I recently bumped into a young woman who had visited our church a little while back. I had been praying for her transition to Austin, and that she might find her way into the life of our church community. I had heard about her, and was delighted that there might be an InterVarsity staff person becoming part of the fellowship.
My heart sank as I listened to her story. She had a hard time making a connection when she visited. She did not want to say (I could tell), but her face belied the truth of the rumor that she’d had an awkward encounter with a guy in our singles group.
Now, to be honest and fair, I really don’t know why she did or did not ultimately make our church her home—who really knows—but her story sounded all too familiar. It broke my heart, and as a pastor, it breaks my heart every time I hear stories like hers.
I know that our church is not for everyone. Like most, we are a particular “flavor,” and not all people like mint chip or strawberry or whatever flavor best describes our church. But it pains me that someone would find it hard to find their way into our community. Our pastoral staff—and this is true of every pastor I know—works hard to make sure that people find the easiest ramp into the church as possible. It is not because we just want to get “bigger”; it is because we really love people, and live to build authentic faith communities where people will find loving transforming connections to God’s Word and God’s people.
So, as I write about things you can do to find your way into the church as you graduate, please know that we in the church take your challenge seriously. We know that the hard work is not only yours, but ours. We have to get better at making a way for folks like you to find a home with us. That said, there are some things that you can do that will really help the process.
I am convinced that as God has called you to live in a new city, he has made a way for you to find your way into a new faith community. He has not called you into loneliness or isolation in your faith! A church is out there where you will really fit. You may not find it on the first visit, or the second. Stay engaged in the process, and get your buddies to hold you accountable to hanging in there.
Keep in mind that even after you have “picked your church,” it will likely take upwards of three months to find your way into a community. You know what I mean—that place where you feel that you are known, and others know you, where you feel comfortable at the spontaneous gathering at the movies or for dinner. Persevere through the inevitable awkwardness. The safety of your friendships in InterVarsity took time to build; the same will be true in the church.
Don’t blame the church.
Now there is a ton the church (my church) is guilty of when it comes to new attenders. We will own that. But, I too often hear the old story that “I went to that church and nobody reached out to me.” The untold story is that the person slipped in late one Sunday, bolted as soon as the service was over, never asked a question and never filled out a contact form of any kind.
Remember, if you go to a church of over 500 people, it is rare that everyone in the seat knows who is new and who is not. At some point, you need to make yourself known, and please, do a bit more than sit in a pew for a little over an hour.
Now, if you have come more than once, filled out the church’s newcomer stuff, introduced yourself at the info booth and you still have trouble making connection, blame us all you want. We will have failed you! But, my experience is that while that story happens, it is rare. When we enter a new church community we need to have healthy expectations. We need to do our part to let folks know we exist and that we want help to make our way into the fellowship.
It is going to be different!
One of the things I loved about being part of InterVarsity as a student was that the community of faith was so connected. The relationships I made in college were amazing, and many of then have been enduring. We had a common experience, a common language (GIG, Large Group, and Urbana, for instance).
It was a shock and a loss when I made my way into my first church after graduation. “These people have never even heard of InterVarsity. What is the deal?” I had to understand that in entering a new church, I was also entering a new culture—the church’s unique culture. I had to get comfortable with the fact that it was not just like what I left on campus, and loved so much.
What you experienced in college, if anything like my life in InterVarsity, was wonderful and unique. It is worth celebrating, and grieving as you leave school. There will not be another place just like it.
As you look for a church, it will help you remember to expect the church to be different. It will not be what you had in college. But different does not always mean bad. God can, and I believe desires to provide you a rich experience of transforming community in the church. Remain open to new moves of God’s Spirit as you enter the world of the church. And as you graduate, remember to celebrate and say thank you to all the people that have been so special to you. Allow yourself to grieve as you leave the community, but don’t let that become a barrier to a new community in the church.