Most cities (particularly in the Bible belt) offer a number of options when it comes time to choose a church. Because of this, it’s fairly common for people to drive 30 minutes to an hour each Sunday, passing one or more congregations on their way.

Think of the type of congregations available within a 40 minute drive in most cities. Most churches fall on a spectrum that runs along the lines of income, progressive/conservative, age (and, often times, race). Some are more service oriented, others more youth oriented, others more mission oriented. Some will appeal more to the younger, others to the older. Some may be more upper-middle class to wealthy, others middle class, others low income. Some will be slightly progressive, some slightly conservative, some heavily progressive, some heavily conservative. Some are predominantly (or entirely) white, others predominantly (or entirely) black, others predominantly (or entirely) another race.

Because all of these options are available, and because we choose the one that’s the best fit for us, it’s easy to end up in a situation where all of our church friends will generally be our same race, social status, and age, and with almost the exact same beliefs about everything, which seems foreign to everything the church was intended to be (see Galatians 3:28, for one).

The solution? Join the church that is nearest to your house.

(A couple of disclaimers seem necessary: first, I’m not talking about throwing doctrine out the window. For example, as a believer in major mainstream church of Christ beliefs such as non-instrumental worship and complementarianism (male leadership), I’m certainly not telling anyone to just walk into a church that has a band on stage or a woman in the pulpit. Secondly, I’m not asking anyone to leave a congregation they’re currently attending.

However, very few Christians get to stay at one congregation their entire lives. Finding a new congregation to join is something most will have to go through.)

Here are a few reasons why we should abandon the church shopping approach and commit to the nearest body of believers.

First, the further you travel to worship, the more difficult fellowship and service become. It’s hard enough to find time to get together with our Christian family outside of Sundays and Wednesdays, and events at the building can be difficult to squeeze into our schedule. Add an hour round trip to the equation and it becomes incredibly easy to be minimally involved in the lives of your fellow Christians. Now, assume a number of your fellow members live 15 minutes past the building. When some needs a visit or a meal, that’s a steep time commitment. I’m not saying it can’t be done or that it isn’t done, but it certainly adds a challenge and can be limiting. On the other hand, if we go into the decision of where to worship by asking “Where can I best serve?” rather than “Which church is most aligned with what I want and need?”, it makes a strong case for staying local.

Second, it can add to the difficulty of evangelism. It’s much harder to convince someone to go to worship with you (and especially to consider doing so regularly) if it’s all the way across town, and it’s equally difficult to try to introduce them to the church family. Beyond that, it’s another question to have to answer. People often want to know why our church is different from the denominations all around, and in this scenario we then have to explain why we chose not just our particular type of church but why that particular congregation over others of the same beliefs.

Third, and possibly most importantly, determining to fit in with the nearest congregation is crucial to overcoming the consumer Christianity mindset. Once major doctrinal questions are out of the way, people typically choose where to attend based on what churches have to offer. Basically, churches are asked “What can you do to earn my membership?”

Instead, we should be looking for the best place to serve and function as part of the body. And, it’s my contention that that place will typically be the nearest congregation. That’s partly because of the reasons named above – fellowship, serving, and evangelism. But it’s also because it causes us to go in to the situation with a determination to get along. When we go in with a view to find a church that is the custom fit for who we are and what we desire, we minimize the Bible’s commands to bear with one another, tolerate one another in love, and accept each other despite differences of opinion.

To answer a few of the arguments that might be made in response:

– “The preaching isn’t very good.” Weak preaching can be difficult to sit through, but we’ve got a much bigger problem if we’re dependent on the sermons for our spiritual nourishment. Church life in this day and age is disproportionately centered around the words one man offers a couple of times per week. We rely on preaching for the bulk of our discipleship, teaching people the Bible, convicting people of sin, and evangelism, and we rely on the 2 minutes directly after the sermon to fulfill our duty of confessing our sins. And, it’s the #1 reason Americans give for why they chose their church. Essentially, preaching has become the one-stop shop for a number of church functions that have fallen through the cracks due to busyness and other factors.

1 Corinthians 12’s illustration of the church as a body makes the point that the strength of the church is not in the visibly talented, but in the gifts and contributions of every member. When we huddle around the best preachers, we’re essentially disagreeing with Paul when he said that the Gospel’s power is not the wisdom and talent of those who present it (1 Corinthians 1:17-2:10).

– “I want my kids to have Christian friends.” Certainly an understandable point. However, it’s not connection with other youths but inter-generational relationships that is most important to a youth’s faith. At the same time, though, this should be a motivation to establish more inter-congregation fellowship to give opportunity for kids to find Christian friends their age, as many congregations effectively do. And, I think it’s a fair assumption that if every family who drove to the big churches for their kids stayed local, a lot of those local churches who don’t have kids suddenly would find they have more in the area than they realize.

– “I’m a little uncomfortable with how they do __.” As I mentioned at the start, I’m not calling for any major doctrinal compromises. However, it’s important to keep in mind that despite our individual differences, we’re on the same team when it comes to the Gospel. If there’s anything to be learned from Philippians, it’s that there is great joy to be had when we work through difficult situations and personal differences for the sake of the church and its purposes.

But that doesn’t happen when we seek out situations that cater to us and make adjustment and compromise as minimal as possible. They may be slightly more progressive or slightly more conservative, but they’re still brethren. When we drive past churches to find one that suits us better, the implied message is, “You’re my brethren, and we’ll be in heaven together, but because we have slightly different preferences let’s just keep to our separate churches here on earth.”

This gives us the constant reminder that church isn’t about us. The message of Romans 14 was not “go find the congregation that has your views on holidays, meats, or drinking,” but “accept each other, don’t judge each other on matters of opinion, and build each other up.”

What matters more than what we do is why we do it. It matters less which congregation we attend than why we chose to attend there. The reason why we join a congregation will be the reason we stay, and it will affect everything we do as part of it.

As I said at the top, I’m not asking anyone to leave their current congregation. But I am contending that “church shopping” isn’t a biblical concept and that we can do our best as God’s servants by joining the nearest congregation.

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