Is Church Shopping a Problem?

Over the course of the past few days, Fr. Dwight Longnecker has posted several times on the question of so-called “church shopping.” He begins with an examination of the phenomenon in Protestant churches, which, as a result of their constant splits and re-foundations have a real problem on their hands:

The only thing that remains, therefore, for non Catholic Christians is to make church attractive to people. If they don’t have to go to church, then they should want to go to church and the only way to make people want to go to church is to offer something they want. So we find that the non-Catholic Churches are extremely competitive. They offer a vast range of services and pastoral care and ‘outreach opportunities’. Now, there’s not problem with that necessarily excepet that what results is the commercialization of Christianity.

The temptation is there to water down the gospel, keep people happy and neve challenge them. The worship becomes more and more entertainment oriented. Sentimentality sweeps over. The people want a ‘feel good’ experience and the pastors do everything they can to provide that lest the consumers get tired of what’s on offer and shop around for something they like better.

This analysis is sensible enough. Father then goes on to take a look at what he sees as a similar problem in Catholic parishes:

So Christianity adapts to the culture. We live in America the big consumer culture reigns so we make religion another product. Of course this is the illness affecting American Catholicism as well. Catholics church shop as much as anyone else does. They travel for the Latin Mass or they travel for the hip hop Mass. It’s the same principle. They swap parishes because Fr Folkmass does a groovy form of liturgy which ‘really appeals to the kids’ or they emigrate to Mgr. Maniple because his solemn high pontifical Missa Magnificant is ‘what our family really needs.’

At face value, the comparison made in this paragraph is patently absurd. It is most certainly not the same principal when a family travels to find a more orthodox, reverent Mass and when another family travels to find an irreverent, pop culture-infused hip hop Mass. In the former case, the faithful are attempting to find worship that is pleasing to God, in the latter, they are trying to find worship that is pleasing to them. 

That’s one of the big areas of misunderstanding about so-called “trads” – the idea that they’re simply looking for emotionally-fulfilling liturgy just like anyone going to a rockathon Mass. Not remotely so. As a member of the Extraordinary Form community, I can tell you that going to the Gregorian Rite presents its own host of challenges that detract greatly from my emotional fulfillment. The times of available masses are often extremely inconvenient, particularly for people with small children. Low masses are quiet and demand your full attention, which is again a problem for people with small children. Often enough, there’s a fair share of grumpy “trads” in any given “trad” parish, diminishing a sense of community. These are just a few examples.

But I do derive emotional fulfillment from attending these Masses, even though my emotions are not directly satisfied. Why? Because I truly believe that the reverence, the structure and beauty of the prayer, the gestures of docility to the divine presence (from the priest’s many genuflections and bows, his ad orientem posture, kneeling to receive communion, etc.) are all pleasing to God and thus pleasing to me. I go to Mass to worship Him. Mass that is about Him, oriented toward Him, and fittingly respectful to Him is a good Mass. I don’t go just because the homilies are better. I’ve been to traditional parishes where the homilies stank up the place, week after week. The assumption that Fr. Longnecker makes is, honestly, somewhat insulting: that people who seek reverent liturgy – whether in the Extraordinary Form or in a reverent, traditionally celebrated Novus Ordo – are just playing another, more socially respectful form of the Me-Church game. 

This equivocation is problematic. Throughout the three posts, Fr. Longnecker continues to assert that Church shoppers have an “I know best” attitude. Again and again, he attributes the motivation to a sort of spiritual selfishness. 

So I’ll ask the question to you that I asked in the comments there, and never saw answered:

As pertains to the variation of liturgical experiences: aren’t there rubrics anymore? How about encyclicals that discuss liturgical deviations like Mediator Dei or Redemptionis Sacramentum, and pontifical directives like Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest? Aren’t those good places to start when determining where one should attend Mass? 

Why is it considered so subjective when the lay faithful take it upon themselves to discern heterodoxy or inappropriate liturgical celebrations? Don’t we have standards set out by Holy Mother Church herself that we should use as our guiding principles?

We, as Catholics, exist at an unprecedented time in the Church when one really considers these questions. We have more access to her teachings than ever before, a higher rate of literacy than ever in history, a higher number of lay Catholics trained in the study of Theology (I, myself, have a BA even though I don’t use it at all in my daily work) and greater mobility than any one who came before us. 

Because of these things, it seems logical that we can:

A) Make some reasonably well-informed decisions – using the mind of the Church as our guide – about what is or is not spiritually nourishing, heterodox, etc.

B) Find reasonable accommodation for worshiping in a parish within a reasonable distance of our home that is most suited to these conclusions.

Granted, not everyone is doing this. Some people are always going to be exceptions, only following their hearts and not the mind of the Church. But doesn’t it at least stand to reason that this change in our behavior, on the whole, might be rooted in some substantive consideration, rather than simple capriciousness? 

In other words, is “church shopping” to find reverent liturgy in a world full of bad liturgy such a bad thing? Would it be better for us to stick it out in the bad parishes just for the sake of trying to be the leaven?


Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

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