Church Shoppers 'R' Us

How many Southern Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: "One to change the bulb and 16 million to boycott the maker of the old bulb for bringing darkness into the church."

And on the left, how many United Church of Christ members does it take? Answer: "How dare you be so intolerant! So what if the light bulb has chosen an alternative light style?"

There are zillions more ecclesiastical light-bulb jokes where those came from and Carmen Renee Berry heard plenty while writing "The Unauthorized Guide to Choosing a Church." How many Catholic nuns does it take to change a light bulb? Episcopalians? Calvinists? United Methodists? Pentecostals? Members of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ?

Behind the jokes is a serious issue. According to her "meticulous count, there are exactly 29816 gazillion denominations to choose from." What are consumers supposed to do, throw darts at the Yellow Pages?

Berry has been there and done that. Over the years, she said, "I met a variety of 'believers' -- incense burners and Bible thumpers; charismatic hand wavers, 12-steppers and genuflectors; priests, pastors and prayer warriors; militant social justice demonstrators and right-wing activists; and lots of theologians who were straight, gay, male, female, fighting for purity and fed up with the status quo -- a varied spectrum of people all living under the umbrella of the 'church.'

"I've listened to, and argued with, them all."

Berry was raised in the conservative Church of the Nazarene and, in the end, found her way back into a small flock of Nazarene progressives. But her searching taught her things. She knows she is allergic to incense. She can dress Presbyterian. She can tell Mennonites from the Amish. And she learned that she is not alone in this search.

"People want to make a faith their own," said Berry, a former social worker who is best known for writing the bestseller "Girlfriends."

"They don't want to go to a church just because they were born into it. ... They want to authentically express their own spirituality. They want to find that congregation that will help them find their own way, their own path."

It doesn't help that most religious groups keep changing -- in terms of doctrine and style. There are Baptists writing documents that look like creeds or confessions. There are Catholics who pick and choose what to believe in the catechism. There are Presbyterians who don't think hell and predestination matter anymore and Methodists who think evangelism is cultural imperialism.

Next door, there are fundamentalist churches that are as old-fashioned as ever, while others show movie clips in between the offerings of their hard-rock worship bands. There are flocks that use incense, candles and ancient rites while the priests sound like Oprah.

Berry openly argues that seekers must start by knowing their own needs and biases. She, for example, avoids churches that do not accept women as clergy. She learned to avoid churches -- on the left and right -- that "engaged in group-think" on politics. She found that vital small-group ministries were crucial.

She also found that she does not need a church with ironclad teachings on heaven and hell. She doesn't want to get tangled up in today's fierce debates about sexuality and marriage. Those issues are not at the top of her personal list, she said.

Thus, her book tried to offer a kind of consumer's guide to the worship, history and culture of various traditions -- Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Congregationalism, Methodism, Pentecostalism and the complex world of Baptist and free-church evangelical life. She also included a detailed personal-faith survey.

The hard part is finding a balance between personal freedom and the larger framework of spiritual authority found in a church, said Berry. It is very American and very Protestant to want both at the same time.

"I believe in true Truth, with a big T," she said. "But I have to admit that I have a kind of shopping list of my own. I have my beliefs, too. I know that sounds contradictory, but there you go. ... You end up advocating a kind of spiritual consumerism. That makes me very uncomfortable, but that's the reality of what is going on out there. That's what people are doing."