To join or attend?

I appreciated this post from my friend Grace this past week. She writes:

If you are looking for a church to join, then you look for a vision or purpose that matters to you, a leader you respect, and people that you enjoy being around.

If you are looking for a service to attend, the only thing that matters is if the service is of enough value to your spiritual life to continue attending.

Implicit in the first set of values is the expectation that you plan to give something: your time and talent toward a vision; your submission to a leader; your investment in relationships.

In the second, the assumption is that you are there to receive something that you want or need, on your terms.

I have served in enough congregations to know that it is very, very easy to bend who we are and what we do toward that second set of values. A powerful vision, true leadership, and authentic relationships are hard: catchy slogans, up-front showmanship and a weekly party can become easy, and strangely appealing, substitutes for the more difficult work.

I think what struck me the most in Grace’s observation was an idea I encounter often enough in my peers, and that is the notion that our spiritual life is nurtured and sustained by whatever set of spiritual practices or products we choose, based on what we deem “valuable” in a given time or context. In my experience, how this often plays out for people is that very post-modern “bricolage” approach to spirituality. Listen to this preacher online. Read these books. Go to this Christian social scene. Participate in this retreat. Attend worship services at these churches. Do missions work with this organization.

None of those things are bad, and of course parts of people can thrive in this environment for a season. But what is missing is the perseverance, vulnerability, and sacrifice that comes from the messy commitment to being family with imperfect people. What is missing is the primary notion that our salvation comes not as an end, not as something to be managed like an investment portfolio or built like a resume, but rather it comes to direct us away from ourselves and reorient us toward lives in service to others.

How many of us “shop” for a church with that as our primary motive?


  1. Nicely articulated thoughts. It’s amazing how the two different approaches result in such different pathways and often result in such different levels of personal and community transformation. When we are consumers, picking and choosing what is convenient or easy for us, the only avenue for growth is accumulating more stuff, not service or love for our neighbors. Great post.

  2. grace makes an excellent observation. i don’t know how many people these days are really looking to join a community. in our situation, it seems that many want to attend and to just be ‘sunday christians.’ (i don’t know how that is possible, but that’s another issue!) folks continue to look for the magic children’s program, the magic service, or the magic pastor to scratch all of their spiritual itches. but they aren’t willing to help out in the children’s program, and they want to be fed instead of simply usher, etc. and they hope the pastor is good-looking or full of charisma, too.
    where are the folks who are looking for something deeper? sigh. i’m obviously expressing my own unmet needs… to have a christian community that is truly a community, a church, and not just people attending a service. blek.

  3. Erica,
    Very interesting point about the disconnectedness of spiritual practices and products.

    Sadly, in my “shopping” I can’t say that I have really discovered a tribe interested in pursuing spiritual formation together.

    It all sounds great, but the reality is that isn’t what most churches are about. Maybe I still need to change to the point where I can see this differently.

  4. Grace,

    Your experience reflects well the point I was trying to make at the beginning that, even among the really well-intentioned, the temptation to NOT be about a common life of genuine spiritual formation is great.

    Thanks for weighing in! And I totally cracked up at your miniskirt line 🙂

  5. Mixed feelings about this post.

    Financial markets around the world are in free fall and lots of people among both the poor locals and the relocators–and probably their relatives–are feeling the fear.

    Old folks and the poorest of the poor both in LA and around the world are going to pay the biggest price. I think we need budding pastors who can speak to that kind of fear and bring greater confidence.

    On the other hand, I really like and respect your consistent focus on your own private life and thoughts.

    I guess I’m looking for a pastor who can split the difference.

  6. Thank you for the post. I’ll use this with the members of my council (I often steal your stuff). Keep up the great work. And … congratulations.

  7. B”H

    Hi Erica,

    Very interesting thoughts on the values we hold and how we invest/withhold our true selves in the quest for spiritual maturity/formation. I recently had a conversation with a new acquaintance at this local congregation we have been attending. I said that I still feel somewhat uncertain if this place will be a “good fit” for me since I am most interested in being part of a community and not just a member in a congregation. At this point his eyes started to glaze over and from what my wife has told me, this is when the other person is no longer a stakeholder in the discussion at hand. I don’t know if I merely exceeded his desire for a trite exchange when he said, “So, how’s it going here for you?” or if he was in such disgust over my picaune distinction regarding the mode of expression (com. vs cong.). Being an interracial Messianic Jewish family, we come to the table with more than the average number of potential differences. This of course could be either an asset or a deficit. In either case, my concern is that we find a place where we can live out our values with fellow travelers, and not merely attend services once or “x” times a week and not have our lives connected in any other way.

    Thanks for your thoughts and introducing this important topic.



  8. Erika,

    This is something I struggle with ALL THE TIME.

    And not just personally, though that’s the first dimension of it. I can’t tell you how many times during the last three years of being on staff at ICC I’ve thought to myself, “I can’t take this anymore, I’m quitting.” And then if I allow my mind to wander down that path long enough, I inevitably get to the point of wondering what my next step would be, and then it hits me all over again… where the hell am I gonna go? There’s no other church that God has established as being such a good fit for my combination of gifts and passions and experience and core values, and one small bit of anecdotal evidence of that is that if there were, God would have called me THERE instead of here. But here is where I’ve been called, and until I hear a CLEAR call elsewhere (more than just wanderlust born of frustration and impatience) this church is where I will be.

    The problem I have, as a leader within this church, is that it’s hard to allow people the emotional and spiritual space to be where they are and let the Holy Spirit convict them without implicitly assenting to their a la carte brand of spirituality, where they can come and go when they please, split time between 2 or 3 different churches depending on their mood, season of life, etc., and generally remain floating in the outer rings of community, frequenting our church often enough to be recognized and have their names known, but not often enough to really commit and BE known.

    This is the challenge that I have, and I’ve seen several young men and women (mostly single) float in and out of our body without much sense of commitment or accountability, and then they complain about not feeling connected.

    I had an email exchange with one person where I said the following:

    “I know that you came here during a difficult period of transition and people haven’t embraced you the way you might have hoped they would, but community doesn’t come easy and my hope for you is that you find a place where you can get connected, and if that’s with us here at ICC that’s great, and if it’s somewhere else I won’t be too disappointed, but wherever it is it’s going to require intentionality and honesty, traits that you’ve shown in your short time here, but maybe in greater proportions than you’ve demonstrated thus far.”

    I haven’t seen her since.

    Was I too harsh? I don’t know how to let people exist in their own plane or strata of maturity without letting them off the hook, so to speak.

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