Or… church shopping? It does feel a bit like shopping, to tell you the truth. And just like grocery shopping, where there are far too many options, it can tire you out. And if you are an introvert, it can tire you out even more. So what should you do? How do you find a place of worship?
If you are coming “home” from working cross-culturally to the same city or town you left from, you may already have a home church waiting for your return. They may be excited to have you back – that is, if you were very actively involved before. If you were not actively involved before you left, then don’t be surprised if you are welcomed with something along the following lines:
“Hi! We’re glad to see you! Where have you been? What did you do there?” or
“It’s been a long time. How long are you here for? When do you go back?” or
“Wow. You lived where? Did you have electricity? Running water? Did you ride elephants? Was it dangerous? Were there terrorists?”
In other words, they will have a faint idea that you attended their church. And they know that at some point you did not attend services regularly. They may even have a glimpse that you moved away. They may not know where you went, why you went or what you did there.
Very often you will hear someone say: “Welcome home!” And if you are like me, you will wonder if they know you at all and that this familiar place is not home at all to you. The word “home” means something different to you. You may not even really know what the word “home” means anymore.
This reminds me of a very important point: If you will work cross-culturally and want your home church to be an active participant in the work you will do overseas and the transition you will experience when you return, you need to first have been an active participant in the work the church does locally.
And that is exactly what happened to us upon our return. When we visited the church we had attended for three years in the city we are now living in, people were friendly. Some recognized us. Some even remembered our names. We had been involved in a small home group. We had tithed faithfully. But that was it. We didn’t have any special role to fill. Our absence did not leave a need unmet. We were there and then we were gone.
And so many things had changed at this church as well. The pastor was different. He was younger, hipper. Maybe a hipster? He wore flip flops when he preached. The congregation was smaller than what I had remembered. When I entered the sanctuary, I expected to see either the same amount of people or more. That was not the case and it shocked me a bit. It was not a difficult decision. We decided to start all over again.
And so our search began. We visited at least six or seven congregations of different denominations (from charismatic conservative to liturgical liberal) before we settled on one. Here are some observations:
- I was able to worship in every single one. Transition is a vulnerable place for me to be; so no matter what congregation we visited, I almost always was able to identify with the sermon, be encouraged by the songs and shed some tears. I need to worship with other believers. I need communion – in the literal sense (Holy Communion) and just being with other like-minded people. I just need it.
- The congregation will not pursue the visitor. This rang true even in those congregations where we already knew people and knew them well. There were friendly people in all. The welcome was nice and we often got a card in the mail saying they were glad we visited. We may even have left with a pen and mug as a gift. But that was it. There were no visits, calls or invitations to get to know people at a more personal level. For a completely new person coming from a highly relational culture, I can imagine this type of welcome is not really a welcome. American culture is so much more individualistic and the individualism is reflected in the congregations. There is no or very minimal intrusion into people’s personal lives. People are busy.
- Every place of worship was different. Some resembled the more traditional building with a steeple. Some met in strip malls which made them look more like a business building with a huge conference room. A few looked like the inside of an airport (a comment one of my kids made) mainly because they were so large, open, loud and busy. And this is part of the beauty of the freedom to worship wherever and whenever.
- It can be difficult and unsettling for kids to church-shop as much as it is for adults. My four year old would rarely want to try out a new four year old class each time we visited a new one. After the sixth visit, I was done. We had more on the list; but I could not handle it any more.
Months before our return to the US, we began to pray specifically for the fellowship of believers we hoped to join. We hoped to join a congregation where:
- Sound doctrine is taught.
- We can freely use our gifts and passions in unity with the mission and vision of the congregation for the extension of the Kingdom of God
- We and our children can meet with people who encourage us in our walk with Christ, allow us to encourage them in their walk with Christ and who persevere in their walk with Christ. We want to worship with other believers who don’t want to look like the culture around them but are willing to humbly engage it.
- We can take Holy Communion regularly – not just once a year or once a month, but hopefully, weekly.
- We can worship in song with understanding, not just repetitious words or concert entertainment.
For the last three months, we have regularly worshiped at an Anglican church that is part of a missionary outreach of the Anglican Province of Rwanda. We have already been invited, without any pressure, to serve in areas we are gifted in and have a heart to serve in. Our kids feel more and more comfortable going to class. We have come to know some people at a more personal level. Some of these live in our neighborhood. Some are old friends. Some are in leadership. There are families with kids who go to the same schools our kids go to. Some are just people we have met for the first time.
But some of these relationships-in-formation have taken a lot of effort, mostly on our part, to nurture. We have had several families over to our “not completely furnished” house over for dinner or lunch. We have met for lunch with some. We have visited a few and taken them homemade flour tortillas right off the grill. Very few have invited us for dinner at their homes or dropped by to visit us (just because they want to visit). I’ve struggled with this – the giving and giving and inviting without very much response. I’ve struggled with my attitude. Why do I put forth the effort? Why do I really do it? This has made me really appreciate those who have had us over, or on whom we can drop in freely.
I long for relationships, real ones, not Facebook ones (BTW: I don’t have a FB account!). I want to love the Church because Jesus loves His Church – no matter how flawed it is. I want to serve His Church, the people God puts in front of me, the home school moms, the public school moms, the working moms, the introverts, the extroverts, the foreigners, the locals, the neighbors, etc. The way God created me to love others is by cooking, visiting and spending time with them. So it is really hard to love people who have very little or no time or interest to reciprocate that love. It’s hard to love the church!
I need to remind myself so many things:
- I have not been here very long. Relationships take time, lots of time and patience.
- I came to serve and not be served. This is the way of Jesus. His burden is light.
- I am not called to be everybody’s best friend. By nature, I am a people pleaser. I am praying for the Holy Spirit to show me clearly what friendships to continue to pursue in and outside church walls. Who does He want me to serve? That is simply enough.
What has your church journey been like? What are ways God created you to love others? How do you love the Church?
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as we see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Galatians 6:9-10