At Greater Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Everett, Karen Shiveley sat alone in a pew, waiting to meet the pastor. The 67-year-old was smartly dressed, with orange-framed glasses, and she wondered if this could be her church home.
Further north on a small farm in Skagit County, Roxanna Valdovinos debated whether to return to a church she had left years before – or try something new. And across the state in Spokane, Daphne Buren tried out a third Episcopal church.
“The anticipation – it’s kind of like going on a date,” said Buren, a 33-year-old pharmacy technician. “Is this going to be the one? Where we make our family, our community?”
These are scenes that play out every Sunday, as the so-called church shoppers head out, hoping to find a congregation that suits them.
James Wellman, chair of the comparative religion program at the University of Washington, said church and religion shopping emerged in the 1960s and 70s.
“In the last 40 years, no longer do you simply go to your parish in your neighborhood whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant,” Wellman said.
Churches, anxious to grow their ranks, have become savvier at spotting new faces. At megachurches, which have more than 2,000 members, greeters rush outside to visitors with umbrellas and mugs of coffee – good coffee.
Members are also tasked with staying in touch with recent visitors. Shiveley, who lives in Edmonds and previously worked for KUOW's underwriting department, said a nice woman named Linda took her under her wing at the first church she visited.
Linda called to ask when Shiveley would attend church, to see if they might sit together. She also told her about a pancake breakfast. But Shiveley said she wouldn’t go back.
“Edmonds is a pretty white community, and I’m black in America,” she said. “I want diversity in church that I don’t have in my community. I also want a nice gospel choir.”
When Shiveley later visited a black church in Kent, someone later texted her about attending the pastor’s wife’s birthday at a restaurant.
“All these churches are trying to get new parishioners,” she said. “They’re all very nice and make you feel welcome.”
Professor Wellman, who attends a Presbyterian church on Bainbridge Island, has researched megachurches and says they try not to crowd prospective members.
“There’s some discomfort, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where we don’t want anyone to know us,” he said. “Any sense that we’re being sold or forced is a turn off. I think they know that.”
Seattle is the second least churched region in the U.S., behind Portland, Ore. Several studies show that 30 to 40 percent of Seattle residents attend church regularly.
That doesn’t mean that everyone else is uninterested – just that roughly a third of Seattleites aren’t looking, because they’re already established.
Finding a church can be tough to do online. Shiveley has had to scope out churches in person during the week for basics – such as the times of services.
For those shoppers, the search can be exhausting and take months, if not years.
Buren became emotional as she described her disappointment looking for a spiritual home in Spokane. At one church, the sermon was lackluster. At another, the pews were uncomfortable, and the greeters came on a bit strong. She likes the organ, but one church used an electric piano.
In Skagit County, Valdovinos said finding the right fit feels impossible. She and her husband are Latino Protestants, and there are few options near them. The first church they attended was Spanish-speaking and socially conservative; the leadership said men and women should socialize apart.
Her family switched to Emmanuel Baptist Church, which didn’t have many Spanish speakers but had a strong kids program, she said. But when a visiting pastor likened President Barack Obama to the antichrist during the 2012 campaign, Valdovinos got up in the middle of the service and left.
“You talk about spiritual matters in church,” she said. “Who you vote for is not a spiritual matter.”
No one from church reached out to her after she left. Still, she thinks she might return to Emmanuel for Easter service on Sunday. They were good to her kids, she said.
“I want to go in the direction of a church that is consistent with all my beliefs, but I don’t think that church exists,” she said.
In Olympia, Max Brown, 25, responded to that problem a year and a half ago by starting his own church. Brown and his wife, Shannon, attended the megachurch Mars Hill, watching a preacher through a video feed – first from a movie theater and later a middle school.
Now they have a potluck-style gathering in their home between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays.
“It’s really hard,” he said. “The reality is that we’re not that good at it. Community is a hard thing to do in our culture because it’s easy to be disconnected.”
The Browns left Mars Hill before the controversial church fell apart in November. Brown said the former members he knows are asking big questions about what it means to be part of a church.
“Whatever you want to think about (church founder) Mark Driscoll, he’s done a lot of damage,” Wellman said.
“When people put their faith in a pastor like that, and give as much money to a church, and he completely destroys their church – he destroyed a lot of people’s faith. He should carry that on his conscience.”
Wellman said that history shows that a third of the congregation will likely try to stick it out. Another third will give up on religion.
And the remaining third, he said – they’ll go church shopping.