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For many Americans, autumn is a time for trying new churches

This month in Illinois, Concordia University sophomore Stan Lemon is going shopping. But local retailers aren't the ones competing for his business.

That's because he - like thousands of other Americans from coast to coast - is in the market for a church, a new place to call spiritual home.

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And churches, once cold to any semblance of competition, are more and more warming to the shopping season that arrives ritually along with the crisper air, the moving vans, and the end of vacations.

For many churchgoers, the choice of where to attend rests not just on denominational labels but on factors such as the warmth of handshakes and the quality of the choir. And many, including Mr. Lemon, are shopping for the theological substance of sound doctrine.

"They look to see who's making sense, who's exploring the mysteries of God, who's offering serious advice," says the Rev. Joseph Neiman, rector of St. Mark's Church, an Episcopal congregation in Paw Paw, Mich. "If we can help you, fine. If not, look elsewhere. But keep looking, because this is all too important to neglect."

Church-shopping occurs year-round. But fall is not only when Sunday schools resume and mission teams get back to work, but also when newcomers are especially prone to test out the rear pews, rate the preacher's delivery, and sample the doughnuts and conversation afterward.

And churches are increasingly responding, touting what makes them special - and might give them an edge:

• The First Presbyterian Church of Corvallis, Ore., has a button on its website for church shoppers, and this month is erecting a billboard in the center of downtown to proclaim its values.

• In Canton, Mass., the First Parish Unitarian Universalist uses its website to invite "church-shoppers and other seekers who would not, could not, tolerate homophobia, racism, classism or other such hates - or even prejudices - in their spiritual home."

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• St. Mark's in Paw Paw is buying newspaper ads to promote its video library, children's programs, and prayer workshops for newcomers to the greater Kalamazoo area.

• Dozens of churches between the coasts are reviving the use of "greeters," friendly members who wear name tags and strive to make newcomers feel at home, says George Hunter, an expert on church growth at Asbury Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Scott Jones, a United Methodist Bishop of Kansas and a former professor of evangelism at Southern Methodist University, says churches that celebrate comparative shopping do so in response to "the increasing secularization of American culture ... [where] church leaders want to encourage people to find any congregation to worship in."

Yet when churches bless comparative shopping, Mr. Scott says, they open the door to its hazards as well as benefits.

"[It puts] pastors, who would otherwise support each other, into a competitive posture," he says. "But the bottom line is that in American Christianity, the people get to choose... In that competition, there's a kind of asking approach so the church becomes whatever the people want it to be. But this is also what has given the American church vitality, while the European churches are dying."

When welcoming church shoppers, congregations find wish lists that span the spiritual spectrum. On one end is Stan Lemon, and others like him, who are searching to find a place they consider faithful to God and scripture. Disappointment has become routine, he says, recalling one church that began services with the Pledge of Allegiance and another where the pastor lacked "reverence" for the Eucharist.

"I'm looking for a congregation that teaches and proclaims the gospel and administers the sacraments in the most God-pleasing manner," Mr. Lemon says. "That has been a difficult task."

A thousand miles away in Amesbury, Mass., Sandy Manley is resolving to attend Unitarian services more frequently this year with her husband, Bud, and their three young children. But, she says, she's keeping her options open.

"I still am looking for a congregation that either is inspiring or has families and people I'd like to hang around, people I'd want to talk to," Ms. Manley said. In shopping around, though, she's been disappointed to find so many empty pews.

The Rev. John Dennis has seen many sides of church shopping, having lived in Philadelphia before relocating 30 years ago to Oregon, where he now serves as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Corvallis. Serving in one of the least religious towns in the nation's least religious state, he says, means accepting church-shopping - as well as competition with soccer leagues and other Sunday diversions - as a way of life. "People here are more independent and questioning by far," Mr. Dennis said. "We have to fight for our people in Oregon. They don't just come in the door like they did in Philadelphia."

If church-shopping began out West, however, it isn't confined there anymore. In the most recent comprehensive snapshot of US religious practices, the US Congregational Life Survey found that nearly 1 in 4 church attendees had switched congregations in the past five years. Of those newcomers, just 7 percent had no prior involvement with a faith community, which might confirm another of Jones's concerns: that people are leaving churches in times of conflict, and those who welcome shoppers aren't encouraging them to reconcile.

"I would teach my students to encourage church-shopping by unchurched people," Jones said. Those fleeing conflict, he says, should be encouraged not to shop but to go back because "that's what's best for the individual, to work it through, but this doesn't happen as much as it should."

Areas most experienced with church-shopping say that over time their congregations have become niche players that specialize in serving particular segments of the religious community.

First Presbyterian of Corvallis, for instance, attracts music lovers who know the choir's international reputation, as well as activist types who support the congregation's campaign to eradicate Cambodian land mines. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church caters to young families by advertising its children's program, known as "Godly Play."

For all the market forces at work, however, some churches still cooperate by sharing their inactive-member lists.

"They're saying to the other churches in town, 'Go get 'em,' " Dr. Hunter says.