Art by Aliya Edwards
Before she found a home at Agoura Bible Fellowship, freshman Rachel Stull visited about seven churches but none of them were a perfect fit.
“Honestly, the bottom line has been just finding something that feels normal,” Stull said. “There’s been a lot of my suitemates and I just visiting churches and coming away from a service and being like, ‘Wow, that was really weird,’ or like ‘This is not normal.’”
Stull’s case is not unique. Around half of the American population church shops at some point, according to Pew data collected in 2016. Church shopping refers to the idea of going to different churches and religious communities until one finds the perfect fit.
“[People are] going through a process of visiting different worshipping communities in order to get a sense of what they want to be part of,” Religion Professor David Lemley said. “It’s about looking for an experience in worship that they want to have over and over again.”
People worship shop for a variety of reasons, whether their focus is on worship style and quality of preaching or theology and geography.
Church shopping is often unavoidable when searching for a religious community in new surroundings. Some faculty and staff cited several reasons church shopping can affect the growth of one’s faith in the long term.
“It is a time of exploration, which is a very exciting thing,” University Chaplain Sara Barton said. “I think five weeks in if [someone] got up and went to church every Sunday … great job. I would affirm students for being adventurous and trying new things.”
Hopping from church to church allows one to experience various worship styles. Sometimes there are very specific characteristics that people search for, including quality of sermons, specific worship style, ambience of the building and the people who frequent it.
People are looking to maximize their worship experience and grow in their faith, and sometimes this means stepping away from what they know as worship.
Sophomore Hadley Biggs grew up in the Church of Christ, and ended up switching churches when she was around 12 or 13 years old.
“My family and I switched to nondenominational,” said Biggs, an abroad correspondent to the Graphic. “There wasn’t a good community at my Church of Christ church. The youth groups weren’t very developed, and I’m someone who really likes to be around people when I grow my faith.”
Biggs is currently studying abroad in Florence and took it upon herself to head the villa’s house church. In a house of 55 students, around 30 to 40 students make their way to worship every Monday night, along with the faculty family in residence and the program director.
Creating one’s own worship community could be a more effective method to finding a suitable home church than church shopping. David Humphrey, associate dean of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion, cited this as one of the most positive aspects of Pepperdine.
“I think that there is a space for students to imagine what that space could look like and work with us to create such an opportunity to be authentic and to relate with others who share that,” Humphrey said. “No one worships the same way.
Everyone I know accesses God differently, and it’s important to us to create spaces that are authentic to them.”
Finding a community is a crucial aspect for a worship shopper. The people within a worship setting can make or break one’s church experience.
“When I think about church, to me, I don’t think about a building that I go to,” said Dusty Breeding, campus and youth minister of the University Church of Christ. “I think about a group of people I belong to.”
Breeding described this as ecclesia, which is the Greek word for church. In this context, however, church is referring to the people one worships with, which is sometimes more important than the style of worship.
“[People] are kind of using worship as a measure of whether they feel they fit into [a] community,” Lemley said. “They might stay and be a part of the life of that church more than just the worship itself.”
For people who might disagree or dislike some aspects of their heritage church, or the church of their family, church shopping gives them an opportunity to experience styles of worship they weren’t exposed to while growing up.
Millennials in particular are known for leaving their heritage faith. Sociology Professor Robin Perrin said this generation is more open to trying new things regarding worship than previous generations.
“Most of the mainline denominations are declining,” Perrin said. “I think young people certainly are more interested in creative ways of doing things.”
Senior Jessie Mandel, a service team leader for Campus Ministry, grew up in the Churches of Christ and never experienced anything other than an acapella style of worship.
“I’m a very big fan of instrumental worship and Church of Christ usually doesn’t allow it or doesn’t believe in it,” Mandel said.
This doesn’t stop Mandel from exploring other churches, however.
“I still attend Church of Christ a lot of the time but I also attend megachurches; sometimes I don’t know what their denomination is,” Mandel said. “I go to Calvary sometimes and Hillsong and Mosaic.”
While regularly experiencing different churches might seem noncommittal, Barton thinks that it is actually a sign of a seasoned worshipper.
“We mature as we would in our faith and in our worship experiences,” Barton said. “I think a mark of maturity in worship is being able to worship with people who do not worship in your favorite way.”
“I have a negative connotation to the phrase worship shopping or church shopping because I often think it is shallow,” Breeding said. “It doesn’t have depth.”
Although Barton praises students for opening themselves up to new worship experiences, she recognizes that worship shopping can also be isolating.
“Because we’re maybe shopping or looking around or not picking one place, we start to feel lonely and there’s a lack of belonging to something,” Barton said.
Constant church shopping, like the kind Stull participated in, results in feelings of uprootedness, and a lack of community to share one’s life or worship with, Breeding said.
Some argue that spending an extended period of time shopping shifts one’s point of view on church itself.
Ronald Cox, a religion professor and associate dean of International Programs, compared worship shopping to a trip to Ralphs.
“There’s a whole aisle of cereal … there’s so much choice,” Cox said. “If I’m moving from church to church, looking for one that suits me, I’m reducing church down to a commodity. The problem with doing that is I then am looking at not just the worship but the people that I’m there with as commodities that can be dispensed with if they aren’t, quote unquote, meeting my needs.”
Like shopping, church hopping can be addictive. As one hops from experience to experience, one might crave more and more intense practices of worship to be satisfied. Some will try alternative methods to have an out-of-body worship experience, including speaking in tongues or being slain by the Holy Spirit, said Daniel Rodriguez, divisional dean of the Religion and Philosophy Division.
This may have to do with society’s desensitized nature as a result of technology usage.
“We live in a society where we spend the whole day on a computer screen,” Rodriguez said. “We become disconnected to ourselves, and worship [practices] like these [speaking in tongues, being slain by the Holy Spirit, etc.] help people to kind of feel it but also feel themselves.”
Focusing on these experiences can force theology to take a back seat when someone is making selections in churches.
“The music, the style, the lighting, the coffee – all of those things are about making people who would not normally go to church, because of the pews and the sort of rigid structure, feel more [comfortable],” Cox said. “I don’t know how much people put theology and their beliefs really at the forefront anymore in terms of when they’re selecting churches. I just don’t know that people are as theologically or biblically literate. I don’t know that they ever have been.”
For Stull, it seems like her church shopping days are over. After mulling over all of the aspects of her ideal church – worship style, quality of preaching, the community – the Agoura Bible Fellowship is her home for now.
“I sort of see myself continuing to just kind of be there unless I find something else that’s [more] amazing,” Stull said. “But it’s the closest thing I’ve found to home.”
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