One of the hardest things we have to learn in life is how to say goodbye to people we care about.
Whether we say it to a loved one at a funeral service, a dear friend who is moving cross-country, or even to a beloved group of co-workers -- goodbyes always have a sting attached to them. This is especially true when we're forced to say goodbye to a great church.
Over the past few years, I have watched more than a dozen families feel the sting of saying goodbye to our church because of job changes, retirements, or even the economic "greener grass" of another state.
After the tears subsided, almost every family reached out to me with a desperate concern about locating a new church home. The prospect of discovering a quality church where one can continue to worship, grow, and serve God is always a daunting task. So how does one go about engaging a new church, and feeling at home there? Here are six steps that can make for a smooth transition:
1.) Ask good questions.
If you want to know what a church is really about, go deeper than the name on its sign out front. Ask for documentation about the church's history, values, beliefs. Inquire about its doctrinal statement or confession of faith.
What does this church really believe about God, the Bible, and salvation? What opportunities are there to grow, learn, and serve? What is required of members? Read the fine print, and don't be afraid to talk to a member of the church's leadership team to have something explained or clarified.
2.) Meet the minister in person.
Nothing beats face-to-face contact with the senior pastor or minister, so request a personal meeting. In that meeting you can discuss any questions or special concerns you might have, as well as get to know him personally. He will get to hear your story -- you can hear his -- and some of his passion for that local church just might rub off on you.
3.) Look for outside connections.
When we remember that the church is people and not a building (1 Cor. 12:27), one of the best ways to uncover the "heartbeat" of a church is to interact with its members outside the typical Sunday service. As you investigate, pay a visit to one of its adult gatherings, small groups, or prayer meetings.
What happens there, and the spirit in which in happens, will inform you greatly about the true character of that church. High-gloss literature, fancy architecture, and slick websites may portray one thing, but the spiritual reality of any church is revealed in the people themselves.
4.) Be a friend.
One of the fastest ways to feel at home in a new church is to be proactive with friendliness. When you visit a new church, introduce yourself, your spouse, and your children with a handshake and a smile. Ask people their names and a little about themselves, and they will likely do the same in return. This is the way to build friendships!
If you have attended the same church for a few weeks, stick around after church for some conversation, and ask some of the parish regulars about the best places to eat lunch. They will have some great recommendations, and may even invite you to join them.
5.) Help your children acclimate.
Take special care to help your kids acclimate to the surroundings of a new church. When you visit a new church, arrive 15 minutes early so you will have time to ask about age-appropriate nursery or Bible classes that may be offered. Walk young children to their classes, and introduce them to the teacher or leader.
Some churches offer a children's church during the pastor's message, while other churches have entire programs for children that run simultaneously with the main service. Ask about this before the service starts, and encourage your children to participate. This is their chance to have fun, learn, and make new friends.
6.) Don't just observe -- participate.
As a pastor for the past 17 years, I have observed many guests who visit our church. Too many make the classic mistakes of shuffling in late, then sprinting back to their vehicles after the final "Amen." This is no way to get to know a church!
If you want to feel at home in a new church, come with a humble heart ready to participate. If you did your homework, you'll be in a true church with genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. Relax! You are with Christ's people. Come a little early and stay a little after. Open your heart, and you might be surprised at how quickly a new church can begin to feel as good as your old one.
Leaving a great church is never an easy thing. It hurts to say goodbye to those precious people who feel like family. However, the sting of saying goodbye to your former church can be softened as you take proactive steps to settle down in a new church that shares your doctrinal beliefs, core values, and commitment to Christian community.
Be encouraged! The sorrow of "goodbye" will soon transform into the excitement of "hello" as you engage with a new church, and start to feel at home there.
Pastor Ryan Day is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he has served for 17 years. He is a regular contributor to LifeZette.