Part two in our series on changing churches in our mobile society. You can read the first part here.
Joining a new church is never an easy process. Isaac Shumack knows this well, having done it multiple times over the past 10 years. Going from first visit to feeling like part of the community takes time. There are things we can do to make the process as pain-free as possible, whether we’re the ones joining or the ones welcoming someone in.
Is this the church for me?
Remembering that every church is different will help you to be flexible and prevent getting caught up in comparisons.
“Embrace the new church you go to,” says Mr Shumack, who is the minister responsible for membership, mission and youth at Toongabbie. “There will be quirks. It’s like visiting another family home. Go with it, take off your shoes if you need to, try and figure out what’s happening. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable because this new church has a new culture and recognised habits. Try and embrace that as much as you can.”
“Embrace the new church you go to"
Work out ahead of time what areas of church life are non-negotiable for you, and where you are willing to compromise.
“The core thing is, are they teaching the gospel? That’s got to be where we start. Have they taught from God’s word? We hope that a loving and welcoming environment is an effect of the gospel, but they’re only going to get there by the word dwelling richly among them. Do people love God’s word? Are they wanting the Spirit to change them? Are they praying for that?”
Be wary of searching for the “perfect” church, rather than selecting one with faithful teaching and getting stuck in.
“Church shopping for months on end can reveal a consumerist mentality,” Mr Shumack says. “There will be many things that take a long time to get used to. Maybe we found a great fit, even though there are some rough edges. I would caution against having months of church shopping. It can be really tiring for you and also for the many churches you visit.”
Settle into your new church family
So you’ve found a church to call home. One of Mr Shumack’s tips for settling quickly is to take up invitations and connect with how the church welcomes you.
“Head along to welcome lunches and courses, not because it’s a duty but it can speed up that process of understanding what the church culture is,” he says. “I would encourage people to get on board and listen really closely to understand the church.”
“Seeing that church is family, most families don’t just meet once a week!”
It’s also worth being proactive and making an effort to form friendships. “It can be easy to expect people to have us over and wait for people to make that connection. I would encourage people to try and ask people around for lunch, ask about what things happen regularly and how people interact throughout the week. Don’t just expect to be brought into those relationships by the other person.
“Seeing that church is family, most families don’t just meet once a week!” he adds. “You’re in each other's lives. Midweek time – whether it’s a formal structure or something relaxed – can really help a new person get a picture of what life [at their new church] could be like.”
Spending time with his new church family outside of Sunday has helped Mr Shumack in many of the churches he has joined. At one church, a midweek game of squash helped him feel like he was part of things. The key way he felt connected was through joining a Bible study group and sitting under God’s word with others.
“It can be overwhelming to meet so many new people, but to have a smaller group can be a really comforting thing when you’re going through the grief [of changing churches]. You can get to know people in a really relaxed way.”
Relationships take time
When we may still feel the grief of missing our old church family, the hard work it takes to build new relationships can make this ache more prominent.
Mr Shumack encourages us not to be disheartened when we don’t have the same closeness to our new church family. “Don’t have any high expectations in the first few months. Relationships need to be fostered. I know of others who have taken months or years to even feel like this is their group.”
Where possible, we need to extend grace to the church we are joining. “No church is perfect. Some really struggle in welcoming. Often you might get a nametag or a smile as you walk in but it can be really hard to integrate. A church might be very loving where people are growing to be like Christ but welcoming can be difficult for them.”
Seek ways to serve
There is a temptation to sit back for a while and let settling in take precedence over serving. However, seeking ways to serve often helps speed up the settling-in process.
“It’s a great way to get to know people as you wash up together,” Mr Schumack says. “You can really see people’s character shine through these moments. Ask what areas of need a church might have. Most churches would love to hear that from a new person.”
Serving others isn’t just about building relationships, although that’s one of the benefits. Serving God together is ultimately an expression of what the church has been gathered together to do.
“Many people take a year off from serving Jesus [when they change churches],” Mr Schumack says. “That’s not good for faith. There are a large amount of ways that even a new person who is a bit unfamiliar might be able to help out. The leadership will have their wisdom about what roles are suitable.
“As you’re getting to know the church, the church is getting to know you. I would encourage you to ask how you can help out right from the start.”