Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes

This is the time of year when some of you, like salmon swimming upstream, will visit the birthplace of your faith. You will, for at least one Sunday this year, check into your home church for the Christmas Eve service or midnight mass.

If that describes you, then perhaps you’ll find inspiration in the story of my wife, Becky, and I returning to our church roots this summer in Auburn, Calif.

I confess that I find the process of church shopping a painful task. As a retired Air Force chaplain and former pastor, I’m more accustomed to letting a church find me, not me finding a church.

Frankly, my pain is largely self-inflicted. That’s because my former church experience stirs my imagination into overdrive.

From the moment I step into the narthex, I imagine things like a church not making its budget. Or maybe I’ll invent a riff between pastoral staff or uncover a family-run church that doesn’t welcome newcomers. I scan a critical eye over a crumbling building or note a janitor-challenged facility.

“So, how does a former pastor go about looking for a church?” you ask.

I confess that it can be a hit-and-miss process similar to finding a good counselor and a doctor.

In the ecumenical spirit of chaplaincy, I began my search willing to consider almost any Protestant church. But after a few months of auditioning nearly every church in town, my quest followed the trail of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

The Methodist church pew was too soft for Mamma bear. The Presbyterian pews were too hard for Papa bear, and all the baby bears at the nondenominational megachurches constantly kicked my pew from behind.

Finally, I decided to give Bell Road Baptist Church some consideration. After all, I was raised and ordained as a Southern Baptist. And like my salmon analogy, I’d swum upstream from my liberal leanings of a Baylor education and married a Baptist gal.

Nowadays, I don’t swim with my school too often and haven’t been an active Baptist member since 1994. But, I reasoned, they paid for my graduate school, so I owed them consideration.

I began my search looking for a sincere greeter. I got that from June, the pastor’s wife, who welcomed me with all the enthusiasm of someone returning her lost dog. A little over the top, but still, I immediately liked her. Several others added their greeting even before my wife and I were seated. Good sign that I never had to flash my chaplain creds.

Second thing I looked for was some kind of community involvement outside the church walls. Scattered about this church were special needs folks of various ages and abilities. Notes on the bulletin board told me they were collecting items for the Auburn Homeless Shelter and also making monthly trips to the downtown Gospel Mission.

Third on my shopping list was music and preaching. Bell Road worship leaders put a lot of work and originality into their music. They avoided the look-at-me flavor of some super-churches. Pastor Mike spoke with an extemporaneous style absent of judgment. His sermon came across in self-revelatory tones, more like listening to a friend.

But most importantly, I searched for signs that congregants enjoyed a genuine appreciation for each other’s company. Church announcements were filled with outings, meals, studies and concerts.

Finally, after the service was dismissed, their fellowship continued. For more than a half hour, people of all ages spoke with one another without the forced props of tea and cookies.

Of course, as in any group, it takes work to find one’s self belonging. You can’t just run for the car after the benediction. Becky and I worked to memorize names and understand relationships by quizzing each other on the drive home.

So this Christmas, I invite you to give your original church home another chance. As I did, I think you can find a church niche without the need to swallow their entire doctrine.

As for us, we’re home for a while. Our new church isn’t perfect, but I expect the folks there will learn we aren’t either.

By the way, we joined the Christmas choir. I guess we are officially Baptist again.

Contact Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net; P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove CA 95759; or voicemail 843-608-9715.