Our family recently joined the ranks of church hunters. Simultaneously loved and misunderstood, church hunters are a conspicuous group of seekers trying to find a congregation that fits.
We are anxiously stalking various Baptist congregations around Sydney’s Inner West to find a new church home. It is a welcome refresher course in what it means to be a newcomer in church. Here are a few lessons we are learning along the way.
Good choices make it harder
We are in a privileged position where a number of local congregations ably meet our core theological and cultural criteria for a church. While this is an excellent position it has actually made our choice more difficult!
This has allowed us some time to think about our needs as a family during this season and how to choose a church where we will fit. The variety of choices means we are paying close attention to the little things when we visit churches.
Your digital picture matters
Before we moved to Sydney we asked around for a list of Baptist churches and did some internet research.
Websites are a key part of our first impression of a church. Is the website easy to use and accessible? Does it clearly state the church’s outlook and belief? Does it tell us what to expect? Armed with a digital picture of what Sunday would look like we’ve visited each location keen to meet and connect with other Christians.
Children are important
Walking into a new church with a curious toddler is a nerve-wracking experience. Honestly – I can understand why some parents do not want to attend church with small children. The hassle of getting out of the door in the morning is followed by three hours of baby-wrangling to keep the peace. Juggling naptime, loud noises, new people, mealtime and meltdowns is stressful. Add to this the cultural expectation that your child will be happy, well-behaved and always quiet.
As a church hunting parent I notice when childcare/crèche instructions are clear – in the paper handout, mentioned from the front or briefed by an usher. I notice when you look over and give me an encouraging smile as I distract and calm my child. I notice when you are patient with us as I work hard to teach my child how to sit still. I notice when other parents of small children come and say hello. When you welcome and make space for my child you welcome me too.
Connecting is important
Introductions, welcomes and connections have been crucial for us as we picture ourselves joining different churches. Can we see ourselves becoming friends with these people? Is this a place where there might be some opportunities to serve?
It is easy to tell when someone just isn’t interested in talking to you. I have visited churches where they are obviously keen to ‘welcome’ the newcomer, but this stops short of meaningful connection or conversation.
It is scary being a new person at church. It sounds SO obvious. I had forgotten what it is like to step into a close-knit family environment where you don’t know anyone. If I, a raised-in-the-pews type Christian, still feel this social anxiety, how much worse must it be for someone who has never been to a church before?
Even though I am familiar with the sitting, standing, singing, listening and praying rhythm of church, at each new place I still feel a little on the outside. As I ponder this uncomfortable sensation God draws my attention to the outsiders who so often visit our churches – the lonely, the soul searchers, the wandering believers, the homeless, the friendless, the hungry and the needy.
My experiences as a church hunter have highlighted the need for our places of worship to be places of community. Do you think about how you can intentionally welcome outsiders to your church? Do you pray for opportunities to connect, welcome and share with newcomers?
I know I will carry this experience with me in the hope it will continue to prompt me to welcome others into my life and the life of God’s family – will you join me?