How hard can it be to find the perfect church?

Friday, January 18, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 3

“Church shopping” sounds slightly off-putting. So, I prefer to think of my current repatriated Nashvillian process as spiritual home seeking.

I began with certain parameters, based on geography and beliefs. Google Maps advises there are four churches within a seven-minute walk of my downtown apartment, the closest just five minutes away.

I like the notion of walking to church. It has a folksy “Andy Griffith Show” vibe, with people holding Bibles stopping to gab out front and offering “Good Sabbath” greetings.

The problem with those nearby four churches, however, is that they are of the wrong brand, so to speak. And in this case, brand loyalty trumps convenience.

I have no bone to pick with denominations other than mine, just as I have none with people who drink buttermilk or listen to jazz. You just won’t find me following their lead.

The church search puts me in the same boat as Nashville’s almost 100 other newcomers a day, as the Census Bureau estimates. Or, at least, the same boat as whatever portion of those almost 100 are fellow members of the faith community.

The influx of available souls is good news for local churches, right?

Maybe not.

“The churches of growing metropolitan areas like Nashville and surrounding counties have benefited from growth, but not always in the direct ways existing congregations might hope,” says Professor James Hudnut-Beumler of Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Hudnut-Beumler, the author of “Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table,” a study of Christianity in the contemporary South, says some newcomers do join existing churches.

“Yet in newer neighborhoods in outlying areas and in the city’s younger and hipper core, new churches start to spring up hoping to minister to the new populations. This can make some older congregations feel a bit passed by.”

“Passed by” is precisely what I’ve done to those nearby churches. Fortunately, the city offers a broad range of denominations.

“Nashville is notably diverse as a Southern city of Christian church options,” Hudnut-Beumler adds, “insofar as it has a representative percentage of Catholic, evangelical, Pentecostal and black churches … and a greater than average number of mainline Protestant congregations.”

The Church Angel website shows there are more than 30 denominations here, including some for which the distinction eludes me, like Church of God, Church of Christ and Church of God in Christ. Plus, United Church of Christ. And plain old Christian.

The front runner by far is Baptist, with 157, followed by Methodist with 65 and African Methodist Episcopal with 48.

My preferred flavor is credited with 14 outlets, just edging Catholics, with 12.

What Nashville is not, somewhat surprisingly to me, is particularly “churched.” Chattanooga, for instance, routinely finishes at the top of such national rankings, most recently tallying 59 percent of residents as regular churchgoers, a survey by the Barna Group polling firm reveals. Nashville didn’t finish in the Top 20.

Hudnut-Beumler attributes that at least partly to the age of the population.

“Like Atlanta before it, the new Nashville is a little too demographically younger and more recently established in town to compare with the South’s ‘most-churched’ cities,” he says, “to say nothing of its small towns, where religion is the center of community life.”

I obviously don’t contribute to any youthful demographic. And at my age, I’ve become pretty set in my ways. For instance, I very much prefer the spoken worship service offered by my denomination, absent hymns.

It’s a slightly more streamlined experience that my wife calls “Get your God and go.”

And that’s largely what has me in the church market now. The church I attended here in the 1990s changed in various ways during my absence, including no longer offering the hymnless option. So, I’m a wanderer.

Another complication is that, though I’m downtown now, that may not last. The Rogers humans and cats are in the market for a new, forever home.

And I can tell you that, compared with navigating Nashville’s shark-infested real estate market, finding a church is a walk on the beach.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com