Before Matt and I started going to our new church in June, it had been a while since we had gone to church. Even longer since I really even felt connected to a church. I was nervous about joining a church. I didn’t want to commit. I was afraid of creating relationships. Because relationships are messy. And when they involve church, they’re even worse.
The worst part about going to a new church isn’t the first time, it’s the second, third, fourth, or fifth time. The first time, you may not know what to expect. You are on the lookout for signs that these people are cultish or out of touch. You look around to see if everyone has adopted the same hair style, like the Duggars or the Amish. You try to gauge whether you stand out as an outsider or whether they’re used to seeing new people. Generally you can blend in, observe, and be excused for not being overtly friendly. You know if this doesn’t go well, you don’t have to come back. No one has your phone number. They probably won’t even remember your name.
But if you dip your toe in and decide to get your feet wet, you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of awkwardness. You might see the same people two weeks in a row. You might not remember their names, even though you met them last week. They might not remember your name, but they definitely notice you now. Now there’s the decision of whether or not to say hi. Do you admit to not knowing their name?
Then, after you’ve been going for a few weeks, there is the question of whether you should get to know anyone better. Should you join a small group? Volunteer? Do you tithe here now? Like a teenager trying to decipher when exactly it counts as “going steady,” you waver, insecure, worried that if you really put your heart on the line it will get crushed.
In my experience, the truth is that almost 100% of the time, getting hurt is a guarantee. I know very few people who have not had heartache at the hands of the church. On the worst end, it’s because of a breach of trust. Or shifting theology. Or outright shunning. On the best, it’s a fracturing due to normal circumstantial changes like moving, job change or schedule incompatibility.
The terrifying part about church is that it centers around the most personal subject matter, your core beliefs. It puts you in a uniquely vulnerable position that most people spend their energy trying to control or avoid. Yet in church, we meet with the sole purpose of determining and sharing those beliefs that cut to the heart of who we are. We make bold proclamations. We make personal confessions. We do awkward things like cry or hold each other’s hands.
The strange thing is that I crave that weird stuff. Not just want it, crave it. In an achey way. The way you crave the comfort of a loved one. The way you crave air conditioning in a heat wave. The way you crave a massage when your shoulders are stiff. The way you crave chocolate after eating onions. (That’s not just me, right?)
We are meant to be in community with one another. Bad things happen to us if we’re not. We get bitter. Myopic. Our lives, our hearts, become stagnant. We need others to speak life into us, to hold us accountable for the things we make excuses for. It’s a powerful thing to speak your truth to someone, to tell them your story and invite them in. It’s a powerful thing to create a relationship where you are consciously being influenced and being an influencer.
We get hurt by the church because we think it is a safe place. When you think about it, it’s foolish to think of church as a safe place. The truth is that no relationship is safe. There will always be something on the line. There will always be a flawed person on either end of the deal. Just because you go to church doesn’t mean you’re an angel. The same goes for the person sitting in the front row at church. The same goes for the person sitting across from you in small group.
We’re all here looking for grace and connection. We’re looking to feel less alone in the world. We want to know that there’s something beyond ourselves. One of the best ways to do that is learn how the Spirit is moving in the lives of the people around you.
Just being in small group one day, hearing bits and pieces of the life stories of people I have barely met, I’m completely humbled by them. These are people with grit. These are people who are resilient. These are people touched by grace
Once you acknowledge that church is messy and won’t be pain-free, it becomes easier to get connected to a community. There are so many people of my generation and younger who are used to “church shopping.” We Internet-savvy folks are used to shopping around. We look for a church that is just the right size, with just the right music, teaching, small groups, seating, demographic, service times.
I heard some great advice once, and I can’t remember where, but it was basically this: find a church in your neighborhood and go. Get involved there. Acknowledge that it won’t be perfect and keep your mind and heart open to teaching and serving. Showing up regularly in one place will do more for your development than being a wishy-washy wanderer. As long as the core beliefs are sound, the details don’t matter. Showing up in imperfect circumstances is better than not showing up because you’re waiting for perfect ones.
I walk into church now knowing that there are parts of it that will be uncomfortable at every stage of my involvement. Sometimes it’ll be worse before it gets better. You hope there won’t be heartbreak, but there almost certainly will. Watch for the opportunities to connect anyway. Watch for opportunities to grow.