The God Squad: Tips on finding the church for you

Q: I follow your column religiously (sorry for the pun!) and you seem like one of the more sensible people in God's Public Relations Department, so here's our problem:

My wife and I recently relocated from the Midwest to California and we're having a tough time finding a new church. We consider ourselves Methodists, but we're not hung up on denominational labels since God probably doesn't care what we call ourselves — just as long as we call on Him.

At the risk of sounding like a sacrilegious Goldilocks, we're having trouble finding a church that's "just right." We're glad our new hometown is known for its inclusiveness, but after visiting one church here (several times) our impression was that members spent an unreasonable amount of time congratulating themselves on how great they were for being inclusive, as opposed to acknowledging the God who made them so wonderful. (We thought, "Too soft!")

We didn't feel right attending a church on the ecclesiastically-exclusionary side, because that would be "too hard." After visiting churches that smelled like sweatsocks and others that just featured stinky sermons, we thought we'd found the right one. However, after leaving our phone number on the pew pad several times, requesting that someone contact us, and getting nothing but bewildered looks from the pastor on subsequent visits, we thought, "Too ambivalent!"

We feel like we're wandering around in the desert, thirsty, hoping Moses might come by and whack a rock for us. Want to take a swing at our problem? — Flounder

A: NOTE: I know this guy. He's a fine fellow who's been an unreasonably loyal reader of my columns. My nickname for him is "Flounder." (I haven't had the courage to ask what is his nickname for me.)

Dear Flounder,

I am, as always, impressed by your spiritual diligence in trying to find a Protestant church for you and your wonderful wife and tolerable dog.

Doing the audition tour is the right way to begin your search for a church, but it's not the right way to end it. Most houses of worship are neither as good nor as bad as their preacher's sermons. Preaching is a spiritual art form and teaching form. Many fine clergy are not gifted preachers but have good hearts and deep faith. Conversely, many great preachers are just slick salesmen. Some are just a click away from being the guys who ask you, "So, what's it gonna take to get you into this new Toyota?"

My suggestion about listening to sermons is to ask yourself, at the end of the service, "Did I learn more about God or more about the preacher?" If it's the former, move on to Step 2: Ask assorted members what they like most about the church. If some of those things involve helping people outside the church, that's good and you can go on to Step 3, which doesn't involve simply leaving your name on the pew pad.

Schedule an appointment with the minister and look for the following: Does he/she listen more than talk? Does he/she laugh easily? Is he/she modest and humble? Does he/she seem to be genuinely interested in your family? Ask what he/she is most proud of about the church (then check to see if any of it is true). Ask what he/she believes about God. If there's a lot of doubt and hedging, leave right away. You want someone who actually believes in God strongly, who can help you on the days you don't. Ask about the youth group; if it's weak, leave right away.

Mostly, try to just be a mensch and cut the pastor some slack. Don't him/her to know you intimately based on a few pew pad entries. That creates unrealistic expectations. I'm also a bit confused about your obsession with "inclusiveness." I don't know what you mean by that. I don't think any church is booting people out the door. My experience is, most houses of worship warmly accept anyone who wants to come and pray. If what you mean is that you expect the minister to have the same political ideology as you do, you might want to reflect on that. You're not searching for a pundit but a pastor. I think religious leaders should always try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Anyway, if all else fails, go for the place with the best cookies. There are lots of bad sermons but not that many bad cookies. Good luck in your search. I know much of your struggle is not about theology at all — but about the fact that you lived in the Midwest for so long. Southern California is triggering culture shock. Your problems may boil down to the fact that in the Midwest, men never wear pink pants. Get used to it.

May your search finally lead you to a church that's not too soft and not too hard but just right--or at least right enough to satisfy you during this time of waiting for the Messiah to come (or come again, depending on your religious preferences).

Send questions only to godsquadquestion@aol.com.

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