When we first decided to move to Virginia, we assumed the majority of our new friendships would come through whatever church we joined. As such, we were anxious to find a church home. As it turns out, this wasn’t the only assumption of the move we got wrong.
As was the case with many aspects of moving, trying to find a new church home was a new experience for both of us. I am a Preacher’s Kid (PK), meaning when I was growing up there was someone in our family handling the decision of where to attend church. Since I attended college in the same city as my home church, I continued attending there fairly regularly through my college years. And while my wife isn’t a PK, her family also had a consistent church home in each place where they lived.
After getting married, my wife and I began attending my home church, where my dad was still pastoring. Remind me to tell you sometime about the dynamics, both good and bad, of attending and participating in a church where your dad is the pastor. A blog post for another day …
“Church shopping” has always implied to me a lack of commitment to a local church family, or an unhealthy consumerism approach to church
While I always knew it was true, I am now more sensitive to the many legitimate reasons to visit and experience multiple churches in search of a church home. Having moved into a new state with no familiar churches or denominations, we found ourselves in such a situation.
As way of disclaimer, I realize our search for a church is a completely different experience than someone who is not yet a Christian, or who has never been part of a church. I can only relay this experience from our perspective. However, in writing up our thoughts, I’ve found myself wondering at each point how someone who hasn’t grown up in the church would perceive or experience this process. I’m assuming in most cases they wouldn’t even get to the point of seeking out a church without first having some interaction and/or invitation from some part of the church. If and when a person in that situation does visit a worship service, are they wanting or expecting different treatment than what we, as Christians, were desiring? And that challenge is only one of many facing the church today in an effort to be relevant and effective in sharing the Good News with a society in need.
Herein lies what we experienced in finding a new church home.
We have always been members of Reformed denominations (CRC and RCA). While it would be fun to embark on the history of the relationship between those two denominations, I’ll spare you the details for now. Suffice it to say it’s about as fun as playing Dutch Bingo. (And yes, the RCA was in the right.)
Unfortunately there are no churches from either of those denominations within reasonable driving distance of where we now live (even by D.C. driving standards). This meant only one thing: there was no easy path in finding a new church.
You can’t evaluate a church, its denomination, and their beliefs without evaluating and affirming your own beliefs.
So we decided we’d prefer a denominational church, but the denominations represented in our area were all unfamiliar. Including the aforementioned independent and pseudo-affiliated churches, we eventually attended churches representing the Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian denominations. Needless to say we had some research to do regarding the beliefs and traditions of each of those churches and denominations.
Learning about these churches actually helped us learn more about ourselves and our own beliefs. You can’t evaluate a church, its denomination, and their beliefs without evaluating and affirming your own beliefs. And it’s one thing to do it from the comfort of home while evaluating the beliefs espoused on websites; it’s quite another to be participating in a worship service and needing to quickly read ahead with responsive readings or prayers to know if you’re actually comfortable reciting along. (To all my Calvinist friends out there, we’ve learned that some churches recite more than the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.)
Of Course I Have a List
So what exactly did we want to find in a church? Anyone that knows me knows a list was quickly compiled. We wanted a church that was theologically sound, had good preaching, was in a convenient location from our house, had programs for young kids and couples our age, was working to reach the hurt and lost, had a solid nursery, and engaging and Spirit-filled worship. Shouldn’t be too hard to find …
Visits: The Online Visit
It’s disheartening in this day and age that some churches still do not realize the importance of their presence on the web. We visited every church online before ever stepping foot inside their building, and for a number of churches the online visit was the only one we made. In some cases that speaks well of their online presence, as they clearly indicated what to expect, and we knew it would not be a good fit for us. In other cases we knew we didn’t want to visit, either if there was no web site or what was there frightened us away. I know we’re not alone in evaluating churches initially by their presence online.
We visited every church online before ever stepping foot inside their building …
I’ll also say what a comfort it is to have consistency between a church’s online representation and the in-person reality. Accuracy in describing worship styles and expectations for dress is obviously beneficial, but simply having consistent marketing of the look and feel of the website with signage and material at the church is a comforting feeling when arriving for the first visit, knowing I’ve got the right place.
Visits: The Consecutive Approach
Before moving to VA, an interim pastor of ours gave us a piece of advice about visiting churches. He recommended visiting a church for 3 or 4 consecutive weeks, arriving at different times, and sitting in different locations. This helps ensure you meet a mix of people, experience multiple worship services from varying perspectives. Otherwise you could easily be greeted by the only friendly greeter in the church (or perhaps the only grumpy one), sit by the only nice family in the church (or the only rude one), hear the pastor’s only good sermon (or only his worst one). By attending on consecutive weeks, odds are you’ll get a more accurate assessment in each of these areas.
Visits: The Gifts
Many of the churches we visited provided us with gifts. The gifts included jars of jelly, a coffee mug, and a candle. Nice touches making visitors feel welcome. In smaller churches we were easily identified as visitors, so someone made an effort to present us with the gift. In larger churches, there seemed to be a visitor’s center. We never checked out any of the visitor centers, but I’m guessing some of them provided gifts. Clearly the smaller churches have an advantage in identifying visitors, in this regard.
Visits: The Personal Friendliness
Another area where smaller churches can have an advantage is in friendliness. When your church is small enough to recognize visitors, friendliness is imperative. Almost all churches we visited greeted us and were friendly, but only the small to medium sized churches actually made an effort to learn our names, find out why we were visiting, and offering to help in any way they could. The larger churches weren’t rude, but there was generally nothing more than superficial greetings.
Oddly enough, that same size that provided comfort on initial approach left us feeling unnoticed and somewhat empty upon departure.
I’m sympathetic to the challenges faced by larger churches in this area of friendliness. One church we visited numerous times has 5 weekend services. Needless to say identifying visitors is near impossible. Even so, people that knew we were visitors for various reasons made no effort to introduce us to others, get us integrated, or help us find our way.
A larger church does does afford a level of comfort on an initial visit that’s hard to match with a smaller church. The larger sized churches allowed us to easily blend in without feeling like we were on the spot. Oddly enough, that same size that provided comfort on initial approach left us feeling unnoticed and somewhat empty upon departure. What is I’m sure a draw for these larger churches also ends up being a deterrent for people wanting a church family and not simply a place to attend worship.
Visits: The Follow Up
Most churches followed up with us in some fashion. (We did our best to provide our contact information whenever requested, to see how each church would respond.) A couple churches subscribed us to their email newsletters, while some churches sent generalized snail mail. One larger church sent a welcome packet of sorts, signed by the pastor. A couple churches called as general follow up. One pastor sent us a hand written note, one pastor called and later visited our house for a chat, and one pastor and his wife even had our family over for dinner.
I offer you a few of the lessons we learned.
- First impressions are important. For us, that started with the website, and carried over to the first visit for churches we attended. Visitor recognition and treatment, fair or not, ended up being an important factor for us.
We lovingly refer to one of the churches we visited as the Peanut Butter Church.
- Welcoming visitors doesn’t stop once they’re seated. A woman who initially greeted us at one church was kind enough to explain a few things to us during the worship service (e.g., the process they used for serving Communion). A couple years after that visit I still remember her help and the impact it made on us.
- Names are important. Introduce yourself, and express some interest in people you know are visiting. Simply asking their name will leave a lasting impression, much more so than a typical greeting.
- For families at our stage of parenting, the nursery is almost as important as the worship. One church we visited didn’t have a nursery, and all their friendliness and follow up couldn’t help overcome the lack of nursery. Parents need to feel safe leaving their children with complete strangers, so anything that can be done to ease the process will not go unnoticed.
- Worship style is important, but nothing trumps actual substance.
- Visiting numerous churches in our neighborhood provided a sense of community. As we drove around town, or met new people, it provided a great frame of reference to see the churches actively involved in the community.
- Church announcements can go a long way in hindering true worship. We lovingly refer to one of the churches we visited as the Peanut Butter Church. Every Sunday, the worship service started with an intense time of singing and praise. As that portion of the service completed, they immediately launched into mundane announcements regarding their life as a church, squashing any hope of maintaining a worshipful focus on God. One such announcement included a nurse from the congregation who took it upon herself to inform everyone of a very serious peanut butter recall.
- Be careful using exclusive lingo. For several weeks, the Peanut Butter Church made announcements about an upcoming Potblessing event, about which it was clear everyone was excited. After 2 or 3 weeks, we finally realized it was a traditional church potluck, but not wanting to say the word “luck” in church, they cleverly changed the name to potblessing. We were shocked on a number of levels.
Celebration Church: Our New Church Home
After what seemed like an eternity of visiting churches, we finally found a place we call home: Celebration Church. It’s actually the very first church we visited when starting this process, and we’ve been an active part of the church ever since.
The Clear Winner?
Celebration is a church plant, and started small. Both of those meant it didn’t initially have as many of the features (you remember “the list”) as other churches we visited. For example, we were both fairly burned out coming from our church in Michigan, and wanted to find a place where we wouldn’t immediately have to be involved in everything. However, being a small church plant means there is plenty for everyone to do. We eventually felt Celebration could be helped through the gifts God has given us more so than some of the larger churches we visited.
Also, when we joined, and for some time thereafter, we were the only family in the church in our same family situation (just starting a family, with 2 young children). There weren’t any other young couples (yes, we still consider ourselves young). We kept hoping that with us being there, the next such couple to visit wouldn’t feel like they were the first.
Even though it didn’t win the point total on paper, we clearly felt this is where God wanted us.
Remember how I mentioned something about denominations providing checks, balances, and stability? When we first visited this church, it had a different name and was part of the Episcopalian Church. They were fairly open with us about some of the struggles they were experiencing denominationally, and kept us informed while we were visiting other churches. They soon left the Episcopal Church, and joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). Basically they are still an Anglican church, but now part of a relatively new denomination started by the Anglican Church in Nigeria.
Our family has been challenged, encouraged, and discipled. We are grateful for Celebration’s faithfulness to God and His Word …
Much has been written about the reasons for people leaving the Episcopal Church; suffice it to say it’s about far more than the one or two items you read about in the press. I don’t pretend to understand all the issues or the long road some of these life-long Episcopalians have traveled, but I can say with certainty they had very Scriptural reasons (e.g., dealing with issues of salvation).
We have much to learn about Anglicanism and its rich history. As with most other denominations, there is a spectrum of how its churches live out their faith, both in terms of theology and worship styles. Celebration celebrates much of the liturgy of the Anglican faith, using a nice blend of relaxed contemporariness while maintaining reverence and appreciating the historical faith.
Our Church Home
What the church has lacked in size, it has made up for with powerful exegetical teaching, rich and engaging corporate worship, and an encouraging body of believers. Our family has been challenged, encouraged, and discipled. We are grateful for Celebration’s faithfulness to God and His Word, and it’s been a humbling privilege to watch Celebration continue to grow in more than just numbers and programs.