In the first years of our marriage we lived in Atlanta where we could toggle between two dynamic world-renowned churches. Just grab a seat and be wowed every single Sunday. We saw powerful groups gather, praise and worship teams bring down the house, the best organized community groups and how you pull off a life-changing marriage retreat.
Then we moved to Utah.
Never before had it crossed my mind to send a note to a former pastor to just say “keep on keeping on because you Sir are doing it right!” But when in what we have since coined our “spiritual desert” – both literally and figuratively – you learn to appreciate what you once took for granted.
The Mormon Church is alive and well in Utah and much better represented then those pesky third generation Osmonds. Honestly, I first cringed when my new neighbors told me each Mormon family is assigned a specific ward, or church building, by the Church of Later Day Saints. This ward is where 10% of their earnings go along with being told what time service to attend. There’s a 9 AM, 11 AM and 1 PM service and whatever slot you pull it automatically moves to the next time slot the following year so you rotate with your church members regardless of babies needing to nap or Sunday supper. Rigid? Perhaps. But when you are out there lost and unsure as to what churches are even in your neck of the woods, having someone point and say “go there” would have blessed us.
Forget the built-in camaraderie and spirit of community. We were just looking to find a place where we could worship with halfway decent music, a safe enough looking child care program and a message we’d walk out thinking about. Easy right? Wrong. However this is not just in Utah where you can have a tough time finding a church home.
Upon moving back to the South we thought “here we go to the land of plenty.” And plenty it was. Oh my – just Google “Christian churches” and quickly realize that you can visit a new local church every Sunday for years. Filter “spirit led” or “nondenominational” and it doesn’t get any better.
Within a few months of still not having a home church – take note that we are now going on three years of nomadic church husbandry – one Sunday I looked at my spouse and said “do you think it could be us?”
We had been greeted, signed up, called at home, asked to stand for many a welcome, questioned about our faith, met for lunch, invited to be in small groups, taken communion together and tithed to various churches with nothing to show but utter disappointment. And a belief that we were the Goldilocks of Church Shopping.
One Sunday my oldest whined “not another new church” from the backseat and it begged the question why we were doing this to ourselves and our children. One plus was that I could recycle the same semi-matching sibling church outfits weekly with nobody the wiser. But I had lost the chance to show my kids the reason we gather with other believers: Fellowship.
Our hesitant peeking in on yet another service, tallying our scores and checking off another Sunday stop (sometimes before service had ended if we are being honest) was teaching them the spiritual version of dine and dash. The reason we gather together, beyond what we are taught in the Scriptures, is that we are different than the world. We are set apart and expected to be a light, to be selfless, to be kind when others are not. The reason we gather together is that in our differences we are the same because of our Savior. And being different is hard, not always comfortable and certainly never the easier path. Raising Godly young men and women does take a village and where it’s too heavy a burden, other believers can gather to lift each other up. So we soldiered on, church by church, Sunday by Sunday learning a few take away’s to share.
1. Seeking out a new church is about as much fun as a blind date and pretty similar. You put on the nice outfit, assess with a quick visual scan, have some nervous chatter, try to figure out if this a one and done or there’s long-term potential in under an hour. Lots of pressure! Just admit that this part stinks, and unless you have the wherewithal to press on despite lame greeters and cliquish pew hoggers you might say forget it and settle with an online podcast or early brunch at Cracker Barrel. It’s painful and you need to just set the bar low so your expectations don’t trip up your reality.
2. To muster up the newness of another church each Sunday takes gumption and a strong mindset. Be prepared to give a motivating pep talk to your family every Sunday until you find your new church home. But before Sunday morning rolls around, have a plan of action. Map out the church you’ll visit ahead of time. Go on the church website and confirm the start time, Sunday school times and any other information on the new visitor’s page if available. Don’t let small details add stress the morning of as there’s already enough pressure visiting a new church.
3. Use the internet site, but don’t judge the church based on graphics. Or a lack of. All it takes is one computer genius to create a flash bang website saying all the right things with magical appeal, only to disappoint when you step foot inside. We would plot churches for proximity then go to a church’s website to intentionally listen to a few sermon podcasts, but not every website posts those. I have been astounded that many websites only showcase the small things in a church like VBS photos or a small group calendar. Get what you can from the site, but don’t discount the church because they didn’t have a web designer in their back pocket.
4. Attend at least three times before you scratch it off the list if it’s a “maybe.” My husband and I had to agree to this challenge because it’s so simple to yell out “survey says no!” right off the bat which might not be fair to the church. Perhaps you hit the one week a year they talk about tithing. Did that. Maybe it’s a traveling pastor visiting for the summer who does not hold the same core beliefs as the church. Been there. Or the song leaders having a rough time harmonizing. Painful but true. And if 911 has to be called for a possible heart attack that kind of messes up the flow of service. Yep, that too.
5. Speed date one Sunday to maximize your effort. Did she just say speed date? Yes, I did. Look if you have 6 churches you are fortunate to check out you are committing to one and a half months of church visits. Yikes! Make a plan one Sunday if many churches are grouped in nearby zip codes to leave one of you home with the kids while the other zips through services while they are happening. That’s the best time to *see* the membership makeup, the safety of the kid zone, the friendliness of the leadership and grab a bulletin to see the song selections, announcements and overall details of the church. You have to be quick and not afraid to walk in late or get up early and walk out. It’s for the good of the research keep telling yourself so keep notes as it can all muddle together. And by the sixth church, you are popping in on, you’ll just throw your car in park at the entrance, hit the hazard lights and march in to grab a program then peek through the sanctuary doors like you do this all the time. And by the end you’ll pray Jesus either find you a church or rapture you up before the next Sunday rolls around.
6. Ask others where they go to church but don’t stop there. Ask if they like it! Do they miss the folks when they are away for awhile? Does anyone notice they aren’t there and follow up? Do they feel like their kids are safe when they drop them off? Have they broken bread with the pastor? When they had a baby was there a group to bring meals or pray for their child at baby dedication?
7. And when you arrive greet the pastor and get a read on the vibe as it is a trickle down effect to the community. Talk to folks – as painful as it might be when you are the new guy. Ask how long they’ve attended and what they love as well as what they wish were different. Request that you get to see the kid zone area if not easily accessible. How do they keep kids safe? Is there a badge system? Is there a rule that two adults must always be present when a child is toileting? Are there snacks and if so what are they?
At the end of the day with more churches closing their doors than opening new ones, they need members so interview and dig deep before making the commitment to join ranks. Plus most churches give away personalized welcome gifts like coffee cups, notebooks or memory sticks so a little swag can go a long way. Or at least make up for another checked off church as you make your way to Cracker Barrel.
Head up, soldier on and pray that God put the right church in your path. Sooner rather than later!