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Wanted: Perfect Church

November 6th, 2006 by Jason · 9 Comments

One of the first things we did upon arriving in Seattle was start looking for a church we could call home. Not only because my faith starts to feel dry and small when I’m not in a church, but also because we shamelessly need more of a social life (with both of us working from home our social life has dwindled to the point where our dog has more of a night life than we do). Of course, we do live in a nice neighborhood with plenty of sentient beings all around with whom we could converse. But for some reason they don’t seem keen on bringing us apple pies or even providing a general introduction (my sister thinks it’s because we’re those “dirty renters,” but I highly doubt people have even noticed we’re here, much less that we rent). Anyhow, to various churches we have gone these past few weeks, a few times even doing a double header and attending one church in the morning and another in the evening. Almost all were good experiences, but we eventually hit upon one that fit surprisingly well. “Quest is an urban and multiethnic church in Seattle striving to be an incarnational presence in a fast-changing postmodern and postchurch culture.” But before arriving at Quest I had to wade through the problem of what do I look for in a church when I don’t have a denominational leaning to guide me? Well, turns out I have a bunch of preferences and a few must-haves. For those interested, here’s the list, ordered roughly with the most important at the top:

  • Jesus and the Kingdom of God are at the center. We almost ended up at the Mennonite church for this reason. I love the way Mennonite theology focuses on the concrete Jesus of Nazareth and makes the way he lived and died of central importance to the Christian life.

  • Scripture as the basis of the preaching. Scripture not as a series of bullet-pointed proof texts to make some other point, but as the main point. Seminary convinced me that it’s not that we’ve re-read the Bible so much that there’s nothing new to say, or that it’s too old to be relevant, but that we haven’t read it close enough. And when we read it intently, with an eye to details and overarching patterns, it challenges and changes us.

  • Multi-ethnic/Multi-cultural. Why is this important? Well, for one I think it’s one of the distinguishing marks between a church and a social club. Church is where dividing walls fall down, old patterns of injustice are shamed, and people learn to love their enemies. And something a professor said keeps bouncing back to mind: If it doesn’t take the death and resurrection of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to hold it together then it’s not the church. Oh, and interesting factoid I learned: for a church to be considered multi-ethnic it can’t contain more than 80% of one ethnicity.

  • Authentic community. This is one of those things you obviously can’t manufacture. However, I do think there are some things that encourage it: when doubt has a place in worship, when pastors readily admit their mistakes, when mystery is acknowledged, when easy cliches to hard questions are spurned, when differences of opinion are invited rather than squelched (hmm, I guess that’s even more things I want :).

  • Music that compels me. Either a band that makes me want to sing and dance along or a stalwart hymn that’s sung as though it’s been sung for hundreds of years. But please nothing that would fit well on a hallmark commercial. I know, I know, a lot of personal opinion in that one.

  • A church that’s in the neighborhood. Not so much because I hate driving (which I do), but I would prefer to be in a truly local church. I often do the thought experiment of wondering at what church I would end up if it was 100 years ago and I had no car. I’d have to go where I could walk or where my horse could take me. And I bet that would dramatically change my commitment to finding a local church.

  • Communion every week. Jesus commanded it and it’s one of the most tangible mysteries of God’s presence we have. Why not?

  • Small. Not tiny necessarily, but it’d be nice not to be coming to church a year later and still have people asking if you’re new because they’ve never seen you.

  • No building. I’d rather have a church that was more interested in giving its money away than building a structure, but I know sometimes a church has to be somewhere.

So there you have it, my big list. And, even better, Quest meets just about all of them (though it’s not exactly in the neighborhood). Your must-haves in a church?

Tags: church life · theology

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Nov 6, 2006 at 11:09 pm

    The church I attend has most of these, I guess. It really isn’t good at embodying community very good, though, and we are a bunch of bumbling people, many who admittedly just can’t handle criticism.

    But if there’s anything I’ve learned about the ‘must-haves’ I’ve taken away from what I think is important, it is that I need to get rid of the ‘must’ in front of the ‘haves’. Too often people within my own congregation have been very deeply hurt by the ‘musts’ and demands we have placed upon each other, instead of seeing everybody and everything as a gift, which doesn’t have such demands.

    Frankly, this is why, aside from my general busy-ness this semester, I haven’t blogged much. People, including myself, are just talking way to much in my local congregation and for as much as I am sure I have to say considering how much I supposedly ‘know’ about theological matters, paradoxically, what I really need to be doing is listening. Of course, ironically, I’m saying these words. hah. Sorry for the rambling. If you have found a congregation even with a handful of these gifts, consider yourself very, very blessed.



  • 2 Camassia // Nov 7, 2006 at 8:16 am

    My church has most of those; what it mainly lacks is weekly communion, localness (for me, anyway), and ethnic diversity. It’s funny, if you ask anybody there they’ll tell you that diversity is important in a church, but it’s one of the most undiverse churches I’ve been to, not just ethnically but in terms of age and job description. I think it’s because mostly they just let the Fuller network keep feeding people into it, rather than doing specific types of outreach. I must admit I have mixed feelings about the idea of it diversifying; it seems like the right thing to do, but its distinct personality as a group would not be the same.

    Frankly, I’ll be shocked if you find all these things in one church. If you do, let me know and I’ll move to Seattle.;)

  • 3 Jason // Nov 7, 2006 at 9:01 am

    Eric, you make a good point that I often forget as well: letting the “musts” dwindle and the sense of seeing others as gifts grow. And that’s one of the things I’ve always found so interesting about church: the church (as in the larger organization) may drive me nuts, but when I actually meet and get to know individuals in the church it gives the church real faces and lives to which I’m drawn.

    Camassia, I’ve never attended regularly a multi-ethnic church, so this is a first for me. I do wonder if in addition to outreach, a church must also start from the top and diversify its leadership if it hopes to be multi-ethnic. It seems to me that if power isn’t shared then even if the congregation is diverse you may end up with a place where a single ethnic group makes all the decisions.

    And I’ll be sure to let you know if I get any answers to the ad :)

  • 4 Lee // Nov 8, 2006 at 9:07 am

    Just to chime in – in addition to multi-ethnicity (which, in fairness is frequently beyond anyone’s power to change, considering how much the ethnic make-up a particular place is outside anyone’s immediate control), I think diversity in economic status and age are very important. One thing that I distrust about what I’ve seen of “emergent” churches is how much they seem geared toward youth (broadly defined) and youth culture. I think we learn a lot from older (and younger) folks and there’s too much age segregation in our society as it is. Also, Isaac’s point about multi-ethnic leadership is a good one. A lot of African-Americans have their own churches for very good reasons (to the shame of white Christians), however much we might want to uphold the multi-racial/ethnic congregations as an ideal.

    As far as other “must haves” (with Eric’s very good qualifications in mind), I agree that weekly communion is important.This is quite literally the central religious practice of my life; not sure what I’d do without it.

    I also run screaming away from “political” churches, not in the sense that all churches are political by their very nature, but churches that are partisan Republican or Democrat. I’ve experienced both and find it a huge stumbling block.

    Another important thing to me is that a church has ways of nurturing the Christian life outside of worship (daily prayer, bible study, etc.).

    And some kind of vibrant social ministry/outreach to the community.

    Also, preaching that isn’t out-and-out heretical is nice. 😉

  • 5 Jason // Nov 8, 2006 at 9:19 am

    All great points, Lee. I don’t know how I forgot having some sort of way of nurturing the spiritual life outside of Sunday. Without a homegroup, community-group, or some other form of community/spiritual practice the days stretching from Sunday to Sunday can be long indeed.

    Also, so very true about diversity being more than ethnic. And that is one thing that isn’t great at Quest (and other emergent churches I’ve visited); it has the tendency to be quite a young, hip group that can feel more like a college group than a church. The interesting thing is that the leadership is not all that young (the pastor at Quest is in his 40s and has 3 kids), but maybe they reach out too specifically to young people or maybe the different way they do church (candles, artwork, couches, etc.) off-puts older folks who have a different image of what church should look like.

  • 6 isaac // Nov 8, 2006 at 3:10 pm

    I definitely want to echo Lee’s comment about the need for a multi-class church. Ethnic diversity is hard to judge (I can’t tell you if I’m “white” or “hispanic”. I know a “white” missionary who just got back from decades in South America who is definitely more “hispanic” than I am, despite my last name—”Villegas”). But class is easy to see.

    Another thing that interested me, Jason, about the stuff that’s important for you in a church is that you didn’t mention “peace.” I guess it can fall under your first category: “Jesus and the Kingdom of God.” But so could everything else on your list. So, why isn’t a peace church important to you? I can’t imagine being a part of a church that doesn’t believe that the peace of Christ is something that must be talked about, lived out on a local level and global, and names violence as violence when it occurs anywhere in the world.

  • 7 Jason // Nov 8, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    I was just thinking today, Isaac, “you know, I didn’t mention anything about being a peace church or women in leadership.” And then I figured you’d mention at least one 😉

    I think I would add a “peace church” to the list. My only qualification that you might not agree with is that I think this is one of those issues where people from both sides of the pacifism issue should be heard. In other words, I’m not willing to say that a just-war theorist is heretical. Of course most churches I’ve been to have shied away from the whole issue, so at this point I’d be happy just to have a church where the issues of war, violence, and pacifism are issues brought up and discussed.

  • 8 blip » Becoming a Member // May 21, 2007 at 8:25 am

    [...] society, to think that changing my environment will solve my problems.  The quest for the perfect church (i.e. full of people like me) is long and unsatisfying.  Of course, there are seasons when God [...]

  • 9 Betsy // Dec 29, 2008 at 10:46 am

    I love church talk. Admittedly, I reached the end of your list and was suprised to find “no building” on the list. I live in smalltown Virginia so it’s not very common for a church to have no building. What does that end up looking like? A church small enough for everyone to fit in one home? Or simply you meet in an old movie theater/bowling alley…?