As I reluctantly pushed myself out of the car door and towards the aging church building in front of me, my imagination began writing a low-budget horror movie script.
Sure, I’d looked at their website scanning for any signs of Christian-justified-insanity, but as anyone who’s ever online dated knows—sometimes the cray-cray ain’t surface level.
As I tried to move past the zone defense of the greeters, old man river extended his hand and held on.
“OH. OH are you NEW HERE?” he said, still not letting go as if I might escape before he could get my social security number. I wondered if he was having a seizure or if he truly had never seen a new person out in the wild before.
“Do you have questions? Do you want to meet our pastor?”
“Yeah, no thanks.” I said. “Just checking it out.”
Before I could even move, awkward-greeter-man now had his arm around me steering me right to the overly-whitened-teeth middle-aged pastor guy. Another handshake. Another dose of coffee breath.
“Are you looking for a new church?” the Pastor said.
Now officially annoyed, I said, “No, I was actually looking for Starbuck’s… do you have that here or…?”
He narrowed his eyes at me perhaps attempting to decode my millennial sarcasm before throwing his head back in laughter.
After finally making it into the service, I settled into enjoy a slightly below average worship band. As the service continued I rolled my eyes each of the FOUR TIMES the connect cards and free gift bags were aggressively announced.
And we wonder why church attendance is plummeting. Yiiiiiikes.
Okay, okay, okay, okay. So you all know about my well-documented church struggles. I wrote about them here. and here. (and here and here and here). You also probably know I am questioner (Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies), I have SO many questions about the way we do church and operate as believers.
And yet, deep in my bones I think I still believe in Church, like the actual church from the book of Acts. The church that cared for orphans and widows, that sent their best leaders out into the field rather than obsessively analyzing church attendance and giving levels.
For the past two years I have been without a church to call home. After selling my last fixer-upper house and moving twice in 10 months, I visited at least a dozen churches searching for my Michael Jackson “This is it” moment that never came.
Unfortunately, I quickly learned the life of the church nomad is rough and being new to a church is literally the worst thing ever. (You know after extreme poverty, sex trafficking, murder, war, genocide, and Watermelon Oreos obviously).
Honestly, I haven’t written much on the church in a long time. Thinking about all the hurt and struggle I’ve had with Christians and Church still makes me cry. Like a lot. And yet, if this whole blogging, speaking around the country thing has taught me anything, it’s that no matter what we are going through, we are never alone.
So today I share with you 8 Reasons Being New to a Church is LITERALLY the Worst Thing Ever.
1. People Are Overeager and Creepy
When I found my way back to church after college, I went because I felt like something was missing in my life. I was searching for something more than my current state of mundane existence.
I sat in my car, arguing with myself to open the door and walk in. I was terrified.
But people generally left me alone and I liked that. There was a place to get connected if I wanted to, but no one was cornering me. So I sat in the back row for weeks and just cried. And then eventually I wanted to stay and meet people.
Not everyone wants to be connected immediately. Sorry. Enough with the overeager, creepiness. Calm down.
Stop trying to “catch” new people like they’re a freaking Pokemon. Send your people out to talk to non-believers and spread love.
Put your energy into creating an energizing and refreshing worship experiences that create the opportunity for newcomers to experience God for themselves.
2.) Meeting People Sucks
But seriously though. If you’re one of those “OMG, I love meeting new people all the time, every day, it’s the best thing ever” types, probably don’t even talk to me.
While I’m not as Oscar the Grouch as I’m coming off in this article, meeting new people and making meaningful connection is genuinely hard no matter where you are, but especially in a church.
My experience in Church the last 10 years has been most Christians are judgy and exclusive. Whether that’s true in your church or not, that is the predominant feelings people have about Christians. So we have to change that perception (or reality) together through tangible change.
Create meaningful places for people to connect around a shared purpose like serving.
If you’re going to have groups, make sure you actually have a group that meets every demographic (or your groups are doing more harm than good).
Train a connect team to intentionally and authentically connect with people within your church walls, don’t just expect it to happen organically.
Get to know people’s strengths over time and invite them to serve in capacities that allow them to grow and utilize their talents.
3.) Churches are OBSESSED with Marriage and Babies.
Okay, comin’ in hot on this one: many churches are horrible to single people.
Our sermons are littered with suggestions on how to treat your husband and wife, but when’s the last time you heard a sermon on the importance and struggles of the single life? In our Christian revisionist history, we conveniently ignore Paul’s rant about marriage:
“Sometimes I wish everyone were single like me—a simpler life in many ways! But celibacy is not for everyone any more than marriage is. God gives the gift of the single life to some, the gift of the married life to others. I do, though, tell the unmarried and widows that singleness might well be the best thing for them, as it has been for me. But if they can’t manage their desires and emotions, they should by all means go ahead and get married. The difficulties of marriage are preferable by far to a sexually tortured life as a single.” -1 Corinthians 7:7 (MSG)
Single people MOVE the church and we reward them by dismissing their way of life time while simultaneously hounding them with passive aggressive comments about how they should, “Be more outgoing” and how, “It will happen for you someday.”
Now, being new and single to a church is pretty much a nightmare. The church should be a diverse place with people from all walks of life. If you’re saying, “We’re mostly a church of young families,” you’re an exclusive, not an inclusive community.
Find ways to intentionally affirm the singles in your community.
Be aware of how often “marriage advice” is spoken from the pulpit and search for a balance. Perhaps that message is better coming from a marriage group or retreat. (Looking for a couple to bring a life-changing marriage retreat to your church? Check out my friends Anguished Hearts)
Create a place for the singles in your community that is not contingent on their marital status and is not a dating group.
Stop elevating marriage and babies as everyone’s ultimate purpose and let people hear God’s call and will for their life.
4.) ENOUGH WITH THE FREAKING CONNECT CARDS.
Can i have your number, can i have it?
If you haven’t seen this classic MADTV sketch… it perfectly describes what it feels like to walk into a church these days.
If it’s my first time, I don’t want to be connected yet. I’m trying to hear the holy spirit tell me this is it, this is the place I have for you. I am trying to connect with my savior, whatever that might look or feel like to me.
I already searched your website, I know what you believe. If I have questions, I will ask.
The connect cards have become an embodiment of our fear and insecurity. Perhaps channel that anxiety into training disciples to go out into the community.
Take a deep breath.
Focus on ways that actually connect people to your church by providing easy access points such as community lunches or easy serving opportunities.
Create a video of what your church is about to play at the beginning of each service.
Highlight the good work your church is doing in the world that would get visitors excited to be a part of.
5.) I Don’t Want Your Free Gift.
I don’t want your free breakfast. Or your chocolate bar. Or your free State Fair tickets… (all real things I’ve been offered).
Your free gift feels like a creepy gimmick; it feels like a cult.
I walked through your church doors on the ultimate search for meaning and truth in my life. I am looking for answers to the most important questions on the planet like, “Why am I here?”
And you’re handing me a beef stick.
The problem with church is not that there isn’t enough free stuff. The problem with church is that it doesn’t feel authentic. It feels contrived and hypocritical.
Make your advertising budget zero and use all of that money to help the least of these. Let love be your PR.
If your church is truly loving and impacting the neighborhood, you won’t need to spend money on billboards or postcards. When love is the message of your community, the word will get out.
6. The Greet Your Neighbor Time… MAKE IT STOP.
A forced passing of germs doesn’t make me feel welcome, it makes me want to die.
What is the point of this? You don’t give me enough time to say anything except good morning and half the people who don’t know me avoid eye contact.
And now you’ve highlighted the fact that I don’t know a single person here and I feel like even more of an outsider… #thanksfornothing
Honestly, I think 97% of the time the Church plays it way too safe. We are afraid to take risks, afraid to try something new, afraid to… (gasp) fail. If we are challenging people to take risks in their faith, to step out and live out the reckless love of God, we have to model that in our ministries and in our worship experiences.
Following God is a wild and beautiful ride, so why do we do the same, awkward and mundane “greet your neighbor” experiences without asking ourselves, “Why do we do this?” or more importantly asking an outsider how that time makes them feel.
Do something more productive like pray with your neighbor time. (I experienced this at one church I visited. I loved it and instantly connected with strangers)
Take a risk with experiences within your church service instead of simply doing the same old things because they’ve always been done that way. (And fire anyone who ever uses “we’ve always done it this way” as an excuse).
7. Going it Alone
I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to attend a service with someone you know—a neighbor, a friend, a co-worker.
I know it feels super awkward to invite someone to church. We fear rejection. We fear being seen as that awkward over-bearing Christian.
But sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone if kindly inviting them to church with you, especially on holidays. Studies are showing the depression rates are sky-rocketing especially in young adults. And one of the main reasons they are citing is isolation.
The church used to be that community and we can be that again.
Invite people to church. Not like every second of every day, but say, “If you ever want to join us for Church on Sunday, you’re always welcome.”
8. The Incomprehensible Christianese Language
When I was training for my first overseas missionary work to Zimbabwe, our incredible pastors coached us in sharing our testimonies and talking to non-believers. In our training they highlighted wordsf Christians use that don’t make sense to non-believers.
Words like grace, fellowship, quiet time, anointed, tithing, body of Christ, or my personal favorite: “washed in the blood.” *Cue horror movie music*
If you truly want someone new to feel welcome, you have to be aware of what barriers you’re putting in place without even realizing it. In so many ways the church has become much more of an exclusive country club than the come as you are communities everybody claims to be and that is especially true in the way we talk.
Look at all your church communication and replace words that don’t make sense to outsiders.
Develop language and branding that is unique and specific, not the wishy-washy, convoluted, or confusing to someone who doesn’t know anything about Christianity.
Before the service even ended, I began to bolt for the door. I was thinking, I might try this place one more time, when I heard someone scream across the parking lot, “SAAAAM.”
I turned around completely confused staring at a woman I’d never met hollering my name. Thinking she was mistaken, she yelled my name again hunting me down like a blood-thirsty vampire.
“You forgot your gift bag! Are you coming back again?”
Not even faking it, I squinted and said, “Maybe?”
“Well, we sure hope ya do.”
I sprinted to my car, closed the door and shook the insane awkwardness out of my body. Then I started my car and never looked back.
GAH. WHY IS BEING NEW TO A CHURCH THE WORST THING EVER?!?
Fast forward to today and yes, I’ve finally somewhat settled into a church (mostly). I mean it’s me, I still have a gazillion questions that go unanswered. I still don’t know a lot of people and I don’t love it yet. But I also know Church isn’t a building or a belabored mission statement, it’s the people that together feel stronger, safer, and emboldened to take on the world.
And the truth is, we all need to find those people in our lives. But you’ll never find them sitting at home complaining about church budgets. It’s time you get out there and make a damn difference for someone else. Or at the very least, try to.
So to all those church burnouts like me, maybe it’s time we try again and together find a way to make being new to a church suck less.
And until then, I’ll share the beef stick and Toblerone bar that lady chased me into the parking lot to share… unless you’d prefer the Jesus coloring book? Take your pick.
In this together,
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