Saturday, April 16, 2016

What do I look for in a church?

what should i look for in a church
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.

1. Inclusiveness

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.

2. Doctrine

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.

5. Diversity

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.

 Gateway Christian Church Saint Albans
Gateway Christian Church Saint Albans

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Welcome? Undercover "Church Shopping" In Appalachia

Welcome to the blog. I wanted to take some time to introduce myself before and my project before getting started.
My name is Alex, I am a wife and stepmother, and I grew up in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. There's a joke about our area (and it applies to a lot of other communities in the Bible Belt) that my dad and I always used to tell (still do, actually) every time we passed a new construction site -- It's either going to be a bank or a church, and lord knows we don't need any more of either.

A little bit of backstory, shall we? Like I said, I grew up here, and, like most people around here, I grew up in church. I went to a Christian school from first to eighth grade, went to AWANA (like scouts, but more Bible and less practical skills) and/or youth group every Wednesday night for as long as I can remember. I went to church on the major holidays, and every other weekend, when I would be with my grandparents. My dad never believed any of that stuff, I don't think, but he never tried to stand in my way, either. I wanted, more than anything, to belong to something bigger than myself, and to understand my purpose and goal. I spent a lot of years hoping that organized religion would give me that.

A lot of bad things happened to me in churches (and that school) growing up. But a lot of really amazing things happened, too. I met people who genuinely loved me, and who I genuinely loved, too. Of course I also met people who were genuinely evil and destructive, and caused my already damaged mental health a lot of extra, unnecessary trauma. Over all, after all the years, I've learned a lot about what I think about organized religion and churches, particularly in our neck of the woods.

A group of people can have either positive or negative effects on the following 3 people(s): 1. The members as individuals. 2. The members as a collective. 3. Non-members/prospective members. Religion and faith-based endeavors in particular tend to be only positively affecting no more than two of those groups at any given time. Either the group is good for The Church and harmful to its members and neighbors, or it is good for strangers and harmful for The Church, or it is good to its individual members and harmful for strangers... Very rarely do you find a group of humans (because, even if they are supposedly led by God, they are all still human) who do not hold biases. It seems the best you can ask for is a group of humans so driven by universal love that they do not lash out or exclude individuals based on their own biases. This has proven difficult for many groups, mainly because their prime directive comes from an admittedly outdated book.

As for my own belief, I am not sure. I have settle for the term agnostic, however I don't think that the existence of a God (or multiple gods) is really relevant to the answers I'm currently seeking in life. What is truly relevant is living a life that is representative of what we want this world to look like after we're gone. And if there were a god, I would want it to be one of love and inclusiveness, like a parent, who, even though their children may stray, would still love them no matter what, and would learn to accept them for who they were, not push them into self-hatred and harm for the sake of appearances. If there is a god, and it does not match that description, I am honestly not interested.

Now, finally, for my goals with this experiment. When I was a member of a church, we would often get visitors, and for whatever reason, the first question they were asked was always "Do you have a home church?" (no doubt this was for recruiting or "outreach" purposes) and the answer was often, "No, we're just shopping." And, while I never got to do it since I was just a kid and I went where my grandparents took me, I always thought that was such a romantic idea.

And why shouldn't we "Just Shop" churches? What would be wrong with getting an idea of what all the communities are like, sampling them and taking what we like from each one to create our own network? No doubt, in every group there are the people you want to take home with you and the people you would rather just leave behind. With everything else, from banks to bars, you don't have to settle on the first one you find, or the one your friends or parents tell you is the best, or the one that's the closest to your doorstep.

So my goal is to create a sort of map of the churches in my area, do my best to describe them physically, characteristically, ethically, socially, and ideologically. It's one thing to say, "this is a methodist church, with predominately middle aged white folks" or "this is a catholic church with predominately young black folks." What I want to do is visit, and give a full description of what a person can expect to experience on an average day at these places. That's why I'm going without calling ahead, that's why I'll sit in the back, I won't draw attention to myself, and I won't tell anyone why I'm there. I just want to know what these people are like, and how it varies from one steeple to the next. And I'll write it all down and share it with you here.

We will begin on Sunday morning, at Gateway Christian Church, in Saint Albans, WV.