball, football, apple pie and Chevrolet (yes, I know I drive a Toyota) and all that jazz.

So, the idea of grabbing the best parts of all the available area choices to help you grow spiritually was foreign to me. I mean, I always picked a church and viewed it as a family. Sure, there were parts of every church I was involved with that I didn’t like or didn’t seem important to me at the time. I mean, I’ve NEVER been in a church where I liked the music, but the reality is that unless some church has a worship band that is equal parts Stavesacre/Foo Fighters/Cold War Kids/Son Volt/Nirvana/Ramones/Clash/U2 then I’m not going to like it. But these congregations were my family and we were growing together and sharpening each other and that’s the way I took it. I mean, everybody has things they don’t like, but it’s THEIR church. THEIR family, warts and all.

And, if podcasts of several churches are any indication, this “smorgasbord” approach to the Christian life is becoming pretty popular. Over the last two months, I’ve heard sermons from both coasts, my own seminary, as well as local friends who have pulpit ministries address this with varying degrees of intensity.

On one hand, I see the pragmatism of it all. If you have children and a local church has an excellent children’s ministry, then you grab that. While that’s going on, if another area church lets you use your talents as part of the worship team, you grab that. If there’s an excellent women’s ministry that fits your schedule, you grab that. If another area church has a men’s golf fellowship, you grab that. If your teenager enjoys his friendships with people that go to a good area student ministry, you let them plug in there. If this pastor teaches in a way you feel like you learn, you find a way to get to that service. If another solid church has a better offering of service times that fits your schedule better, you take advantage of that.

And, I’ve seen that “smorgasbord” approach yield results, too. In the case of the bow-headed standout, well, she plugged into various ministries while in her undergraduate work, and she also spent some full-time years on the mission field. She recently got married, and I’d guess she’s still using her gifts and talents in various ways, and that her husband believes that nothing is better than his bow-headed wife.

On the other hand, I see some downsides. That approach seems to have a focus on “me” and “getting what I/my family” need, which is difficult for me to reconcile. That approach takes you away from one particular congregation in that, say, if you attend one church and use the men’s golf fellowship of another, that’s time away from your home church. Kind of like spreading yourself too thin in a lot of places rather than deep involvement at one place. That approach hinders a focus on doctrine and philosophy of ministry–I mean, there’s a reason there are different denominations and church styles and if you’re seeking programming you tend to avoid seeking to learn about any particular place’s doctrine or what they value or how they go about implementing that doctrine and their values.

And, I’ve seen that “smorgabord” approach fail, too. I’ve seen teens who were in persistent, public sin start attending [insert Large Megachurch here]’s youth ministry meeting because they could “get lost” in the numbers, keep their parents happy, and still live the lifestyle they wanted without much (if any) accountability. I’ve seen area ministries have financial issues because people’s attendance was causing one church to fund that ministry while someone’s money was being given somewhere else. I’ve seen lots of ministries talk about how a particular area of ministry was “growing” but they were full of folks from other churches. I’ve seen folks tell me that they didn’t care about the theological leanings of a particular place because their convenient service times fit their family’s lifestyle better. I could go on.

So, there are pragmatic “wins.”

So, there are pragmatic “losses.”

And, it IS happening, and my guess is that this approach is increasing. Largely because there are so many healthy churches offering a variety of meaningful ministry opportunities.

What I’d like to hear is for the patronage to give their thoughts on this reality.

And, yes, I have my own opinions on the matter, which I’ll give you at some point in the future…

…but the coffee is brewed, and as you know, The Diner is the only establishment in town with no TV’s blaring, just some background music (the Talking Heads is in the player this morning, but it’s very low), and we’re going to have a nice, civil discussion on the topic at hand…

…have at it, kids.