25 January 2011

Church Shopping


I came across a quiz a little while ago. You know the type. One of the ubiquitous, sometimes serious, sometimes ridiculous Internet quizzes that are out there on every topic under the sun. This quiz was designed to tell you what Christian denomination you should be based on your personal beliefs. I couldn't resist, so I took the quiz. Not surprisingly, it said I was a Catholic. At least it was accurate in one case.

There is a fundamental problem, however, with the idea of choosing a parish, a congregation, a denomination (though I dislike the word denomination) or a church based on your own personal beliefs. It is a bit like choosing a physician based on which one tells you what you want to hear. Do you want the physician that will work to identify any disease in you and prescribe a treatment to eradicate it? Or, do you want a physician who will ignore everything, not tell you of any problems for fear of offending you, and just tell you that you're perfectly fine while your body slowly decays? It is an obvious answer. Any rational person would want a physician who does his job and works to identify and cure illnesses. So why be any different with the church?

Should you go to the various denominations, get their advertising material, see what their statements of belief are on various issues, work out how that matches up with your present beliefs, and then choose the one that is the closest match? Obviously not. This is what happens a lot today, though. Religion has become another consumer enterprise, with churches engaging in tremendous marketing campaigns to vie for members. And, like any consumer enterprise, they necessarily must conform to the wishes of their "customers," the people who might one day fill their pews (and their offering plates). The problem is, though, that it is not we who decide what is correct to belief. Proper theology and proper belief both come from Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church.

People should instead look for the four marks of the true church when deciding where to attend. Is the church in question One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, just like we say in the Nicene Creed at mass? All political and other debates and disagreements aside, these four marks are the ones that must be present. If those four marks are there, then it is a candidate for your membership. If the four marks are not present, however, then run in the other direction. 

Also remember not to pay attention to whether or not all the positions of a church you are considering attending match your own personal beliefs. This is not only a consumerist "shopping" approach, it is the sin of pride. It is the assumption that your beliefs are inherently correct simply because they are yours. It is the assumption that you have no room to grow spiritually. Each and every one of us is on a spiritual journey, as imperfect as we are, working towards spiritual perfection.

The Church is a gift to help us along the pathway towards sanctification. Therefore, the choice of church, and even of the specific parish is of paramount importance. Don't delude yourself by choosing a place that does nothing more than make you feel good or give you a weekly emotional high. Choose the church that has the Four Marks of the True Church and find a parish with clergy dedicated to their vocation and dedicated to helping the faithful grow in their walk with Christ.