Church Shopping

Reprinted from the column “Sunday Morning & Beyond” in Fidelia’s Sisters: A Publication of the Young Clergy Women’s Project, September 2008,

This article must start with a disclaimer: I love my own church. I love to worship at my own church. We do worship well: good hymns, a great organist, a wonderful choir, kids participating, fervent prayer, gorgeous banners, liturgy with a good mix of pattern and flexibility. But, here’s the thing: if I didn’t do what I do and I were church shopping, I’m not sure I’d worship at my church.

Church shopping is a completely foreign concept to me: I’m a pastor’s kid and a pastor. Except for a few brief years in college (when, truth be told, I mostly skipped church), I never picked my own church. In seminary, my husband and I attended the first church we visited—we were hooked after one Sunday. Or maybe we weren’t hooked, but we just didn’t have the energy to look any further.

Since then, I’ve been attached to whichever congregation I serve. I’ve had varying degrees of influence over worship in these places: from the place where I wrote the entire liturgy every week to the massive downtown congregation where I might, once in a blue moon, get to compose a prayer.

In seminary I was a worship nerd. I loved all the intricate details involved in knitting together Scripture and song, spoken word and visual image, sermon, litany, prayer, and creed. I liked to experiment, try new things, sing new songs. And I was sure that these were the things I would do at any church I served. My church would have worship that was innovative and deeply rooted in tradition; worship that was relevant to daily life but not trite or precious; worship that was thought-provoking, life-changing, and soul-healing. And I would be able to spend at least a few hours every week submerged in the bliss of worship planning.

The reality is that each congregation comes with its own traditions, patterns, and ruts, with its own gifts and deficiencies, and that worship, as the work of the people, is not something pastors have complete control over. Add to that something that worship classes in seminary rarely prepare us for: the reality of staff ministry. I’ve had to let my inner worship nerd, who often joins forces with my inner control freak, take a few steps back from the worship planning process.

On Sunday morning I often find myself shushing the worship nerd, reminding her that it might not be her favorite hymn, but it’s still worth singing. Reminding her that there might be better ways to do this, but what God really wants is authentic worship, not an “A” on a liturgics paper.

If I were to go church shopping, I think I’d go for someplace a little artier, a little more Gen Y, with a few candles and some occasional incense; a good blend of world music, contemporary stuff (the songs I like, to be specific), great old hymns, and some medieval chant; communion every week, solid sermons, and all of that superimposed on good Reformed theology. And you’d be right to point out that I’d be looking a long time for such a place! In fact, what I’d be looking for is a worship environment created in my own image.

There’s an obscure passage by C. S. Lewis about worship, where he points out that worship really happens best when it’s not about our own personal taste and preference. (See sidebar below; be gentle with his condescending manner and listen to the spirit of what he’s saying.) I use this quote all the time on other people, but rarely on myself.

Ministry is a lifestyle, and a countercultural one at that. Sometimes it’s even counter to church culture. Maybe one of the gifts of this calling is that we don’t get to go church shopping. Instead, we are forced to worship with God’s people in the place where we are planted.


C. S. Lewis on Church Music

“There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.”
—C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, © 1967 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.

Erica Schemper is a PC(USA) pastor, mother (current emphasis on the mother part) and displaced Chicagoan living in the San Francisco Bay area. She blogs at Don’t flay the sheep.

Reformed Worship 95 © March 2010 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.