The time may come when you must leave the church you grew up in and become a member elsewhere. Let me be clear: I’m not encouraging people to withdraw or change their denomination/federation. I’m referring to church changes that are made because of marriage, affordability of location, employment, or desire to live near loved ones. It’s a huge life change, so I’m offering some suggestions to help you get used to your new place of worship and fellowship.
When will I feel at home?
It helps a lot to know that you are going to feel weird for the first few Sundays, or possibly the first few months. You knew every nook and corner of your old church, when to stand or sit, and most of the faces were familiar. You had friends there. Suddenly, the rooms, the faces, and maybe even the music are different. After a while, you will adjust to the new situation. You will recognize a few faces, begin to build new friendships, and get used to the differences.
One of the benefits of being in a new church is that you come in with a clean slate. Nobody knows about the silly or awful things you did as a teenager or young parent, or pre-judges you because of them. As we mature and grow in grace, we (hopefully) leave behind some of our follies and sins, and learn to treat people with more kindness and patience, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:13) We progressively learn how to love one another (I John 4:7-8). Sometimes it’s easier to “turn over a new leaf” in a new location.
How not to choose a church
What characteristics should you consider in a new-to-you church? What if you actually have two to three or more choices? On one of our moves, there were two excellent churches that were exactly 8 miles from our home. Which to choose? There are lots of ways that people make their final decisions about this – and some are better than others!
Some folks might want to choose a church based on which one has the nicest facilities. While I have had wishful thinking for a large fellowship hall and useful kitchen, in over 40 years of marriage, those amenities have always been at the churches that we didn’t choose.
When my husband enrolled in Westminster Seminary, he had no vehicle, and therefore planned to walk up a fairly steep hill to Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). His dormmate, Leigh, had a crush on a girl who attended a smaller OPC about eight miles away. He offered Dennis a ride, which sounded much better than hiking up the hill – especially in poor weather conditions.
Though the ride was important, for Dennis it was a mixture of the pastor’s friendliness and his excellent sermons that kept him attending that small church in Blue Bell PA, and led to my membership as well for over 25 years (most of which were after it became a Canadian/American Reformed congregation).
So far, we have seen that great facilities, desire for love, and convenience might be subjective reasons for choosing a particular church. But more should be said about the “friendliness factor.”
Friendliness is important, but sometimes it is overrated as a standard for choosing a church. Countless times, people have told me that they didn’t choose Church A or Church B because when they attended 1-2 Sundays, nobody said hello to them. In fact, I have two friends who had opposite experiences within the same church! As the visitor, you will initially feel awkward and out of place and a friendly welcome could help to alleviate that emotion. On the other hand, you shouldn’t judge a church by that. Perhaps there were reasons why no one greeted you. Maybe they were rushing to deal with their children, or frustrated because their car broke down, or ill, or grieving. Maybe the official greeters were greeting someone else when you walked by. Don’t think that they don’t care about you – maybe they just don’t care about you yet.
And on this topic, just a word to church members: please do reach out to people you don’t know at church with a welcome and a desire to learn more about who they are! Don’t be so caught up in your own usual group of people that you neglect to include people who want to be an asset to your church! Wouldn’t it be nice to have more people to share all the responsibilities?
So, how do you choose?
First and foremost, you need to choose a church where you will find the pure preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the appropriate use of church discipline. Not all buildings with the designation of “church” preach the truth, and you need to carefully research before attending.
Secondly, consider the location. When you are choosing where to worship, it is best to live close to your church if at all possible. Make living close to other church members a priority when you are house or apartment hunting. Why? Because we have found that visiting other members, and having other members visit us, is much more likely to happen if the distance between us is short. When you live 30-60 minutes away, there will be folks who don’t want to drive to your house. And people are more likely to drop off a meal 5 minutes away than 30-60 minutes away. We all get very busy in our lives, so if you can make fellowship and caring more convenient, why not do so? You don’t want to use “distance” as an excuse to not participate in the life of the church (or the Christian school).
Jump right in
The way to feel a part of a new congregation is to get to know people, and the way to get acquainted is to get involved with smaller group meetings/service projects of any sort. In fact, this is probably the best way for introverts, especially, to begin feeling at home. Consider these examples that we have observed:
- Show up and work hard at a church maintenance day. One couple did this before they even officially joined. What a great opportunity to converse and demonstrate that they were serious about serving the Lord along with us.
- Attend the Ladies’ and Men’s Bible studies and take your children to youth meetings.
- Note the requests for meals for new mothers and shut-ins and sign up to help.
- Join the choir.
- Attend a baby shower even if you do not know the new mother – it’s a great way to get acquainted, and your attendance and a small gift are always appreciated.
- Shake the pastor’s hand and tell him who you are. Introduce yourself to one of the elders, or if they have cards in the pews, fill one out and place it in the offering plate. If you don’t want to be called, just give an email or home address. In my lifetime, I have noticed that churches are always happy to gain new members, and some of them will send you information about their church.
- Send get well or encouragement cards to people who are shut-ins or recovering from surgery. The inspiring Bible verses in them will be uplifting even if they haven’t met you yet. Knowing that someone cares and is praying for them is always appreciated. So what if they don’t know who you are – they will soon!
- Don’t sit back and wait for everyone to reach out to you. God calls all of us to help and encourage one another. Pray and ask Him to help you see ways to participate in your new church life. In Hebrews 10:24 we read, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Your efforts will bless someone.
Although you will feel out of place during the first few times you worship in your new location, gradually you will begin to feel at home. Serving the Lord – “Blooming where you are planted” – will bring you into contact with fellow members, and after a while, friendships are likely to form. Following some of these suggestions might just move things along a bit quicker.