Carmen Renee Berry is most known for her self-help books, such as her bestselling Girlfriends, When Helping You is Hurting Me, and Daddies and Daughters. Now she's turned to a new kind of help book: one that helps readers choose a spiritual home among "the 1.29816 gazillion" denominations available. Brazos Press published The Unauthorized Guide to Choosing a Church in April.

Tell me about your own journey. You started out in a Nazarene church. Then what happened?

I went my own way after college and went to a number of churches—Baptist, Presbyterian, and charismatic churches, and here and there and everywhere. But for the last five years or so I wasn't going to church. I was tired of the whole church thing. I was pretty cynical, very judgmental.

But a very significant thing happened to me in November 1999: A close friend of mine committed suicide. It really shook me up and made me realize that it's kind of cool to be cynical, but it can be real dangerous, too. You really don't grow spiritually when you're busy criticizing and sounding arrogant. I made a big turning point there and opened myself up to looking for a spiritual community.

How did you go about doing that?

First of all, I just opened to it. I visited a few churches, I talked to a few people, and found a really good sub-ministry in a large church. I hung out with those people for several years. The ironic thing is that church has since gone through a big split. Now I'm attending a much smaller church about 20 minutes from where I live.

So the church that brought you back to regular church attendance went through the problems that have led some people to leave church.

Yeah. You know, the thing that really struck me about doing the research for this book is how all the churches that I've included believe in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. There's a real cohesive basic belief system. But one step out from that and we're all nuts. We fight about anything and everything, from the music, to the doctrine, to the color of the seats. No denomination really is immune to this kind of craziness.

And even if you find a home, no church is stagnant. I mean, new people are coming, old people are going, and all this stuff. And a safe environment could turn out to be a dangerous environment in not too long a time.

What would you say to people who don't sense a strong reason to connect to a church?

I'm not perfect and nobody else in the church is perfect. So if you sit back and just say, Well, I'm going to wait until I find that perfect church, then you're never going to find it.

Article continues below

I think that personal reflection and prayer and having that one-to-one connection with God is critical. The flip side of that is that it doesn't flourish in isolation. There is something about being with other people, disagreeing with other people, being human beings, and sharing the Christian journey that really deepens your relationship with God.

How did looking for a church become writing a book for people looking for a church?

My agent just was stunned that I was going to church. She said, "You've got to write a book on the process and also make it a historical overview." A lot of people go to church simply because somebody invited them to go or they were raised in a church or whatever. We put more effort into picking out a VCR than we do our churches.

And I wanted to give an overview historically and doctrinally so that you could look at the things you believe and ask, What am I doing at this church that doesn't believe this?

This could have been the most massive book in the library. But you've narrowed down the criteria a bit to some important matters.

I made a list of things I called my nonnegotiables. And I have found that sometimes people have nonnegotiables, but they compromise them and then they're really unhappy at the church.

I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene. It's a very conservative denomination, but they ordained women from the inception of the church. I grew up with that framework, so I have a hard time attending a church that's still discussing that. The flip side could be very true for somebody. They may say, I don't want to go to any church that would ordain a woman. So I think that it's important to know what your nonnegotiables are—and don't compromise them.

But after the nonnegotiables, the list gets a bit thinner.

Yeah. Because what it means to be a Christian is defined differently by the different denominations. Participating in the sacraments and the church life is what defines a Christian in the Roman Catholic Church. But if you just sort of remotely have a Bible, you can participate in some of the others.

You ask, "Does size matter?" What did you observe about the size of the church and how it affects whether it's a good fit?

I think if you've got a lot of different kinds of people in your family, a larger church will meet your needs better because there's a variety of programs. Or you may want to have a really small church where everybody knows everybody.

One thing I have observed is whether you go to a large or small church, you need a small group where you connect to a handful of people—where you can really go deep with those relationships.

Article continues below

What's another helpful tool for choosing a church?

One is the clout continuum. If you were in an argument and somebody is going to trump your card, what's the bottom line of what really convinces you? Is it Scripture? Is it your personal experience? Or is it the tradition of the church?

Each denomination has a little variation on that. If you're really a biblically based-type Christian, then you need to go to a church where that's the card that they're going to play as the bottom line. If you're a more traditional person, you want a church that says, We're going to do it that way because we've always done it.

Some people might say your book takes a very consumeristic approach. What do you say to that?

Well, I think it's a legitimate criticism, and it's one that I've sort of capitulated to. This book really is like a consumer guide, and that's something that is in our society for good or ill—and probably a little more for ill.

But I think beneath that is the reality that I think you should pick a church where you feel fully accepted and simultaneously challenged to grow spiritually. So you don't have to go somewhere where you feel just because you hate it, it must be God's will.

How are people receiving the book?

I think the most interesting thing that I have discovered after writing the book is that people will find a larger church that they may or may not agree with, but where they can find a small group to relate to. Looking back, that's what I did. I didn't really care that much about the larger church that I went to, and I wasn't that into the theology or maintaining the larger church. But I was involved in a small outreach ministry to young people, and that's where I found my community. I think a lot of people are doing that: They're finding a small group of people within the church that they really identify with and that they can be challenged by and loved by. And they're willing to tolerate a lot of the politics and stupidity if they can have a subgroup in which they can worship.

Related Elsewhere

Visit for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life."

The Unauthorized Guide to Choosing a Church is available at and other book retailers.

Article continues below

See also today's review of The Unauthorized Guide to Choosing a Church.

Brazos Press has an excerpt from the book.

Berry's book has garnered attention from USA Today, The Toledo Blade, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Mobile Register, and other newspapers.

Recent Dick Staub Interviews include:

Are Darwinists Immoral? | Benjamin Wiker says Darwinism isn't science per se: it's just a reiteration of a 2,300-year-old philosophy (July 1, 2003)
J. Budziszewski Knows That You Know What You Know | Even though you may not know it yourself. (June 24, 2003)
How Dan Allender Broke on Through (to the Other Side) | A former drug dealer who evangelized before he was a Christian talks about his efforts to bring healing from sexual abuse (June 10, 2003)
Paul Elie on 'the Holy Ghost School' | The author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own talks about the personal journeys of Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy and what we learn from them today (June 3, 2003)
Why We Are Drawn to The Matrix | Chris Seay, coauthor of The Gospel Reloaded, says the first movie was about finding belief and the second looks at walking that path. (May 27, 2003)
Remembering Francis of Assisi, the Crazy Genius | CT managing editor Mark Galli finds someone who lived the Sermon on the Mount. (May 20, 2003)
John Ortberg's Freak Show | Churchgoers' attempts to be average are killing them, says the Willow Creek pastor. (May 13, 2003)
Winning People, Not Arguments | John Stackhouse discusses the evangelistic need for humble apologetics (May 6, 2003)
Francis Schaeffer's Grandson Goes to War | Frank Schaeffer talks about how his views of his country, culture, and prayer changed as his son joined the Marines (Apr. 29, 2003)
Alistair Begg on The Beatles | The author and pastor talks about the Fab Four's cry for "Help" and why no one answered it (Apr. 22, 2003)
Robert Seiple on the War in Iraq | The founder of The Institute for Global Engagement says America suffers from an inconsistency between national values and national interests (Apr. 15, 2003)
Marcia Ford on Christian Misfits | The author of Memoir of a Misfit describes her eccentric family and her faith journey. (Apr. 8, 2003)

The Dick Staub Interview
Dick Staub was host of a eponymous daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW and is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and The Culturally Savvy Christian. He currently runs The Kindlings, an effort to rekindle the creative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture. His interviews appeared weekly on our site from 2002 to 2004.
Previous The Dick Staub Interview Columns: