Religious Abuse
Jesus factor
Judge Bartell
Where to worship?
Choosing a faith community
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

Are you a spiritual seeker? Minnesota – especially the area around the Twin Cities – offers limitless possibilities for you.


Spiritual diversity is a blessing. But if you’ve ever gone into a large grocery store to get a box of cereal, it’s easy to become confused and overwhelmed by the hundreds of brightly colored boxes all on the shelves (and they all claim they are nutritious and delicious!). The same is true for finding a faith community – and the choice is of much greater consequence.


The first step sounds deceptively simple: Decide what religion most closely aligns with your belief system. Is it the faith you were raised with (if any), or are you being called to a different path? Choosing is not an easy thing to do, as there are thousands upon thousands of different options – everything from conservative Christianity to neopaganism. You can visit the library, surf the web or even take the “Belief-o-Matic” test at


Some studies on church attendance have shown that people often choose a faith community based on location, convenience, or social activities – and some don’t pay much attention to theology. Think very carefully before you base your decision on these factors. It’s nice to wake up at 9:43 a.m. on a Sunday morning and race across the street to a at 10 a.m. service, or to share your pew with all the members of your softball team. But your faith community is the place for you to grow in spiritual depth and maturity. Sharing your time with those who view life and God the way you do may be well worth the commute, and social and sports clubs can be found in most communities.


If you are an ethnic immigrant, or an American interested in exploring minority religions, you’ll find a rich variety of options here. There are Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Unitarian-Universalist communities all around the Twin Cities; you’ll find five Islamic mosques and several Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform Synagogues. The Twin Cities area also has a large number of people who follow various New Age paths. Ancient or modern, there are plenty of paths to choose from.


If you identify yourself as a Christian – but you’re not sure what “kind” of Christian you are – you may have more of a challenge, because there are so many options. Here are some questions that may help you narrow down your search for a Christian denomination (these are very general guidelines only; there are always exceptions to every rule, especially when one is talking about religion!):


How do you view the Bible? Do you believe the Bible is the inerrant, literal word of God? For example, do you believe in a literal seven-day creation of the world? In general, Baptists, Evangelical Free, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, and certain Lutherans are among the many denominations – most of them Protestant – who interpret the Bible in this way. A majority of charismatics (those who emphasize gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues), who may belong to a variety of denominations, interpret the Bible literally as well.


On the other hand, do you believe the Bible was inspired by God but written and compiled by human beings – not dictated word-for-word? Do you see Scripture as including symbolic truths in addition to historical fact? In general, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopals and Congregationalists understand the Bible in this context. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians interpret the Bible through the apostolic church, which has always accepted mystical interpretations of Scripture.


How should modern culture affect the church? The United Church of Christ and Methodist churches are among those that are “open and affirming” of homosexual and gender identity issues. Others, such as the Catholic Church and various conservative churches, reject homosexual behavior as immoral, preferring instead to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Many Protestant churches allow women clergy, while Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches do not (however, the acceptance of women clergy does not guarantee that a church is “liberal” in other ways).


Many Protestant and some Catholic churches have “contemporary” worship services, some even offering rock music. Eastern Orthodox churches, on the other hand, worship with a liturgy that dates back to about the third or fourth century AD, and the service has been essentially unchanged for more than 1,000 years. Some worshippers will enjoy the variety and spontaneity in the modern services, while others will find spiritual depth and meaning in worshipping in the same manner the early Christians worshipped. 


How “free” do you want to be? The church down the street may have a hierarchical structure, with priests and bishops (Catholic and Episcopal churches among them) or may be entirely autonomous (like most Evangelical and Pentecostal churches). The level of structure can be a “positive” or a “negative” depending on what you are looking for.


A minister in an Evangelical church can develop his own worship style based on the preferences of his congregation. He can write his own liturgy and decide what kind of music will be played. On the other hand, a completely autonomous church also has no overseeing body, and clergy may not be accountable to a higher authority. A priest in a traditional Catholic church must perform set rituals and is limited in the kinds of changes he can make to the service or the liturgy; however, he also cannot invent his own theology or interpret scriptures in a way that is not accepted by the Church.


What is your level of commitment to your religion? Some denominations require little more than a simple declaration of faith, and Communion a few times a year. Others expect members to attend services several times a week, to fast during certain times of the year, to tithe (usually 10% of your earnings), and to observe certain prohibitions regarding diet, contraceptives, or entertainment. Expectations vary widely within and between denominations.


Do you prefer familiarity or do you dare to be different? Most people in the Midwest have a pretty good idea of what Lutherans and Catholics believe. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists are considered members of “mainstream” churches. If you belong to one of these denominations and someone asks what church you attend, you’ll get a knowing nod.


However, another tradition may draw you. Do you want to focus on the “Christ within” rather than external, materialistic things? Perhaps you are a Quaker or a Mennonite at heart. Do you believe that illnesses should be treated with prayer rather than by physicians? Christian Science may be for you.


Whatever denomination you choose, here are some good rules to keep in mind to ensure you will have a safe and spiritually enriching experience.


1)     It’s not all in the name. The United Church of Christ and the International Church of Christ are not connected, and are very different denominations. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a Protestant church that has no ties to Eastern Orthodoxy. Some Lutheran churches interpret the Bible literally while others do not. Most Catholic churches recognize the Pope as the head of their church – but not all. Read the church’s pamphlet, check it its website if it has one, and ask the minister any questions you may have.


2)     Too big, too small, just right.  A faith community might range in size from a handful of people to 10,000 for “mega-churches.” Many larger churches break up their congregations into small “cell” groups that worship in private homes during the week and join the rest of the congregation on Sunday. Some people like the feeling of anonymity they have in a huge congregation; others feel more secure worshipping with a small group of people they know very well.


3)     Got kids? Most churches have some form of Sunday school; for some, children worship with the rest of the family during the service and attend special kids’ classes afterward, while other churches separate parents and kids for most of the service. Some churches that have “crying rooms” where a parent can retreat with a screaming baby and still hear the service. If the church you like doesn’t have a special service for kids, don’t despair – remember that for hundreds of years, children have attended services with their parents.


4)     Healthy churches let you ask questions. Absolute authoritarianism, unreasonable demands regarding financial donations or time, intolerance for inquiry, or extreme fear of the outside world are all red flags, and you should pay attention. Avoid churches that seem overly anxious to make you a (paying) member, that threaten you with eternal damnation if you don’t join their group, that suggest you end relationships with family and friends, or that simply make you feel uncomfortable (that “something is wrong but I can’t put my finger on it” feeling).


5)     Shopping is great, but sooner or later, you want to have dinner. Many people spend months, years, or even decades floating from one church to the next. “Church shopping” is a new and largely American phenomenon. While you can learn a great deal by visiting different faith communities, deep spiritual growth is more likely within a particular church and with a minister you have gotten to know and trust. When it feels right, say “I do.” You’ll be glad you did.

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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