I grew up with two pastor parents, attending two to three services every Sunday for the better part of my childhood, and only getting to choose my church when I quit hanging out at the church my father served and went off to find my own. Now as an adult, serving in a validated non-parish ministry, I know I have a choice as to where I attend Ash Wednesday services, or whether I trek through the rain on public transportation to church on a Sunday morning rather than stay home and finish up a homework assignment.
For all that, I feel like church is something I need to do even if I don't feel it, as God has a tendency to show up pretty much anywhere. This doesn't stem from some noble sense of call as a Presbyterian minister, but from a childhood shaped by church. It didn't matter which church I attended as a child, but I had to go to church on Sunday and go once during the week for a youth activity. If I was sick, I could choose either to make up a home worship service with whoever stayed home with me, or we could listen to church on the radio. Church wasn't a choice, but how we got there was. Yes, force of habit is what gets me to worship, because my experience tells me I need church to remind me life isn't about me.
In my current ministry, I work with other ministers who are doing exciting things. I meet pastors and hear their stories of what led them into ministry. I like to meet people thinking about their ministries, and asking them about their journeys. I like talking about church because I love it. As I write this, I’m on retreat with the first cohort of Project Rising Sun, a group of youngish Latino and African-American pastors in the southeast. One thing I love is to be present to a moment in the journey of these leaders because they share a love of church and a love of the people of God.
I love church, and I love the church community, but I hate finding a new church. Hate it. After five years I had settled nicely into a Presbyterian church in Chicago, one with a jazz pianist, an eclectic collection of people singing in the choir, and excellent preaching.
When I changed jobs and came to Atlanta, I had to start the painful process all over again. I had to quit relying on the church pew as a place to finish my morning coffee. I had to rethink what I wore, and to be respectful of the context, I chose work clothes instead of jeans. I had to decide which back pew to sit in, and which people to approach. How late was too late to arrive for the service? And how would the congregation react to the fact that I travel over the weekend and am a sporadic attendee?
I like a good mix of folks. I like a church with some racial and age diversity. I like churches that are comfortable with having homeless people join worship. I want a church where all families are welcome: two dads with their kids, a mom and dad with kids, a young couple, a single young man, an older woman, a grandmother and grandkids. I want church to be messy enough to welcome all of us, but not so overly messy that it feels like group therapy. I never want a self-satisfied church, one that believes the hard work of creating community is done. World music would nice; if there is an organ, I like it played at a brisk pace. I like to be able to hear the exegetical work behind the sermon.
As a minister and a pastors' kid, I know there isn't a church anywhere that is an exact match to my fantasy church, because the church I construct in my head is an idol, not a living, breathing organism. Church isn't about the complete package, or a checklist of desired traits. Church is a group of people trying their best to be church, open to including others in their efforts. The best thing to do with a place trying to answer God's call to faithfulness is to join it, even if the solo is a little off-key and I can't bring my coffee inside.