Sunday, November 24, 2013

Church 101: A Seeker's Guide

Maybe you've never been to church before except for weddings and funerals, or maybe you used to go a long time ago but haven't gone lately. For whatever reason, you want to give church a try. This guide is for you. I've been there myself--I stopped going to church when I was fifteen years old and returned to churchgoing at age twenty-one. In the intervening years I tried going to a few different churches but they turned me off. Finally, after talking to a friend who enjoyed her experiences at church and reading a book by a feminist nun, I decided to give church another try. This time it "took." Eventually I studied theology and became a Pastor. I still think of myself as an ex-ex-Christian, and I have a lot of compassion for people who are not part of a church community. I've been there. Your gripes are based in reality. And still exerts a pull. This guide is for people like that, people who want to give church a try. I'll try and put my pointers in order of importance, but honestly everyone is different so you might see it differently from me. I am a Protestant and was raised as a member of a Protestant church, but during my own time of seeking I attended a Roman Catholic church. In addition, as part of my education I have attended services in a variety of traditions, including Orthodox churches. This advice applies to church seekers across all traditions.

  • Ask God to help you find a church. Maybe you have never prayed and aren't even sure that there is a God you can believe in. It doesn't matter. In your own way and in your own words, ask whoever or whatever is out there in the Universe that cares about you to help point you in the right direction.
  • Avoid churches that seem to have all the answers and are convinced that they are right and others are damned. Churches in America have a wide variety of viewpoints about what they consider moral behavior. Just because the members of a particular church seem thoroughly convinced that they are right and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong does not make it true. The certainty may seem appealing to you in a time of uncertainty in your own life, but what you need at times like that is not certainty. You need someone to hold your hand while you slowly and gradually find your own way.
  • Understand that not every church is right for every person. There is a very wide variety among churches--what they value, and how they practice Christianity. Somewhere in that mix you will probably find the right church for you. 
  • The easiest way to find a good match is to talk to a friends who participate in church. Try to avoid approaching friends who seem very interested in recruiting more members to their particular church. These friends, while well-meaning, may not be objective enough to help you, and it may strain the friendship if you try their church and find it not to your liking. 
  • If you don't have friends who go to church, you can try checking out church websites, but be warned: church websites can be outdated and misleading. Some of them are great at providing accurate information that is useful to seekers like yourself. Others, not so much, but they may be a perfectly good church once you get there. If anything attracts you--even if it's just the photo of the building--don't be afraid to check it out.
  • Bring a friend. If you aren't able to go to a church where you know anyone, and you aren't one of those super-friendly, confident, take-charge types, ask someone to go with you. Ideally it should be someone who is not rabidly anti-religious, but a person with no particular interest in joining a church might be a great choice. You can talk about your experience afterwards and their objective opinions might prove useful. One thing to be aware of is that if you are a single woman (or a woman who plans to attend church by yourself) and you bring a friend of the male persuasion, you may be treated differently if you return alone. I don't know why this is but I have experienced it myself. Some churches are less friendly to women alone than others, and if that applies to you, you're going to want to know that. Maybe you could have your friend park the car while you enter alone and then join you within a minute or so. This problem may also apply to men alone, but I wouldn't personally know that. I don't doubt that others experience a sense of not being welcome in some churches just because of who they are. 
  • If you don't feel welcome and in some sense "at home" from the moment you open the door and cross the threshold, this church is not for you. Why is this? I don't know, but experience has taught me that this is the case. Churches have a "vibe." It's mystical, and it's real. Some churches even feel super welcoming when you drive past. Those are probably good bets for you to check out.
  • If a church seems very unwelcoming or even rejecting of you, don't ever feel that God is rejecting you. Some people feel that churches speak for God. You don't need a church to find God. God is accessible to everyone 24/7. You find God inside you. Church is there to help you find God and to make the most of your relationship with God. They aren't there to talk down to you on God's behalf.
  • Be prepared to "dump" a church. Some churches seem great at first but turn out to be really wrong for you--incompatible with your personal value system, or just creepy-seeming. Sometimes individual members in a church may behave in a way that makes you very uncomfortable. Don't hesitate to leave. Churches are human institutions. None of them are perfect. Some of them are very far from perfect.
  • Don't feel guilty about letting go of a perfectly nice church where you don't feel quite at home and resuming your search. Some churches are welcoming to you but will not meet your needs. Trust your gut, not just your head. Don't rationalize too much or overthink it. 
  • There are no perfect churches, but there are churches that are perfect for you. It's like romance--when you have the right chemistry it is possible to live with flaws.
  • Churches have unwritten rules. Sometimes the unwritten rules contradict the written rules. This can cut both ways--it can be a good thing or a bad thing. In this way they are like any other organization--like your job, or the family you married into. Sometimes people may seem upset at you for reasons that have you mystified. The most likely explanation is that you have unwittingly violated an unwritten rule. You can just ask (but maybe not ask that person. Use your judgment. Ask a friend at the church or the Pastor if the person has intimidated you.) You will need to accept a little bit of a learning curve of unwritten rules. You also need to develop some self-awareness about how much of that sort of thing is acceptable to you. You may even find the actual unwritten rules to be offensive. In that case, your choice is to stay and try to change the culture, or leave. Maybe I will cover strategies for changing church culture  in a different blog post. The bottom line is, protect your heart and your dignity. Don't be afraid to speak up for yourself, but if you feel continually trampled on and your feelings ignored, maybe this isn't the right church for you. Church is like love--it's not supposed to hurt.
  • If you think you've found the church that is right for you, join a group. The best way to make friends and have the experience you are looking for at a church is to find a group that does something you enjoy doing and join it. If you like to sing, joining the choir is the best way to make friends, have fun and learn about the church. If you don't like to sing there are still other great options. Often the committees that handle finances or building maintenance have trouble finding members with skills in those areas, so if you like working with that, ask a friend at the church or the pastor how to get involved in those areas. If you love children and teaching, the Sunday School program is often looking for volunteers. Beyond that, most churches have fundraisers or charitable volunteering opportunities, and if you volunteer for those things you will get to know people. Churches also are often looking for people who like to bake things for coffee hour, to donate flower arrangements, and to visit elderly people. If you have an interest in any of those things, you will find it easy to become involved in a church. However, if you have other skills and interests, it can become tricky to find a niche in a some churches--especially if you aren't all that familiar with church culture (those pesky unwritten rules!) Your best option at most churches is a spiritually-oriented group, such as Bible Study or a prayer group. Some churches also have groups that are organized around life stages (such as a singles group or a couples group.) Though the members of a particular group may seem very different from you in terms of age and stage of life, my advice is to give them a chance. (You don't have to go more than once if it's an uncomfortable experience, of course.) You may find that a group of women in their eighties who gather to pray each week may make lovely companions for a person in their 20s. 
  • Start a group--if you are the kind of person who likes starting things and if the church culture makes that easy. Some churches are open to people starting things. Ask the Pastor or a friend at church how to go about starting something new.

I hope this guide is helpful to someone. People seek to join churches for deeply personal but important reasons. Churches should do a better job of recognizing this fact and do better at reaching out to assist folks that would love to meet them and join their congregation. Until that happens, maybe this guide will help bridge the gap.

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