If you are in the search for a church home, it can be a complicated process. If you are moving to another city and forced to find a new community, that’s one thing; it’s a different scenario when something is wrong at your former church (or with you personally) that causes you to go looking.
Our culture calls people visiting other congregations “church shoppers.” While some might find that phrase offensive, there is a reason why it is often referred to as that. Many people pop in worship services or groups or classes and are evaluating whether or not these gatherings warrant a second visit or not.
It kinda feels like the church is constantly getting mixed reviews by unexpected judges with varying scorecards.
As a local church pastor, I want to give you unsolicited advice. I pray you can hear my heart if you feel like it isn’t my place. In the same way that churches receive unexpected visits, let me provide you with unrequested advice. It only comes down to one warning:
Do not come to a new church and expect it to operate like the one you just left.
Allow me to offer a modern-day parable of sorts.
Mac-n-Cheese & Managing Expectations
Imagine that your extended family decides not to gather this Thanksgiving. Growing turmoil has put family members at odds with each other, and you have each decided to make some space for one another. It is heartbreaking, but the pain is too real to play fake anymore.
You aren’t sure what everyone else is doing. You only have your immediate family to worry about for the holiday. As you weigh your options, you decide to surprise that friendly family in your neighborhood that always makes you feel welcome. Around lunchtime at Thanksgiving, you walk through their front door unannounced and pull up a seat to an awkwardly accommodating family trying to scramble to facilitate such an unexpected intrusion.
As the host begins to gather the family before the meal, you blurt out, “Our family always holds hands while we pray.”
“Oh, well. That’s a great idea. Sure, we can do that,” the host replies while relinquishing his right to his home.
As the meal commences, the guest begins complaining about the spread (to which they did not contribute), “Where’s the ham? You only have turkey. We always have ham at our Thanksgiving meal because some of us don’t like turkey. Do you have gluten-free rolls? That’s what I prefer. Whose macaroni and cheese recipe is this anyway? My family makes it differently. Do you think you could put this back in the oven to make it my favorite way?”
Even the most gracious hosts would eventually break and say, “Who do you think you are? You pop in here without any warning, without any thought of helping, and all you have done since you have gotten here is talk about how we don’t do things the way your family does them. If I recollect, your family can’t even get together at Thanksgiving because they can’t get along. You say you love that mac-n-cheese, yet you can’t even get around the table together. And you want us to change to accommodate your drama. What caused you to get so angry with each other anyway?”
“Last year, a family member overcooked the mac-n-cheese, which burned the house down.”
“And yet, you want us to be like the home in shambles?”
How to Make a Gracious Visit
If you are looking for a church home, know that I lament that you must be on the search. It breaks my heart when conflict rises in a church so much that people feel it necessary to leave. I pray you can find a family to whom you can belong.
As you search for a new church, do not show up on a Sunday with a church family that is functioning vibrantly and expect them to make changes to look like the one you just left that is obviously dysfunctional.
It’s one thing to ask a question of clarification; it’s another to expect something different. The pushier you are, the more warning signs you give to this potential new church. You are looking for a church because something is wrong with your former one, so maybe it’s good that this new church isn’t like it.
“But in my old church, we did things this way.”
“You mean the one you are leaving, right?”
Perhaps the thing you miss might have contributed to its collapse.
So, come. Visit. Worship. Listen. Pray. Engage.
Then, take your time and consider what is essential. Discern what your preferences are. And pray you can differentiate between what you are used to and what you actually need.
I hope you find a humble church that doesn’t act as if they have it all together. But I pray you also strive to display humility, understanding that maybe a healthy church shouldn’t change because a first-time visitor doesn’t like something.
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.