Finding and settling into a new church is jolly hard work. Over the years, I’ve done it a few times, both as a student and later, when moving (several times) to different cities.
For me at least, it all begins with a bit of googling, trying to work out if a church’s values are close (ish) to mine, if there will be people-a-bit-like-me, if they’ll be friendly, if they teach the Bible, if the worship team can string two notes together, if the pastor looks (reasonably) sane.
Next up is a quick social search. Are they on Facebook/Twitter? What do people say about them? Incidentally, if your church’s website is out of date, includes clip art of flashing crosses/doves and your Facebook hasn’t been touched in over a year, you might want to fix that. I’d hazard a guess that many people visit a church’s website or Facebook long before they make a decision to visit the church, so it’s a good idea to keep them current. First (web) impressions count.
I write all this from fairly recent experience, as not too long ago, I left a church community and had to start over in a new one. Here’s my reflections on the process so far.
Before you leave…
I knew I first needed somewhere new to go. I know myself pretty well on this score. If I left without a new church to go to, the pull of the snoozy duvet on a Sunday morning would be too strong. I was ‘churchless’ once before, many years ago. I got lots of Sunday lie ins but like an ember on the fireside of life, I soon grew pretty cold.
So, leaving without somewhere to go wasn’t an option.
Before I left, I sat down with 3 different people I respect, shared my struggles and thoughts and their advice was unanimous; leave on good terms (if you can). Too many people leave churches by simply fading away (perhaps lacking the courage to explain their reasons) or they depart, banging the door loudly and angrily behind them. The advice I was given was simple, leave well, don’t do something you’ll later regret. And so that’s what I at least tried to do.
It sucks a bit
Yes, it does. No matter how difficult the situation has become, walking away from a community of people you care about, comes with a side dish of mixed emotions. Not just for you, but also for the people you’ve left behind. It is a type of loss and it’s ok to grieve for a while. And then mentally and emotionally, you’ll know when it’s time to move on.
People stop talking to you
Yup, they will. I’ve analysed this one a fair bit and try as I might, I don’t understand it. Why should attending a different church, lead to the loss of friendships? I mean we’re all part of the body of Christ, right? We’re all still Christians? So why on earth would people think they have to stop speaking to you or socialising with you? I accept it will happen if a person has left on bad terms or there’s some kind of scandal, but if it’s a reasonably amicable departure, then why the need to cut off all contact? It’s one I don’t understand.
Don’t look back
It’s easy to look back, roll circumstances round in your head, but my goodness, there’s SO much in God’s Word about moving forward, walking head held high into a lovely new future and not looking back at a disappointing past. I often think of Lot’s wife, she who was turned into a human salt cellar.
Was it because she longed for what she’d left behind? Or was it because she was disobedient and did what she was expressly told not to?
What I do know is that once you’re absolutely clear God is moving you on, pack up your bags, walk hand-in-hand with Jesus into the future and don’t look back.
So, if you’re fortunate enough to never be in the position of a leaver, how should you treat ‘refugees’ who turn up at your church?
Be on the lookout
Walking into a new church for the first time is awful. Even if a church is the friendliest, loveliest church on the planet, that walk from car to door for a first-timer can be utterly terrifying. No seriously.
So if your church gets some newcomers, look out for them. It’s not just the job of the welcome team. If you can, say hi and (this is a biggie!), offer to introduce them to others. Church life is all about knowing others and being known. If you can help a newcomer meet others, you’ll drastically reduce the amount of one-hit-wonders who wander through your doors, never to return.
On my church hunts over the years, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve walked into a church and not soul spoke to me. That just adds to the general awkwardness and embarrassment. If you can, be the type of church where every visitor, always get a smile and a hello. Have people whose job it is to look out for newbies and encourage a culture where it’s impossible for people to arrive or leave unnoticed.
Don’t be weird
Don’t make newcomers do weird stuff, like stand up, wave their arms or publically introduce themselves in some way. Please don’t. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s comfy with that on a first visit.
Don’t chase them to fill in a card with all their details or sign up for something or other on that first Sunday. That kinda feels like being proposed to on a first date. And that rarely works out well. Just be nice, real…normal.
I remember years ago, having moved to a new city, a friend and I were church hunting and found what looked to be a friendly little place up the road. We went in, sat down, the music started and then, they locked the doors and started parading round the perimeter of the room with flags.
Apart from the locked doors being a bit of a fire risk, my friend and I looked at each other (and then the flags) with just a hint of panic. Were we expected to grab a flag too? Would they ever let us out? Turned out the minister hated people wandering in and out, so they regularly locked the doors once the service got started. As for the flag waving, no idea.
Safe to say, we didn’t go back.
Give them time
Depending on the seriousness of the situation, most leavers just need a bit of recovery time. It’s normal to need space to process, to figure stuff out, to sit and be. I’m thankful I’ve been given that time at my new church.
So, some of this might sound a bit negative but that’s definitely not the aim.
I love the church, as a believer I have to be planted in one (I shrivel up without that!) and I love the idea of being part of the wonderful, global family of God.
Churches are made up of humans. Sometimes there’s disagreements and it becomes necessary (if all else fails) to move forward into something else. Sometimes you have to leave because you’re moving to a new area or circumstances have changed in some way.
Whatever the reason, whether you’re a leaver, a leader who’s had people leave or just a person looking out for newcomers, pray, get guidance, get God’s wisdom, keep a good attitude and above all, be the kind of person who does church life well.