Church peeves


We just had a new member class this week, which is always wonderful. We hear the stories from so many different people about why they decided to join. And, we get to hear the reasons why they didn’t join other churches:

“Not friendly, too friendly, too creepy, too old….”

What often draws people to our congregation is the diversity—a mix of ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic levels. Miriam’s Kitchen. The music. The preaching.

Pastors shudder at the term “church shopping.” It just sounds so crass in our consumer-driven society. But, I daresay, if I did not have my job tomorrow, I would be doing the same thing. I would not call it shopping, I would put a much more spiritual label on it, like “discerning.” But I would have my list of wants/needs/expectations. I would be visiting churches, to see which ones were not friendly, too friendly, too creepy, too old.

I would not go to the nearest Presbyterian Church in my neighborhood, because the pastor–who is a wonderful person–is also an evangelical guy, who hopes that the congregation will become a megachurch in a couple of years. (Actually, that was a couple of years ago. I wonder if he’s still going for that…). Not only would I chafe hearing his theology on Sunday morning, but I would also make his life a living hell. That just wouldn’t be pretty. So, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with trying to find the right fit.

What would I be looking for? I love church, so I could go on and on about that. But, maybe I’ll start with the things that annoy me in church:

•Boomers trying to play rock music to “get the kids in.” You know, when a church starts a “contemporary” worship service, even though the word “contemporary” evokes bad 80s hair, and everyone in the praise band remembers the 60s. They’re really sure that’ll bring in the young families, but they never actually asked anyone under the age of 40 what they wanted in church.

•Sexism. Okay, every church will claim that they are not sexist. Even the most sexist churches. And I’m still shocked at the number of women who think that the rules of sexism apply everywhere but inside the church. You know, wonderful businesswomen who work for equality in their place of employment, and then don’t think anything about worshiping in a congregation where they discourage women leaders.

What is the trigger for me? Usually, the wall of men.

You’ve seen it. You walk into the church and the very first thing that you meet is every pastor that the church has had for the last two hundred years. Sometimes they’re photos. Other times we run into a seven-foot oil painting of some man, with a benign smile, in his preaching robe, big cross necklace, holding his dog-eared Bible. I always stand in front of the gentle giant and wonder, Who had that portrait made? Was that the pastor’s idea? Did they make it when he died? When he retired? Was he embarrassed? How did the next guy feel when they didn’t make one of him? Which always makes me wonder, Have I EVER seen one of these with a woman in it?

We all love our histories, and they’re important… but if you have a wall of men, and you haven’t even thought of having a lovely portrait made of one of the female associates for that wall, then, to me, that just screams sexism.

Am I saying that having a history of male pastors is sexist? Of course not. But… if all the hallway space makes us want to belt out the chorus of “Now Let Us Praise Famous Men,” then you have a lot to overcome in the sanctuary before I have that image out of my mind. That is… if I would even make it to the sanctuary.

What about you? What little things set you off in your first impression? What makes you realize that a certain congregation won’t be the right fit?


20 thoughts on “Church peeves

  1. My intangibles are so intangible that I’m not sure I could locate them. But I would be looking for a church where there is a sense of people caring for each other. As a pastor, I know enough about church to be able to read a church fairly quickly.

    BTW, the other Pres church in my town has a wall of men — and their first female pastor (solo).

  2. I have thought about this lately because I have a bit of dissatisfaction with our current church home but since my husband is employed there, I am not going anywhere. I don’t want a church that revolves around the pastor, everyone looking to that one person to be involved in everything. I don’t want a church that only does one mission project a year and the rest of the time just collects money to send away. I don’t want a church that isn’t multi-generation, although I don’t need everyone to attend the same service, I do want to know that there are people in every season of life in my church family.

  3. One of my peeves is choirs that sit up front, especially on the chancel wearing robes. The *entire* congregation should be the choir. The best singers in the congregation *need* to be sprinkled throughout the sanctuary: it helps *everyone* sing better and with more gusto. (It also means that families get to sit together, rather than being torn apart by those in/out of the choir.)

    Then, when you have a special musical offering, you get the beautiful experience of having a choir comes forth from the whole, assemble in the front (or side) wearing whatever they put at home that morning and offers up their song, then rejoins their families. You realize that they are one of you…average people who come in and sit with their families.

    And don’t get me started on “praise bands” with each singer on an individual microphone. (It just emphasizes that they can’t quite all sing in tune.) It also makes an inherent performance, where the congregation becomes an audience rather than a full participant in worship. Ick! Ew! No thanks!

  4. I appreciate personal preaching. I want to know that the preacher has been moved by the gospel. However, there are limits, and I try to keep myself in check with these as I preach.
    -Personal illustrations should be for the benefit of the listener, not the speaker. I have heard someone share very effectively about personal pain. I have also heard someone unveil their own self-esteem issues and the vibe was basically, “Like me! Please like me!”
    -If a preacher has a family, that family has not been created to serve as weekly sermon illustrations. Yes, occasionally it can serve to help build some common ground with the listener. (Yes, our house is dirty and we’re busy, too, etc.) But overall I think it’s lazy and unfair to the family. Just because Bill Cosby made a hit show out of this doesn’t mean that the congregation wants to walk with us through colic and potty-training. A lot of people have dealt with these things, and they don’t all become good illustrations of spiritual struggles. I also once heard a preacher talk about his chubby 8th grader from the pulpit while the chubby 8th grader was in worship. Not cool.
    -I don’t like Children’s talks that are for the adults, and I don’t like it when preachers look at that time as a “Kids say the darnedest things” kind of time and end up embarrassing the children they’re talking to.

    I do like church, though. I like places where I’m invited to do something right off the bat, even if I’m not ready to do that thing. I am moved by an authentic invitation, even if I’m not ready to accept.

    I like places where someone helps me find the bathroom, but doesn’t follow me in.

    I like places who are sure enough of who they are to invite me back, but aren’t worried that their church will fold if I don’t.

    I like places where people talk to my children instead of at them, and are respectful of my children if they are feeling shy that day.

    I know some places can be cliquish, but I like places where the people like each other and aren’t just feeling obligated to be there and act all Christianny.

    I love the church.

  5. Without fail, someone will come up to me after one of our Youth Sunday services and remark, “What a wonderful program!” They would never say that after one of the “normal” services where I preached, of course. Granted, the youth of our church use music and visual means to convey the gospel in their own way. It’s well-run and transitions well, so I guess in that sense it may feel like a show. But it’s not; it’s worship, plain and simple, no matter who is giving the message.

    In fact, I’d be in favor of striking the word “program” from the church’s lexicon altogether. I’m trying to get myself and our church’s session in the habit of using the world “ministry” instead. It’s not a Sunday school PROGRAM, it’s a Sunday school ministry. It’s not a Youth PROGRAM, it’s a Youth ministry. You get the idea. I feel it’s a much more appropriate term theologically, besides the fact that it differentiates us from the local YMCA or rec center.

    There, I’ve had my say. Thanks!

  6. My pet peeves: everyone thinks that everyone else is in on some “in club.” Cliques.

    Constant re-inventing of the wheel. Your church is entrenched? Try attending one where you don’t know what “the rules” are because they’re always changing.

    Everything happens in the evenings or on Saturday, even at a church where many people do shift-work.

    No single, date-able men coupled with an overabundance of couples with infants.

    Even though I was one of the “core” members from when we became a church a few years back, I don’t really have a sense of community.

  7. turn-off: use of the word “just” in prayers when not referring to justice. *shudder*

    turn-on: being adopted by some adorable grandma in the congregation (this can take many expressions.)

    and, btw, i LOVE the mobster quality of that photo.

  8. This article brought back many memories from the wide variety of churches I have attended over the years.

    Fundamentalism (I outgrew that)
    Pentacostalism (they scared me silly when I was a kid)

    rev-kate’s “use of the word “just” in prayers when not referring to justice.” I noticed this long ago, especially in home prayer groups. Not sure why this happens, but when all prayers eventually revert to “I just want to lift up…. I just want to thank you… I just ask that…”, I understand why some churches use scripts.

    A young adults (college age) ministry that always includes 2 or 3 men who are nearing 40, and are inevitably single, awkward and dateless. Look, they are not fooling anybody. Somebody needs to approach those guys and tell them to beat it.

    The boomer praise band that several have mentioned. If the church has the boomer priase band, the format is identical no matter where the church – midtempo rocker, midtempo not as rocker, slow and contemplative, slow and contemplative, prayer by the ‘praise leader’ over the strains of a synth string, finish with a midtemp rocker. With the boomer priase band, the congregation even breaks into ‘spontaneous’ prayer at the exact same break in the music right on cue, every time and without fail.

    Oddly, I have never seen the sexist wall of church leaders outside of catholic churches. But I do not like a pastor who is so charismatic that he comes uncomfortably close to developing a cult of personality. (sorry, I have only seen this in male pastors).

    There are a few off the top of my head

  9. I couldn’t worship in a congregation with only male clergy.
    I couldn’t worship in a congregation where the music is performed poorly. The quality of the music is actually more important than the type o fmusic although I agree with you about the contemporary music format. It generally is lacking regardless of performance quality.
    I need a church where people like each other. If fight with people over too many justice issues during the week. I don’t need to go to church to fight.
    I need a church where the preaching is excellent. I think anything else reflects laziness on the part of the clergy. I don’t have to agree with the content. But I do need it to be stimulating and inspiring.
    I would prefer a church in my neighborhood since I like the idea of building strong neighborhoods and churches have the potential to be a key part of the neighborhood fabric.

  10. Re. Music: I like a robed choir, especially if that means those in robes have put in significant outside effort and time to prepare. I look for music leadership that shows clear thought and preparation; and that is connected to the entire worship service. I neither want a show choir nor a pick-up choir. I like other kinds of instrumental music as well, including but not limited to guitar (classical or WELL-DONE folk–most folk guitar in worship is schlock), marimba, handbells, piano, Hammond and/or pipe organ. I like many styles of music EXCEPT most praise music–much of what is written is saccharine and narcissistic.

    Re Preaching: I HATE personal stories that aren’t also exegetical, in large part because I teach biblical studies. If you can’t connect your life to the text, either don’t read the text in worship or sit down and don’t preach. I have heard almost every sermon joke once–preachers kid. Tell me what the text says and why that matters to me.

    Re Congregation: I have long since stopped hoping for a truly multicultural church. I prefer a truly welcoming church that understands and is working on its weaknesses. I am not interested in any church that does nothing in the community. I agree with James. Faith without works is dead.

    Finally, I want a church that both respects and utterly does NOT respect my background as Minister of Word and Sacrament, Ph. D. in New Testament, and Professor of NT. I don’t want to hear my hard work dismissed from the pulpit (as I have heard from black preachers), but I also don’t want to spend all of Sunday being addressed as Dr. Aymer. That’s a theological problem for me.

    Wow, I didn’t know I cared so much. Good blog, Carol.

  11. A big turn-off for me when visiting a church? Absolutely no attempt at inclusive/expansive language for God.

    Hymns texts are an exception, because adapting poetry to accommodate inclusivity can often ruin its rhyme/meter and overall aesthetic. But if it’s a more modern composition–written after 1970ish, then there are fewer excuses.

  12. I’m a seminarian, taking advantage of these years to church-hop a bit. I have found the following things irk me:

    The “slogan” including hints at hospitality or welcome and the reality being no eye contact for the visitor, much less warmth.

    A lack of expectation on the part of the congregation- they don’t expect to be moved, they don’t expect new people, they don’t expect to do- just watch.

    To borrow from Holden Caufeld, I hate fake preaching. Turn off the preacher voice and the gestures that are disconnected from the head and heart. Give me something that you really feel God saying to me and my siblings in Christ. If you don’t have it, don’t pretend by being “over the top”

    Performance Music masquerading as congregational music. Make them specials or anthems, instead. Just because it has a good lyric (and you can dance to it) doesn’t mean it’s singable for the pew-singer.

    As a 40+ worship band person vocalist, I get the peeves about poorly done contemporary music, but I’ve been part of some excellent combos/groups and been transported to the throne of God by others. And I’ve been part of choirs both good and well, not good. The key is not style so much as excellence in the power of the Holy Spirit. (not in the power of my ego)

    Please, don’t use PowerPoint unless someone with graphic design skills builds you some templates. 1980s built-in themes with Times New Roman (or worse-Comic Sans) makes me want to walk out.

    And finally- don’t use the children sermon as a time to parade cute children, to sell us on Operation Christmas Child or VBS, or to give a sermon preview to adults. Talk to the children. Really. They would agree with Holden, too.

  13. ellbee says:

    Please, don’t use PowerPoint unless someone with graphic design skills builds you some templates.

    Churches use PowerPoint now..!?!??!? Are you talking about thier function to display lyrics to hymns, or are you instead saying that PowerPoint is being used (shudder) during the homily?

    I dear – no offense to anyone here, but I certainly hope modern sermons have not turned into PowerPoint presentations.

  14. HIS,

    Yep. Your worst fears have come true! Power point sermons! I did a conference with a guy who actually flashed advertisements for his book during the sermons.

    And… it’s good to see you back on the blog. I hope you’re doing well.

  15. I am of Carol’s parent’s generation but I search for a church just like she describes in her blog.

    My husband and I spent the last 6 months visiting churches within a reasonable driving range of our home, as our own small PC(USA) closed last February. Like Carol, the local PC in our town is too conservative and I would end up disagreeing with the pastor and members on a lot of things — not a pretty picture or a nice thing to do in a church, so the local PC(USA) was off the list of choices.

    Many of the PC churches we visited were mostly made up of older folks like us : ). I was looking for more diversity. We did find a church, within a 20 minute drive on non-interstate roads (needed because of an eye condition I have and I want to be able to drive myself to the church) that is new, growing and diverse in age. It is, unfortunately, not very diverse in other ways. But there are lots of kids of all ages and this is a real change from our past church.

    I met with the pastor over coffee last summer to be sure my theology and hers were not at odds (e.g. I work for inclusivity of LGBT into full membership and ordination rights in our church). I also teach Bible studies strongly based in historical-critical scholarship and like and study feminist hemeneutics. So I don’t fit everywhere : ). But this new church seems like a fit and we have jumped in. I am looking forward to making a contribution to this new congregation and growing new friends.

  16. I think churches with long walls of photos o their male pastors (an maybe a female pastor or two) through the years ought to take the pictures down and replace with pictures of what the church is doing today in today’s world to work for God’s justice.

  17. My pet peeve centres around a handful of insensitive Aussie Presbyterian ministers I’ve met, who seem to feel entitled to treat and talk to women however they feel. I have been treated badly by those Aussie Presbyterian ministers and male members a few times but not once received moral support from any of the other men in the church or apology. IMO it’s a bit of a boys club! I was reading that back in ’93 a Presbyterian Scotsman, working in Australia for organisation run by the church, gave a talk to a large number of Presbyterian women and he talked about the church not allowing women ministers and thought it was male vanity and not biblically based to exclude women. A man in arrogance had sat himself up front of this large women’s group (he should have been down the back out of respect!) and was busily jotting notes down. Within weeks a complaint had been filed at Presbytery and in the end it resulted in the speaker’s being dragged to trial for heresy!! Yes — standing up for women clergy was deemed worthy of prosecution!!! A national newspaper followed the story closely and offered lots of moral support. Anyway he resigned and fled the country citing Aussie Presbyterians as the most vicious mob he’d ever encountered in the workplace and he took up with the Anglican Church instead where I hope he’s living happily ever after.
    Another peeve I have with that church is being obliged to sing hymns 200+ years old with five verses plus a chorus after each verse to painfully slow music!
    The last straw occurred for me some time ago when I encountered a minister who I suspect has ‘little man syndrome’. He tells everyone to sit down at the end of service (obviously so you can’t sneak out the door) and he went around to everyone one by one while everyone else had to just wait around for him to get to them. When he got to me the horrible little snake sneered at me about my tshirt and just slithered away. Then because he said something another old guy felt entitled to criticise it too! I’m in my mid 30’s, too old to be treated like a child! The shirt was not offensive. I walked out and waited in the blazing sun for half an hour for the person I was driving home (yet another insensitive Presbyterian male who knew I was waiting and did apologise) and no one has ever apologised to me. That’s it for them – I won’t step foot inside the church again!

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