Some of you are done with church completely. I know that. I won’t try to pressure you to go back. But now that fall is here I’ve heard from a few people that you are wanting to start a new routine and give church a second (or third….or fourth) chance. Now all you have to do is choose a church.
This part is hard.
I’ve been connected to my church now for the last eight years, but before that I spent a few years wandering rather aimlessly from church to church. I would go to one church for a Sunday or two and the experience would be…ok. We would sing and pray and sometimes the sermon would be interesting, but it was never enough.
I realize now that so much of what I love about church is the feeling of being at home, of singing and praying next to people I love. Of course, at any new church I tried, these relationships were missing. Then there was the awkwardness of coffee hour. I had the choice between being incredibly brave and approaching a stranger, or leaving myself at the mercy of strangers deciding to talk to me. Sometimes it was easier just to duck out the door after the service and leave the relational messiness of coffee hour behind.
Despite all the barriers, I believe it really is possible to find a church that feels like home. Here are some suggestions I’ve gathered from my own experience:
Don’t assume no church would want you
Over the last few years I have been surprised by the number of people who have told me that they would like to be part of a church but they worry that no church would want them for who they really are. “If they only knew what I really think about God and what I do on weekends, they would reject me.”
I’m sad that this perception exists. Certainly some people have been rejected by their churches, and churches have a long ways to go in terms of becoming welcoming places, but it is my experience that there is a lot of diversity within any given congregation when it comes to beliefs and actions. Don’t assume that you are the only one who thinks and acts as you do and goes to church. If you are really worried about the possibility of rejection, you might try setting up a meeting with a pastor or church member before you ever show up to a Sunday morning service. Be honest about what you believe and ask whether this congregation will be a safe place to be yourself. You might be surprised at the answer.
Pick a church, any church
You and I both know that there is no perfect church out there. You will probably be searching for a long time if you are waiting to stumble across a congregation that feels instantly right. Going from church to church is exhausting, and if this is your strategy you are likely to give up altogether or end up staying somewhere just because you are too tired to keep looking.
My suggestion? Find a church in your neighbourhood (the easier it is to get there, the more likely you are to actually go!), do a little research online or by calling the pastor to see if their core values essentially align with yours (for me participating in a church community that values peace and justice is really important, for example), then barring any red flags, pick that church. You don’t need to be too worried if all of your values don’t align perfectly so long as you get the sense that the church is open to a diversity of perspectives.
Go a lot
My next tip is simple: go a lot. I know that it’s hard to prioritize showing up for church every single week (I’m sad to say that I can count the times I made it to my home church this summer on one hand), but I predict that the more often you go the better your experience will be. When you keep showing up week after week, people will start to notice. You will start to move in people’s minds from the “visitor” category, to the “attender” category a whole lot more quickly, and people will have more energy to invest relationally in you if it seems like you are there to stay.
You probably don’t want to hear this, but showing up on Sunday morning might not be enough to move your church experience from awkward to awesome. At least in traditional churches, a lot of the Sunday morning service is spent listening to speakers at the front rather than interacting with those around you. In my experience, I built church relationships much more quickly in settings where I was working alongside people, like volunteering at our church’s neighbourhood BBQ or even (gasp!) joining a committee. Once I knew a few people from outside of the Sunday morning context I knew that I would always have at least a few people to talk to on Sunday mornings and even something in common to talk about.
Give it time
And finally, give it time. Starting at a new church will probably suck a lot at first. I wish I could say otherwise, but in my experience, it’s very likely that the first weeks (and maybe months) will feel awkward and uncomfortable. I can’t make any promises, but my guess is that by this time next year, whichever church you choose will feel a whole lot more like home.
I won’t claim that finding a new church as an easy or even a fun process, but I do think it’s worth it. When I moved this summer it was church friends who come out to do the heavy lifting in the hot sun and even brought lasagna and caesar salad to feed the hungry masses. When I want to have a conversation that goes deeper than the state of Kitchener Waterloo’s construction chaos, I know that I will find that at church. When I need to remember who I am and who I am called to be, my church feels like the place where I am held accountable.