So this blog should be considered a suggestions list. Not just of what churches in this area are more or less appealing, but also suggestions of how one might grade a group on for oneself. There are a few key factors that I will be taking note of and grading as I go. Obviously, some may be more or less important to you, based on your own needs, desires, and beliefs. And you may have your own checklist to find a place that fits you. I just feel that these are the best starting places for myself.
The absolute most important factor for me in determining the fit of a group is their inclusiveness of people they do not know. I am a divorce', a stepmother, a person with disability, a person with tattoos and purple hair, and who doesn't really fit the stereotype of a traditional church goer. For me, the first day can tell you a lot about the general atmosphere a group shows towards newcomers. [[Disclaimer: Unfortunately for this particular experiment, I am white in a predominately white community, and so there are very few spaces where I can test race relations. For my friends who identify in racial minorities, I have to say I'm sorry. I'll do my best to judge how safe a space may be, but being that I am what I am, there's no way I can give definitive guides to that.]]
It will be my first and foremost goal to try to test the waters for people who don't "fit the mold". There is no point in a person trying out a setting where they will not be welcomed. It's not the shopper's job to impress the group, it's the group's job to impress the shopper. If they don't take people as they come, then they're not worth my time.
This is a less "grading curve" kind of question, and more of a defining question. While studying the particular rules and beliefs of a denomination can be very telling as to what direction a church may take, you never know the exact flavor until you taste it. This will mostly come from sermon notes, Sunday Schools, and other outreach programs, if applicable. Basically this is the question, "What do they believe, and how crisp are the lines?" Main subjects of question will be the attitude and idea of God, the level of adherence to Old Testament guidelines, the stance on "outreach", the attitude towards other or clashing religions and their followers, and the general attitude of the worldview.
3. Financial Transparency
While this is a more difficult concept to measure during a one-week visit, I think that it is extremely important to know that the money being donated to the church, tax free, is being used not only in the way that it is claimed to be used, but also in a way that is compatible with the idea of utilitarianism and charity. In other words, if a group says that money is being used for a charity that doesn't exist or is vastly under funded in comparison with the amount of money being raised, or if a group is openly using money only to benefit the members, staff, or site, the group would fail on this point.
4. Youth Programs
How thorough is the youth ministry? How open or crowded is it? Does it resemble brain-washing, is it overly dramatic or dark or heavy-handed? Does it encourage free-thinking, doubt, and questions? Is the space for children safe, open, and clean? What are lesson plans like? Who leads the lessons? Successful programs would have an open-door policy, and would not feature rotating leaders, unless the rotation were of pre-screened, pre-approved adults. Ideally there would be guidelines for behavior as well as limits to what subject matter is covered at what ages. Ideally, self-examination would be encouraged at all ages, as well as identity and personal choices. Weekly groups like AWANA are not required, but will be noted. This is extremely important to me, since we have two small children who may or may not end up interested in attending these kinds of events.
This should go without saying, but a good group doesn't have "haves and have nots", but it should also not be strictly haves or have-nots. Ideally, a group would have a healthy mix of people from as many socio-economic backgrounds as possible, and everyone would have a voice. Large vs Small membership size won't be considered a pro or a con unless it's extreme (thousands of members or less than 10 members) but will be noted for the edification of the reader.
Once again, these are just five simple checklists. Each point may or may not be touched on, depending on the quality of the visits. If I'm not invited back for an evening or weekday meeting, I probably won't attend an evening or weekday meeting. Names will be changed for the sake of privacy of everything except for street names and obviously the church name. Conversations quoted may or may not be verbatim, but will be paraphrased or quoted to the best of my ability as I will have a notebook but not a voice recorder.
Anyways, tomorrow is the first day, I'm pretty excited and nervous, but I can't wait to let you guys know how it goes.