In our small county in North Carolina, with about 50,000 people, there are more than 160 churches. All of them are struggling to stay alive and pay their bills. That struggle means that there is great competition for new members. That struggle in turn makes most new people in the community "church shoppers." They visit around and see which congregation they think offers them the "best deal." It is not just our small rural county that knows about church shoppers. Even big cities and large communities have lots of churches and lots of competition for new members.
Church shoppers come with a lot of different expectations. Parents of young children look at the nursery and programs for young children. Singles may come looking for social events for their age. Business people have been known to come looking for church directories for a list of new contacts.
Church shoppers have their own list of things they are looking for. I have a list of things I wish that my new members would come looking for. This is a list of criteria that I wish church shoppers would be looking for.
When they visit a worship service, did they find a sense of mystery, wonder and unknown in the liturgy? As they sat in the service did they get the feeling that they were in a church that worshipped a God that was bigger and more than could be explained or described? Or did they hear over and over again the idea that the leaders knew what the will of God was for humanity, that they knew what God was doing and that they could advise you on what God expected from you? Our God ought to be a lot bigger than our theology.
Where there is a great and holy God, that is larger and more than our ability to describe or know, there ought to be some confession of sin in the life and worship of a congregation. I would hope "my" church shopper would be disappointed if there was no mention of our human failures, "our sinful nature prone to evil," and our need for forgiveness. Too many congregations are determined to try to make us feel good, to leave feeling happy and positive, that they ignore the reality of our human sinfulness.
Strangely enough, in many of the congregations I have visited, particularly those that claim to be Bible-centered, the reality is that there is very little reading of the Scriptures. It should be important to the church shopper that the congregation they visit uses the biblical text and material in lots of different ways: calls to worship, the pardons, the actual reading of several passages, and the sermon ought to be rooted and grounded in a scriptural passage. The church shopper who is looking for a Bible-centered community will want to hear a message that talks about how God changes the reality in which we live, and not a message about how we can be more successful in the system that we live in. The message ought not to be how to be a more successful rat in the rat race, but how not to be conformed to be a rat by the power of God.
In my world, the successful church shopper will definitely want to know what the church thinks is the focus of its life. There are congregations that will tell you that their best feature is their music program. The organ is more centrally located than the pulpit. There are others that talk about how historic their building is. There are others who want to have everybody in some study group. A wise church shopper will want to ask what is the central mission of that congregation.
When you find that congregation, you had better join it quickly because it is a very rare thing.