How Do We Look For the Theology of A Church? Part I

Emily and I are back from our 2 week vacation in the Midwest.  We had a lovely time seeing family in Friends in Ohio, and Nashville.  And we thoroughly enjoyed our anniversary which we spent in Ludington Michigan at a great Bed and Breakfast called Cartier Mansion.  I will post pictures soon.  While we were in Ohio we spent some time with Emily’s parents who recently moved to Toledo, Ohio and they are in the middle of looking for a new home church.  We went with them on Sunday to visit a local church and when we pulled up I started trying to exegete that church’s theology. 

This post is written for anyone in the middle of church shopping where you may only have one week at a church (of course more time will always help you discover a better picture of where the church has been and where it’s going).  Can you know something about their theology in that time, I think so and here are some tips for doing it. 

Questions to Ask Upon Arrival
What kinds of vehicles are people driving?  Are they brand new cars?  Are they used?  Are they big trucks, hybrids, or Harleys?  What is the general representation of the values found in the parking lot?  Cars can say a lot about us, our values, and the things we believe about God.

Are there bumper stickers on these cars?  Many people where their political ideas on their rear bumpers – you may find a big ‘W’ with an american flag, a sticker about Jesus being a carpenter, or a sticker about Jesus and peace.  All these things give us a little glimpse into what’s going on in the theology of a local community.

Do a quick survey of the building.  Is it brand new, old and beat -up, small or is it the size of a shopping mall?  This will tell you something of how the finances are understood at the church.  You may also want to ask how is the building being used?  Is it strictly a meeting place for Sunday mornings or do you see gyms, playgrounds, libraries, classrooms, or even a Starbucks?  All of this gives clues into how the church building is valued, how the money is handled, and what some of the aims of the church are. 

Finally consider the location of the church.  Does it reflect it’s neighborhood? Is it accessible to people or hard to find?  Is it in the town center or on the out-skirts?  This can give you some insight into the mission of the church and where it sees itself in relationship to it’s local community. 
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*Disclamer: I do not mean to make any value judgement on any of this as much as just say what to look for and how it might connect to a local theology.  It is also important to point out that churches can have people from all over the theological grid so you are looking for common threads, not that one maverick who is the black sheep of the group. 

The next post will discuss what to look at once you’re inside.

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18 responses to “How Do We Look For the Theology of A Church? Part I”

  1. Wess,

    I am dissapointed by many of your insinuations in this post. I think it is a dangerous thing to try and evaluate a church by the cars in the parking lot or the bumper stickers on those vehicles. You are creating a false proof for valid Christianity that cannot be supported through the Gospel lens. Besides, it is horrible preparation for worship to be critiquing those in attendance before you even enter the building. Such a mindset would surely fall under the warning of St. Paul of “taking the cup in an unworthy manner.” We would do better to focus on what the Spirit of God may want to teach us in any setting than on our own pre-conceptions about what WE think Christianity should look like in the institutionalized setting. I think this mindset could easily fall under your own definition of “Christian Terrorism.”

  2. Kevin,
    You seem to be jumping to conclusions and missing the point of the post. I am not discounting or joining a church because of the cars in a parking lot (remember this is part I of multiple posts i.e. This is one aspect of many layers to observe), I am suggesting that the sociological methods of “Participant Observation” are useful in trying to understand the value-system within a group of people.

    If you think that our faith has nothing to do with how we live, what we drive and post all over our cars, how we build our churches, and where we locate them then yes I have created a “false proof for valid Christianity” but this is where I will be much different than you. I think we can’t help but make decisions based on implicit and explicit theological assumptions, people are often pragmatic when it comes to faith, we do what we think God is okay with and we reject what we think God rejects.

    Please note the nuance of my statement as well when I said, “Cars can say a lot about us, our values, and the things we believe about God.” I didn’t say “cars do.” Cars are not the litmus test for faith, I don’t think that and I didn’t communicate that.

    Also realize the post wasn’t entitled “how to prepare your heart for worship.” This would be a better post in many ways but might not answer the questions I am trying to answer.

    Many people church shop because Americans are more mobile and move around the country more now than ever – I am trying to help frame a way to understand the assumptions of a church from a sociological perspective.

    Your own assumptions about my faith slipped out when you assumed I was “critiquing those in attendance before I ever entered the building.” I haven’t said yet whether I like the church or not and for all you know, it could have been a Quaker meetinghouse where everyone rode their bikes from 20 miles out.

    Now granted if when I go to the church I have a preconceived prejudice about that church and my heart begins in a sour place, then it will be criticism. But what I am suggesting above is not that at all – this is why I wrote the disclaimer. In fact, if our hearts our sour it changes our interpretation of the observations we make, and will let us down when we consider “how the spirit is moving” (something I’ve addressed in part II).

    Your comment about christian terrorism doesn’t compute, I am not sure what you’re getting at or how that ties in at all, but if you think that there is some wholly pure place where our own preconceptions don’t inform the way we understand even what it means to be “focused on what the Spirit of God may want to teach us” than I think we are both on different pages. Every time we go to a church, a small group, a college, or a blog – we bring with it our preconceptions, it would be impossible to do otherwise.

    In fact, God often speaks against our preconceptions and challegenes us to think differently in the Bible, through Jesus and in today’s world.

    My assumption then is that I can prepare my heart for worship, wonder what values a church has by looking around and observing what’s going on, have preconceptions that maybe be good or bad (some I am aware of and some I am not), and have God almighty challenge and work through all of this, and even help me know if this is the kind of community that I should be a part of.

  3. Wess,

    First of all, I am not attacking you or your faith. You know I love and respect you and deeply appreciate your throughtfulness AND faithfulness to the Gospel.

    The salient details of my post revolve around this question: Is it perhaps not counter-productive to begin making assumptions, theological or otherwise, about a church and its members before you even step into the building and begin worship? Are we so caught up in our own abilities to evaluate, or as you say “Participant Observation”, that we fail to realize the real purpose for gathering together.

    Obviously I am not that ignorant to realize that your post was not titled “how we prepare for worship”, but can you not realize the logical conclusions? If you are that focused on observing the circumstances around you before heading in to worship, how are you ready or expectant to hear from God?

    Certainly every aspect of our lives affects the choices we make, but do you really think that “cars” tell that much about us? Can we make a universal assumption that someone who owns an expensive car is not being faithful with his money and practicing biblical stewardship? Can we make a universal assumption that someone who has a “W” sticker on their car is someone who is a fundamentalist who hates gays, loves war, and cares nothing for the poor? Of all people, you should realize that this would be ridiculous.

    The main thing is, why make a post like this at all? Why even attempt at reinforcing stereotypes? Did Jesus exhibit these kinds of patterns when He went to have a meal with someone?

    And you have to be honest Wess, how can you observe all of these things and not critique? I find your admonition to me about judging your faith to be disengenous. The obvious conclusion to make about someone who looks at all of these outside factors is that they are making some kind of critique. The disclaimer that you concluded your post with seems to be a weak way of trying to not critique when the whole post was dedicated with examples of how to critique. Again, I’m not attacking you, I am just saying how it appears.

    I know I may have been a little hasty in some of my word choices, but you have to see how these things come across. You may have not meant them this way, but I am not inept at getting to the main point of your post, and this is what I have tried to share.

  4. Kevin,
    Thanks for clarifying some of your points. I understand what you’re getting at. Understanding how a church operates and observing surrounding circumstances is something we all do all the time at one level or another, all I am doing is guiding the questions. Maybe this is counter-productive and maybe it’s not, then again listening to music on your way to church, what you eat and drink before service, what you choose to wear, what you talk about with your spouse, friends and family and who you choose to go with could also be counter-productive to preparing our hearts for worship.

    Or we learn how to prepare for worship in the midst of things. It’s not an either or, and using our minds to take is part of making our bodies worshipping beings. Maybe what we disagree on is the nature of worship.

    You ask, “Can we make a universal assumption that someone who owns an expensive car is not being faithful with his money and practicing biblical stewardship? Can we make a universal assumption that someone who has a “W??? sticker on their car is someone who is a fundamentalist who hates gays, loves war, and cares nothing for the poor?”

    No we cannot and should not make universal assumptions about any of this stuff, I know this, and this is why I wrote “All these things give us a little glimpse into what’s going on in the theology of a local community.”

    And, “It is also important to point out that churches can have people from all over the theological grid so you are looking for common threads, not that one maverick who is the black sheep of the group.”
    It’s seems to me like your nit-picking. In the first statement I made it clear that I only think a “little glimpse” of something can be discovered from this and in the second quote I wrote explicitly against the idea that these are universal ideas, that’s why I said “common threads.”

    Maybe there won’t be any common threads at all, maybe our data collection will be interpreted wrong as well. But we should not be afraid to ask questions of any church and we should try to hear what the spirit says through this.

    I am sorry that you interpret my disclaimer as weak, next time I will write with more exuberance and emotion to show I actually mean what I say and am not trying to play a game of linguistics with anyone. If you can’t take me at my word, I have nothing left. I meant the disclaimers.

    And yes critique is involved, but not as the primary mode of understanding and it’s not necessarily mean spirited either. Again, maybe it’s just me, but I think we critique a lot of things whether we are aware of it or not. These are processes we turn on and off.

    Either our interpretations and critiques are motivated by love and the Spirit or they are mean-spirited and hateful, or something in-between. I hope they are motived by the Spirit, I’m not sure what else to say about that.

    And I think you’re right, the question underlying this post is “why?” And maybe I will address this later, maybe not, why’s underly every post I write. And I’d have to disagree with the assumption that this aims at reinforcing stereotypes, again that you’re assumption of this process not mine. I said nothing of theological affiliations, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, or Republicans.

    I didn’t say anything about what kinds of findings tell you what kinds of things – i.e. if you find 10 “K’s” then everyone much be Democrat and voted for Kerry. That’s ridiculous, of course, that’s why I didn’t say it. I just giving some things to look for you decide how they are interpreted, you make your own stereotypes whether I give you questions or not, and you decide whether you like what you find or not, that’s not up to me.

  5. Wess,

    I almost didn’t want to post because I thought it would just end up fueling the fire, but I think I have to agree with Kevin on this one. I know your intentions were not to draw up stereotypes or assumptions about a worshipping community, but I really did wonder in the middle of your post why you even gave these methods of critiques. You say, “I didn’t say anything about what kinds of findings tell you what kinds of things”, but I think knowing your theolgical background and thinking, it was implied by the examples of material items you gave as a way of beginning to formulate ideas about the theology of a church.

    Of course, I have been guilty of doing this myself, and I know that if I saw a parking lot full of Hummers I would wonder how well I would mesh with the community mindset…so, I don’t know where that leaves us. Maybe it was a worthwile post, if anything, for us to be introspective about the methods we use to interpret communities and whether they are valid or fair. Great, now I am feeling convicted about the things I look for in a parking lot or in a building. So, it was worthwile in that respect. I do have to say that part of what initiatlly drew me to Christian Assembly was how ugly the building was inside. I grew tired of the amount of money I saw spent on interior comforts…now I have to go and think more about this 🙂

  6. Wess,

    I am sorry if I seem to be nit-picking. That was not my intention and to be perfectly clear: I do trust you and your heart motivataions but not everyone who reads your posts has first hand evidence of your integrity and faithfulness. That is the reason why I wrote these things in regards to your post.

    We could go back and forth about these things ad nauseum, but I would rather leave it on a positive note. I apologize if I angered you in any way and I look forward to your continued writing on these topics, regardless of my disagreement. I hope that we can continue to have quality dialogue in the future and better understand what each other is saying.

  7. @ Kevin Lewis – Thanks for the comment and I certainly don’t mind a little fire, as has been evidenced by previous threads. I accept that I should have said more about the “why’s” of this post, as Bianchi suggested – I just was ignorant to the fact that it was needed.

    I also understand that my examples are informed by my own experiences, this is why I was careful to balance the examples for both sides and not suggest which one you should look for, of course I realize anyone who reads my blog regularly knows my own assumptions but that shouldn’t detour me from trying to be a bit ambiguous.

    I should have maybe been more careful about my examples, maybe not, I am simply naming things that run through my head – and maybe this is the bigger problem. But it’s what I know, and until someone adds to it, it’s what I have to offer.

    I also think I should have outlined the second post for everyone, which includes a) considering how the worship is planned, what is assumed in the belief of the worship songs, the type of sermons preached, interaction with the community and what the community says about itself on the back of its programs. All of these things are forth coming in my attempt to offer aid in finding a church for church shoppers, and one that fits their desires and needs.

    And that was the intention of my post, to be a guide for non-theologians shopping for a community – and for people who may not like me be committed to a specific tradition.

    I know my in-laws have some ideas about what they want in a church, I think we all do when we are looking for a faith community. When I first starting thinking about how to help them find a church that suites them, I thought of ways in which I could help create questions and observations for people who are interested at getting at value-related issues in a short bit.

    So my underlying assumption then is, a) that it’s okay to ask these questions and that many people already do and b) all these questions put together give us some idea of values of a community (not the single parts, but the whole).

    I hope that at least clears up some of the why. Maybe you all will still disagree at the base of my assumptions but I can deal with that.

  8. @ Kevin Bianchi,
    I accept your apology and I understand that sometimes I too get on the defensive pretty easily. To be honest I’ve been angry about a number of things going outside of this post and it boiled over a bit. Your input is important to me and the dialogue here and for that thank you.

    I will always appreciate dialogue and disagreements. This is a continued experiment on my part including this post, I am not sure if I’ve phrased it properly, asked the right questions or thought through the impact it might have as thoroughly as I would like, but then again I process by writing and dialoging. I understand that it’s an incomplete process but I also understand that I want to offer resources to others so I have to write out my ideas in order to find out whether they are helpful or not.

    I am interested in pushing this further and understanding how we can help people find church communities that they connect with and that the Spirit is a part of – how do we manage to give people tools to find these places and not just tell them all to go to a Friends church…? Though this would be my first remark. 😉


  9. Wess,

    I know we talked a bit about this in person, but I thought I would post it here for the conversation. I do think part of my defensive reaction to the post is linked with how little the church tends to ask these kinds of questions. We deal with visible sins much more readily in our congregations, but we rarely talk about materialism, pride, jealousy, revenge, or let alone hold one another accountable for these things. So, while someone might ask why you would even ask the question about the type of car they are driving, it is important for us to ask back, “why would we not consider the type of car we drive or the things we buy as part of our faith?”

  10. My only concern with this questions is making preconceived judgments before participating more fully in the community. It is always easier to make decisions about a particular group before we have first hand knowledge and that is a significant trap that all of us can be caught up in. I think that we should ask these questions once we become part of the community, not as an outsider. Otherwise they will not be substantive and become more reactionary in nature.

  11. Kevin,

    I agree that we should not use these to determine whether we would participate in the community. And I am sure none of us would bring up our concerns with say materialism or pride in the church until we have invested into it as our community, since we would just be an outsider looking for an argument.

  12. Hey, Wess,

    Wow! Such reactions. I suppose I understand that some might be offended by the approach that you advocated in the post. However, I immediately recognized the methodology (participant observer) given that I’ve done a little of that in my studies (I was a po for a study investigating how a new program functioned compared to their mission statement. I was a part of the agency for six months while doing so.).

    My only caveat would be to be open to “gut reactions” as well. Sometimes everything may appear “right” (for oneself, let’s say), but you still feel some significant hesitation. OTH, it may all seem “wrong” and yet one is definitely drawn to it. Go figure!

    Personally, I like the idea of evaluating how people live their lives by the consequences of their actions and choices – it has a strong Quaker/Anabaptist feel to it! 🙂 I think a lot can be said about a group of people based on many different things they do or don’t do. I didn’t feel you were saying to make some final judgement on other people’s souls; you did seem to suggest to be “wise as a serpent” in checking out a new community. Of course, it’s important to be “innocent as a dove”, too in the process so… 🙂

  13. […] Wess has written a three-part series on what to look for when shopping for a church: one, two, and three. Rilina is starting a series on the same subject, since she is looking for a church herself. […]

  14. […] am reminded of my friend Wess’ post, “How Do We Look for the Theology of a Church?“  One of his suggestions was to check out the cars in the parking lot on Sunday morning.  […]