I grew up in the Reformed Church in America. My wife grew up in the Christian Reformed Church. We thought we were destined for lifelong membership in a Reformed church—that is, until a job change brought us to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
There were no RCA or CRC churches within reasonable driving distance of our new home—even by D.C. driving standards. One of the first decisions we faced was whether to attend a church associated with another denomination or an independent church.
Deciding weʼd prefer the stability of a denominational church, we eventually visited churches representing the Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian and Presbyterian denominations.
Researching and evaluating the beliefs and traditions of each of those churches and denominations, we found, actually helped us to learn more about ourselves and affirm our own beliefs.
Although “church shopping” has always implied to me a lack of commitment to a local church family, or an unhealthy “consumer” approach to church attendance (“This isnʼt meeting my needs”), I’ve become more sensitive to the many legitimate reasons to visit multiple churches in search of a church home.
So what exactly were we looking for? We wanted a church that was theologically sound, that had engaging preaching and Spirit-filled worship, was in a convenient location, had a solid nursery and programs for young kids and families our age, and was working to reach people in Jesus’ name. Shouldnʼt be too hard to find, we figured.
Before moving, one of our pastors gave us some good advice. He recommended visiting a church for three or four consecutive weeks, arriving at different times and sitting in different locations. That way you’ll be sure to meet different people and experience multiple worship services from varying perspectives. Otherwise you could easily be greeted by the only friendly greeter in the church (or perhaps the only grumpy one), sit by the only nice family in the church (or the only rude one), or hear the pastorʼs only good sermon (or only his worst one). By attending on consecutive weeks, odds are youʼll be able to make a more accurate assessment.
Itʼs disheartening that in this day and age some churches still do not realize the importance of their website. We visited every church online before setting foot inside the building, and for a number of churches, that online visit was the only visit we made.
We immediately noticed that we felt much more comfortable on our first visit to churches whose online representation was consistent with their in-person reality. Simply maintaining a website that was consistent with the look and feel of the actual church helped make it feel more familiar to us.
In smaller churches we were easily identified as visitors. In some of these we were offered gifts—a jar of jelly, a coffee mug. Larger churches usually had a visitors’ center. Clearly the smaller churches have an advantage in identifying visitors.
Almost all churches we visited greeted us and were friendly, but only the small- to medium-sized churches actually made an effort to learn our names, find out why we were visiting, and offer to answer any questions. Larger churches werenʼt rude, but generally offered nothing more than superficial greetings.
Larger churches do afford a level of comfort on an initial visit thatʼs hard to match, allowing us to blend easily in without feeling like we were on the spot. Oddly enough, the size that provided comfort on initial approach left us feeling unnoticed and somewhat empty upon departure. A draw for some visitors can also be a deterrent for people wanting a church family and not simply a place to attend worship.
Most churches followed up after our visit in some fashion. We provided contact information whenever requested. A couple of churches subscribed us to their email newsletters; others sent generalized snail mail. One larger church sent a welcome packet signed by the pastor. A couple of churches called. One pastor sent us a handwritten note; another called and later visited our house for a chat. One pastor and his wife even had our family over for dinner.
Here are a few of the lessons that stand out when we reflect on our experiences:
- First impressions are important. For us, that started with the website and carried over to the first visit for churches we attended. Visitor recognition and treatment ended up being important to us.
- Welcoming visitors doesnʼt stop once the visitors are seated. At one church, a woman who initially greeted us was kind enough to explain things to us during the worship service (such as the process they used for serving communion). A couple of years after that visit, I still remember the impression her help made on us.
- Names are important. Introduce yourself to visitors and express interest in them. Simply asking someone’s name will leave a more lasting impression than a noncommittal greeting.
- For families with young children, the nursery is almost as important as the worship service. One church we visited didnʼt have a nursery, and all their friendliness and follow-up efforts couldnʼt overcome the lack of a nursery. Parents need to feel safe leaving their children with complete strangers, so anything that can ease the process will not go unnoticed. Explain on your website the efforts you take to ensure a safe environment (including screening of volunteers assisting with children), and be organized when visitors arrive with their apprehensive children.
- Worship style is important, but nothing trumps actual substance.
- Visiting a number of churches in a neighborhood provides a sense of community. As we drove around town or met new people, those visits provided a great frame of reference for seeing the churches actively involved in the community.
- Church announcements can sometimes hinder worship. One church we visited began each worship service with an intense time of singing and praise. After that, they immediately launched into announcements regarding their life as a church, dashing any hope of maintaining a worshipful focus on God. One such announcement from a nurse informed the congregation of a peanut butter recall issued by the government!
- Avoid using exclusive lingo. For several weeks, the “peanut butter” church made announcements about an upcoming “potblessing” event, about which everyone was excited. After two or three weeks, we realized it was a traditional church potluck, but not wanting to say the word “luck” in church, they changed the name to potblessing. That single word spoke volumes to us about that particular church.
Our New Church Home
After what seemed like an eternity, we found a church to call home—a church where we clearly felt God wanted us to be. Our family has been challenged, encouraged, and discipled at this small Anglican church plant with powerful preaching and rich corporate worship.
Leaving a beloved church home is ever easy, but as we’ve discovered, finding a new one can be a time of encouragement and spiritual growth. My hope is that the lessons my family learned will help you strengthen your connection to your home church and be an encouragement to those looking for a church family to call home.