In many instances families would become a part of our community and the church family. But it was also pretty frequent that these potential new families just didn’t click with the church. Sometimes we would hear the reasons. Sometimes I think we were given bogus reasons. Sometimes the reasons stung just a little - sometimes a lot.
It was always a struggle for me, because I loved the people whom I served. Even though I knew there were a few blemishes or quirks to get used to, those were by far overshadowed by what I knew was a great church. Who wouldn’t want to bring their family there?
Well, now I find myself on the opposite side of this problem. We have taken on new “service” within the larger church and have just begun the process of finding a new congregation to call home, at least for a couple of years. We are now that young family that is walking through the sanctuary doors for the first time. We are the ones who are being greeted incredibly warmly and a little over-enthusiastically. We are being mentally assigned to volunteer positions and roles as folks think about how we might fit into their church community.
I am already not enjoying this process. Now I understand that tentative smile visitors often gave me at the sanctuary door as I squeezed their hand a little too hard. Now I know what it feels like not to want to reveal too much on that first “date” just in case things don’t work out.
Part of me expects to find the perfect fit for a new church home - music I like, sermons I like, liturgy I like, a building and sanctuary I like, classes I like, theology I like, pastors I like, a children’s program I like, people I like. That would make me feel the most comfortable. That would make me feel the least anxious.
We are just at the start of this process, and honestly have only visited one church so far. It was not a heartening experience. The music was not my style, the liturgy was non-existent, the theology was a few ticks away from mine, BUT the sermon was great (though it was a guest preacher and a friend), and the people were incredibly welcoming.
As I sat in the pew I wondered if this was really the place where I wanted my son to learn to be a Christian and to learn to be part of a church community. How many things on my checklist have to be present for us to say yes? Will I compromise on music in order to hear a great sermon every Sunday? Will I choose a church with people who are very friendly and welcoming but who I know don’t agree with my theology?
In addition to all of these things going on in my brain and heart, I have to keep in mind how my husband and our son are feeling and reacting to each church as we visit.
So if this is how I feel - and I am committed to being a Christian, pretty committed to finding something that works, and very committed to raising my son in a church family - then no wonder so many people who are just stepping into these commitments have such a hard time finding a church home that works for them.
I have had a lot of really great experiences in a variety of churches; how much harder must this process be for those who have had some horrible church experiences in their past?
I live a life and have a career that encourages me to set aside the time it takes to fully participate in the life of a church and to fully invest myself and my family’s time in getting to know a community; how much harder must it be for families who are trying to balance finding a church with participating in community, school and work activities that more and more frequently conflict with Sunday church participation?
And so, to stay in line with my personal philosophy of naming things that are hard, I would like to acknowledge that finding a church is hard...but the truth is, BEING church is hard, so what can we expect?
Being a church community is so much about compromise, about putting the needs of the group ahead of your own (and not just walking away), and about being stretched and pulled in new and uncomfortable ways.
In my search for a new church home, I have put the focus on my comfort, and on my family’s comfort, but now I am realizing that I have set the wrong priority. As we move further into this search I am hoping to put the priority on our growth - my growth, my son’s growth and our family’s growth.
I will still be looking for a church where I like the music, where I find meaning in the preaching, and where I want my son to learn what it means to be a Christian. But I will also be looking for a place that will challenge my thinking, that will make me rethink and better articulate what it is I believe, and that will become an important part of our lives for the next couple of years.
My advice to others looking for a new church home, based on my experiences now on both sides of this search, are very simple:
Don’t judge a church on one visit, one sermon, one awkward encounter with a parishioner. Everyone has a bad day, and that includes churches.
Don’t pick a church solely based on its children’s programs or its lack of programs. This community has the potential to be YOUR community long after your children have moved away. Make sure it is the church you want to be a part of - that will benefit your children in the long run.
Don’t be put off by others’ enthusiasm for you to be a part of their church. They don’t mean to creep you out. They are not necessarily trying to save your soul. People are desperate to have children and young people (under 50) in their congregations. Relish the fact that people are willing to like your children before they even know them.
Do research before you join or even visit a church. If certain things are important to you, ASK about them, don’t just assume you know how things work at every church. If you have concerns about certain strains of theology or beliefs, talk to the pastor or other staff about them. If they tell you things that concern you, or that you don’t want your children to learn...don’t join that church. Any pastor who has shared honestly with you will respect your ability to make a decision that fits your family.
Do participate in more than one type of activity at a church before you decide to make it your church home. Sometimes we confuse “church” with “worship.” We go to church, and one of the things we do there is worship. Get a broader sense of the community by attending a meal, participating in a class, volunteering at a service event.
Finally, DO actually join a church community. Conventional wisdom these days says that people no longer want to actually “join” a church. We are a generation and a culture of non-committers. In your search for a church and a church family, be willing to be a little counter-cultural, to be a little uncomfortable, a little stretched and a little pulled, and it might turn out that it fits perfectly.
Hopefully, I will be able to take some of my own advice over the next few months as we continue our search.
What struggles have you had in finding a church community?
What advice would you give to those looking for a new church home?