When I graduated with my BA in Biblical-Theological studies and came back across country to marry my bride, I hit the church that we started going to like a bull in a china shop. I wanted to get my hands into ministry as quickly as I could and sit under a mentor as soon as possible. I was a man on a mission, eager to put my degree to use (albeit in a lay capacity) as soon as possible! I reached out to the pastoral staff and tried to jump in as quickly as I could into ministry roles and into a receiving mentoring from a pastor. There were lots of good things about our experience at that church, but when we left two and a half years later for seminary, I was largely disappointed with the ministry opportunities that had been available to me and the pastoral mentorship relationship.
Many church members are at a church for years without feeling a significant level of connection and belonging.
There are absolutely ways in which churches need to improve in helping newcomers feel at home quickly and well, but there are lots of things I would tell me 21 year old self as well about how to join a church and what expectations to have.
This is the final of a four part series where we have walked through what it looks like to leave and to join a church well. Our default expectations in 21st century America are a far cry from a biblical model in these matters. When we talk about a “church home” that is a great couplet to describe what the church should be in our lives. It isn’t just something we go to, or participate in, it should be home to us. One of Paul’s phrases for the church is “the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10) or “the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).[i] The church ought to be our home: a place where we are intimately connected with our first family.
If you’re transitioning to a new church, here are five tips to help make that church home:
Paul prays for the Philippian church that their love would “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.”[ii] I love Paul’s coupling of love and discernment. As you considering making a commitment to a local church (and it should be taken seriously as a commitment), pray for God’s discernment about that commitment, just as you would pray for discernment as you consider a potential spouse.
2) Read everything
Most pastors are writers and they have probably poured a fair amount of time into crafting documents that cast the vision and anchor the doctrine of the church. You can find out a lot about our church, New Life Bible Fellowship, by reading our Vision and Doctrinal Statements. Taking the time to read what your leaders have written will catapult you along in the commitment process – you will understand what makes the motor of your church run and what they are guiding the ship toward.
3) Follow their process
Most every church has a process. If they ask you to fill out a newcomer card, fill it out! If they encourage you to attend an initial meeting, attend! Your church has (hopefully) crafted a process that helps you to get to know them better and for them to get to know you better. We all like to feel special and that we deserve unique treatment, but even if you have some unique circumstances, those probably don’t require circumventing the process the church has put together.
+1: Meet with someone
Note that this isn’t a full additional step. At this point in the process, you might need to meet with a pastor or a leader. You might have already made the connections you were hoping to make. You might have already had your questions answered. But maybe you haven’t had your questions answered, or maybe you want to make a personal connection. Either is an entirely appropriate reason to reach out. But three cautions with this meeting: 1) you should wait until this point to ask for a meeting (I have met with many potential congregants before they’ve ever attended the church or after they’ve attended but before they’ve read much about the church or begun our process – I end up sharing quite a bit in those meetings they could have learned if they would have just read and followed our process); 2) approach the meeting with a generous and open spirit (I have met with a number in this setting who came in with a fairly combative spirit (often because they wanted to hear a particular response to a narrow theological issue)); 3) be open to meeting with someone other than the senior pastor – your church is the body of Christ, each with unique giftings and roles within the body. If an associate pastor or elder or ministry leader meets with you, it isn’t a slap in your face, it is because that person is called to that role at the church.
4) Join a small group
Most churches today are significantly larger than the house churches that were the settings of the early church. To be engaged in the community of the church, you need to be truly connected and invested in the lives of those at your church. Today that usually happens in the context of a small group or a Sunday School class. Join one as soon as you can. It might be awkward, your first group might not be a great fit, but join so that you can be meaningfully relationally connected. The author of Hebrews tells us to “exhort one another every day… that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”[iii] We need this kind of communion in our lives. Our sanctification depends on it.
As soon as you can, serve. You are meant to serve. You have been given gifts to be used for the good of the family of God.[iv] But don’t expect to slide into a new church family and utilize some of your gifts that might need appropriate testing. It wouldn’t be healthy for you to be serving as an elder in six months or teaching right away. Serve humbly. Start where you are needed – serve on the welcome team, serve the children’s ministry team, serve the students. Serve joyfully and humbly.
When I started my bull-rush as a 21 year old on our poor new church, the first opportunity they encouraged me toward was teaching the three year old Sunday School class with my wife. It wasn’t exactly the role I felt that God had made me for, but I’m so glad that we served in that capacity. What a gift to learn how to love and teach three year olds well. I think every aspiring pastor should have the blessing of teaching toddlers.
We all want to belong. We all want to be loved. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. God has shaped his church to be this place of belonging. But if we don’t lean in thoughtfully, then we will likely have a disappointing experience—the church will feel more like a place that we go to for something than a family in which we serve and are served.
May God bless you as your church becomes your family and your home.
Photo credit: William White/Unsplash
[i] See also 1 Timothy 3:4-5 where Paul explains why he weighs a man’s household so heavily in considering him for an elder. He says, “…if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
[ii] Philippians 1:9
[iii] Hebrews 3:13
[iv] 1 Corinthians 12:7