Church (S)hopping

“Church hopping” is a phenomenon, particularly prevalent in the early Charismatic movement, when Christians would move from church to church, conference to conference, to chase down the best teachers and the most, well, charismatic speakers. As a result, many Christians became dislocated; whilst they heard great teaching, there was no space for them to apply that teaching and experience spiritual formation in the context of community.

Consequently, one of the most insidious aspects of the Charismatic movement was allowed to spring up, now documented by most church historians as the “Shepherding Controversy”.

The central message was that everyone should be connected to a leader above themselves and in turn disciple others. Vinson Synan describes it this way in his book The Century of the Holy Spirit:

This “shepherding” system was considered to be an answer for the thousands of charismatics who were drifting from conference to conference and at times receiving questionable teaching and leadership. To these rootless and wandering masses, the [teachers of the movement] offered “covenant relationships” between a “shepherd” or “covering” who would direct the spiritual lives of his “disciples”.

What began as a good intention was a first step on a slippery slope. Soon, shepherds were dictating to their disciples things like what clothes to wear; what they did with their spare time; even who they should marry! And the shepherds continued to propagate that culture through a theology of fear which went something like this: to be blessed by God, you needed to be under the spiritual covering of a shepherd. Move out of that covering and you move out of the sphere of God’s protection.

By the late 70s, the movement had begun to wane as prominent Charismatic leaders began to teach against it. But a thread of the Shepherding Controversy continues to live on, particularly in churches today where lines of authority are emphasised. Instead of spiritual covering from shepherds who were outside the local church structure, the spiritual covering was now provided by the local church pastor. The dire consequences of not remaining “under the covering” remains.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for accountability. I am spiritually accountable to my wife (she might disagree!), some leaders of the church in the city and my close Christian friends who speak into my life. But I’m not accountable to them to the extent that they will dictate the small details of my life (maybe my wife is an exception!). Why? Because God and I are on speaking terms. If a person in authority says to me “I believe God is saying this and this about your life”, I also expect God to tell me Himself!

Anyway, I’ve gotten myself sidetracked now, because what I really want to explore in this post is “church shopping” which is a much more enjoyable activity. It is what happens when you leave a church and you get the privilege of finding a new one to belong to.

Ling and I visited over 15 churches in the last 7 months as we prayerfully considered where God would have us settle. It was a great experience because when you have belonged to one church for 21 years, you never really get to see what other churches are doing. So as we visited some of these churches, we went out with a shopping list of essential items – things we wanted in the church that we would call home. In my next post, I will highlight some of the great things about some of the churches we visited, but here, I want to share my shopping list with you:

1. Vibrant worship

As a worship minister, this was non-negotiable. We wanted to be in a place where we could sense the presence of God in worship. Now, how each person gets that sense will be subjective, but we sensed this more in some churches than others. You might feel differently about this, so that’s why I say it’s subjective. Importantly, we wanted this sense of God’s presence married to musical excellence as well because more often than not, the two aspects go hand in hand. God’s presence operates independently of musical excellence; musical excellence without God’s presence is sounding brass and clashing cymbals. But when the two come together, it’s heaven on earth.

2. Inspiring sermons (that don’t go for too long!).

Okay, so this is a composite of two related items. First, the sermon must be Word-based and challenging. The Word of God must be what inspires transformation. I’m over those sermons where you can take out the opening Bible passage and the rest just sounds like a motivational speech.

The second aspect is sermon length. The older I get, the less I retain. I just need the main point of the message to penetrate my heart and linger in my thoughts: three points (each containing three subpoints) are just too much to process. And after 45 minutes, I really need a Kool Mint to stay awake (Joseph Prince is the only exception here. He can preach for 1.5 hours and it’d still be okay).

Actually, and ironically, I have a third subpoint to this main point: the sermon should be anchored in God’s grace. I don’t need grace theology rammed down my throat every week, but messages based on what God has done are definitely more biblical (and inspirational) than those which emphasis my need to do things to gain God’s approval.

3. Warm Fellowship

When you are a visitor to a church, it can be really intimidating. The shoe moves to the other foot and you realise what it must have been like for those visitors who step foot into your church for the first time. You start worrying whether you stick out like a sore thumb (especially if you are Asian and the church ain’t), and you wonder whether you should draw attention to yourself when the chairperson asks for newcomers to stick up your hand if you are there for the first time. (I’ve decided now that whether I put my hand up depends on how good the newcomer’s gift is: in Influencers Church, you get a Paradise CD which retails at $21.95, so I happily stuck my hand up there).

A strong community on a Sunday can actually draw you deeper into the life of the church. But importantly, we wanted strong discipling communities that would foster accountability, encouragement and spiritual growth.

4. Outward Focus

We wanted to be part of a church that had a strong outreach program; and even better, a strategic (rather than an ad hoc) outreach program. The intent of the church was always to mediate between God and the unreached: apart from that, there really is no other impetus for Christians to exist in the world.

But apart from the function of witness, we also wanted to be part of a church that was connected to the body of Christ in the city, generous in resources to other churches and willing to sacrifice to answer Jesus’ high priestly prayer: that we might be one so that the world may know that Jesus was sent of God.

5. Supernatural in Orientation

Strangely, the supernatural and me are an awkward marriage: I know that the Christian life must be supernatural, but I think I’m very much a carnal, rationalistic creature. So a supernatural bent is important to challenge me in my faith, to believe God for greater things, to dabble in the impossible.

My wife is really into healing ministry, so as part of this “must have” item, we wanted to be part of a church with a strong healing ministry. For her, it’s an avenue to serve. For me, it’s to remind me that God is still doing incredible things in our world.

6. A Strong Vision

This is the last item on our shopping list and an important overarching one at that. I actually believe that the church most resembles the original model in the book of Acts when it is organic and flat-structured. But for now, I have to accept that most people do church based on an organisational model. And under that model, what makes the church successful in carrying out its mission in this world is strong (inspiring but not controlling) leadership and a strong vision.

Vision is like the first shirt button. Get that one right and all other activities will be referable to it and fall into the right place. Get the vision wrong, or have one that’s too vague, and everyone ends up doing whatever they want with no follow-through.

I like a vision that thinks big and acts big: one where together, a church will strive for the impossible, even if it means that at best, we achieve the nigh-on-impossible!

So that’s my church shopping list. And I’m glad to say that we’ve found a church that checks all the boxes!

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