Crossing the threshold of a potential new community is frightening, no matter its nature. In this article, Drew McIntyre compares his recent search for a gym to searching for a church home, and shares what he learned from the experience.
“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)
Long-time Christians too easily forget how difficult it is to find a church that fits. We use the phrase “church home,” I think, because the right church feels like family. But discovering that ecclesial family can be quite daunting. This is true for Christians who move to a new area, and for seekers or other non-religious and nominally religious folks.
Pastors and church regulars too readily make fun of so-called “church hoppers” (folks who bounce from community to community, never seeming to land anywhere). In so doing, we neglect to take into account the very real difficulties that accompany the search for a new church home.
I learned this lesson during a recent search for a martial arts gym. I’ve been wanting to get back in shape, and the activity I most enjoyed growing up was never organized sports, but punching and kicking things. Go figure. But in seeking a gym, even though I had trained before in a couple of different places, I learned that I was in fact quite fearful.
A Terrifying Threshold
Crossing the threshold of a potential new community is frightening. I have tried several gyms over the last couple of years, and in each instance it took me weeks to work up the courage just to walk through the doors. In most cases, I tried to connect on Facebook or via email to test the waters first, with varying degrees of success. (Yes, pastors, your “electronic doors,” and your responsiveness, matter greatly.)
Keep in mind, I am a reasonably confident, sociable person. Most of my friends would be shocked about this confession. But as easygoing as I am in most aspects of my life, crossing that initial threshold each time caused a surprising amount of stress. Have you considered how unchurched and dechurched people feel walking into your church for the first time?
Looking for Excuses
I told myself numerous times I was going to go “soon.” I kept saying to myself and to my wife, “I think I’m going to go check out X gym next week.” Inevitably, I would find excuses not to go. There’s a holiday coming up. I’m sore. Finances are tight. The website is not very welcoming. I’m too out of shape. It’s not exactly the kind of training I want. The gym doesn’t look like it’s run very professionally. You name it, I used it as an excuse.
Likewise, for people not in the habit of of participating in a faith community, excuses are easy to come by. Someone hears the preacher might not be staying too long, or that the church has had some conflict (and what church hasn’t?). The church is too far away, or the youth programs are not extensive enough. The worship is too formal, or too contemporary. All of us can be fickle. We need to cut our potential guests some slack.
Ultimately, the gym that I decided to join was the one that showed me the most hospitality. It wasn’t the gym that was the closest and most convenient, or even the gym that was exactly the style (sound familiar?) I was looking for. It was the gym where I was treated the best, the community that I visited which made me think, more than any other place I’d tried out, that they wanted me back, and that they were interested in me as a person. This was also the only place where i was introduced to everyone at the beginning, and everyone – to a person – spoke to me as I left on my first day.
Similarly, we cannot underestimate how important genuine hospitality is in our churches. This goes deeper than a smile and a handshake. Christian hospitality means greeting the stranger as we would greet Christ himself; it means the newcomer is more important than joking with our friend about the game last night or looking at my iPhone for a clever Facebook status. Hospitality means treating the stranger as a gift rather than an impediment to my agenda.
I know what it feels like to be a church-hopper. I was a gym-hopper for a couple of years, and it’s given me a new perspective. All of us can be more intentional about welcoming newcomers to our congregations, and taking seriously the hurdles which they have overcome in taking that first step into our doors.
Doing so may well be the difference between making a disciple, or yet another church-hopper.