Your church or mine?

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It seems rare that two people would actually meet at the same church these days. How does a couple decide whose church to attend?

That’s a simple question with a complicated answer. I can at least tell you that tossing a coin is probably less than ideal.

This is a special case of a more general challenge faced by all couples. Even if two people come from the same church, their histories are unique. Their identities depend to a greater or lesser extent on the relationships in which they are embedded, the social networks of which they are part. Coming together as a couple, either in serious dating or marriage, means negotiating (directly or indirectly) what it means to be a unit. It’s not all about me, and it’s not all about you. It’s about us. But what is each one of us willing to compromise for the sake of that new “us”?

Let’s start with the realistic recognition that whatever decision we make, there’s likely to be an awkward period of transition. Change is like that. If we decide to attend my church and not yours, I shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while for you to adjust. From my side, love entails that I must be patient and compassionate during the process, and be willing to discuss and even renegotiate the decision if necessary. From your side, love entails making an honest effort to be open-minded and engage in your new surroundings.

But how do we come to that decision in the first place?

People vary tremendously in terms of how “plugged in” they are to their congregations. For some, their “home church” truly feels like home. They’ve grown up there, are well-known and greeted warmly, and have found meaningful opportunities to get involved. For others, church is a more occasional affair with fewer and/or shallower social ties.

It’s not, in other words, merely a theological decision about the adequacy of each church’s ministry, preaching, and so on. Your church may “matter” more to you personally than mine does to me, and our decision has to honestly take such differences into account.

And if that is in fact the sticking point that makes the change difficult, then we need to decide not just which church to attend but how to manage the transition. It’s not as simple as, “Well, we’ve made the decision, so that’s that.” If one of us is feeling like we’re sacrificing social ties for the sake of being a couple, then we need to figure out together how we can either (a) maintain some of those ties, or (b) make new ones. And if you’re giving up your church to attend mine, then I have some responsibility to do what I can to understand your loss and help with the transition.

Other issues, of course, can be raised, but the overall recommendation is still the same.

  • Face the fact that coming together as a couple means change, and that change can be uncomfortable. Be honest with yourself and each other in terms of what you fear you may be losing in the transition, and don’t make your decision on the basis of avoiding change.
  • In the conversation, be open to hearing what it is that your partner doesn’t like about your church. Don’t automatically defend your church; listen carefully until you understand where s/he is coming from, even if you don’t agree.
  • Don’t treat the decision as a done deal. Negotiate a trial period during which you both pledge to be open-minded and to make an honest effort, and after which you come back to talk about how it went and renegotiate as needed. (And if it’s your church the two of you are attending, don’t anxiously pester or pressure your partner during the trial period: “Hey, wasn’t that a great sermon? Right? Whadja think? Huh?”)
  • Be open to the possibility of making a new start as a couple in a church that is new to both of you.

Bottom line: though there are lots of legitimate factors to be considered, it’s not just about “making a decision.” It’s about managing the process of change that comes with it, with honesty, patience, and compassion.