Church: It's not really about me?

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Since my husband and I have no beach getaway plans this summer, I thought it might be fun to take Sunday mornings and visit some out-of-town churches.

So, a few weeks ago I researched online for churches that look interesting, making a list of ones to visit. The challenge: finding churches we both find interesting — we each look for different things in a church.

Years ago, I famously (or infamously) chose a church to visit one Christmas Eve based solely on the looks of the building. The service was short and shallow and when it was over my husband said, “I feel ripped off.”

The following Christmas Eve I chose a church that served chocolate-dipped marshmallows on sticks and raffled off a robot during the service.

This put great pressure to me to break my streak of choosing less than great churches, so I started the list with a church I had been to before and was pretty sure my husband would like. The building is huge and there’s a cafe inside. The music is pitch perfect, and on the Sunday we went a few weeks ago, the guest pastor’s message was not terrible. On the drive home we agreed that neither of us felt ripped off and we want to go back again to hear the regular pastor speak. So far, that’s the only church on the list we’ve visited.

It got me thinking about Mexican restaurants and how famously (or infamously) choosy I am about Mexican food. I grew up in Southern California, the home of the best Mexican food on the planet, in my opinion. Whenever a new Mexican restaurant opens, I go with my mental checklist and try it out. My test is the tamales. If they can come close to the tamales I’ve eaten in California, then they pass my test.

I think I also have a mental checklist for churches: style of music and how well the singers sing, whether or not the church serves coffee — and is it free? If they serve doughnuts or other snacks, that ups the score. I judge a church by the length of the service — it should be neither too long nor too short — if it includes a video (I like videos), if the pastor expounds on a passage of scripture or just riffs on a topic.

I’m super picky about Mexican food and can also be quite critical of church services. I have to continually remind myself that church is not about me. The other day I happened upon a Christianity Today article that said exactly that: “Sunday Church Services Are Not About You.” The author, Jen Wilkin, said many churches, in their quest to make visitors and seekers comfortable so they’ll come back, have gone overboard by catering to the individual’s experience, feeding the belief that church is all about me — my comfort, my likes, my preferences.

Wilkin said the lighting, the music, even foregoing a “turn and greet those around you” time can contribute to a sense of anonymity, allowing people to be comfortably invisible if they want to. After all, nobody will require anything of people if they’re invisible. Wilkin said dim lighting, while it may set a worshipful mood, also “keeps the congregation from actually seeing each other joining together in worship” and being reminded that we are a family and not lone, casual observers. Likewise, when music is too loud, people feel “isolated and anonymous,” she said, and that music at lower levels “allow us to hear one another, encouraging participation.”

We sing and recite creeds and corporate prayers, in unison, together. Also, the sense of togetherness is emphasized when we greet each other, making eye contact and touching each other physically. If the ancient church could greet each other with a “holy kiss,” surely I can manage a handshake or a hug. I confess, I like the anonymity of big, loud and dark church services, but I also recognize that as a regular diet they’re not good for my soul.

From its beginnings, the church has never been about the individual, not about me, but always about us. As my pastor said, “We walk to heaven together.”

He said the church is not like a family, it is a family, and we practice walking to heaven together as a family whenever we gather together each week for worship, building each other up in our common faith, bearing each other’s burdens, praying with and for one another, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows.

That’s church at its best. And if there happens to be tamales, well, that’s even better.

Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927 or via email at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.