The hard search for a new church

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From time to time, someone who has been part of our church moves away. Sometimes it’s the job, or family, or retirement. There are many reasons why people move and leave their church behind. Most will, with time and effort, settle into a new church in their new home. But not always. Sometimes people drift from church to church looking for … well, looking for a church just like their old church.

From the age of fifteen until nineteen I “grew up,” in a spiritual sense, at Mountain View United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. It was there that I learned about God, church, and the Bible. It was also there that I had my first taste of leadership, serving much of those four years as President of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had three peer groups in high school: the football team at Dobyns-Bennett High School, The karate team at the same school, and the youth group at Mountain View. The most significant group was the MYF.

I learned from the young pastor, the Rev’d Fred L. Austin, three lessons by his example: (1) a good pastor is a reader and has a well-stocked library; (2) a good pastor has an open door policy, and, (3) a good leader allows people (even youth) to try new things even if they are inexperienced and occasionally fail.

All three of those principles have been incorporated into my own life and ministry. When Dorothy said, in “The Wizard of Oz,” “There’s no place like home,” she could have easily been speaking of a church home. Even though my parents very rarely went to church, Mountain View was my home.

Sometimes people are looking for a church exactly like the one they left behind. Rarely do they find it because rarely does it exist. Churches are like people. They have their own personalities, their own customs, their own history, their own unique mix of people, and their own quirks. There are no identical twins in the church world, though many congregations have similarities.

A girl I dated in high school had two younger sisters, twins. At first glance, they looked absolutely identical. But, as one got to know them, they had different interests, different tastes, and different activities. If I recall correctly, one was a cheerleader while the other was a majorette. They looked identical but they were also different.

That’s the tough thing about loving a church that gets left behind. We come to have certain expectations and, while the new possible church home has attractive features, it still may not meet the expectations we have because of the congregation back there somewhere. We had friends there, we were used to a certain way the worship was conducted, perhaps, and we even were involved in a ministry there. And it’s all gone because it is “there” and we are in the new “here.”

If our time at the old church was pleasant or even exciting, we will tend to evaluate the new in the light of the old. But the new is not the old and there is the rub. The possibility is that we will become discouraged or disenchanted and stop seeking or, worse, just stop our church life altogether. If that happens we are in a dangerous place, for one does not become “stagnant” in the spiritual life. One either progresses or regresses. Old-timers called it “back-sliding.”

Several years ago, we had a family of five, a husband and wife, one son, and two daughters, move to the area and began attending our church. They did it right. They decided they were going to be involved so they jumped in with all ten feet. They deliberately met others at church, introduced themselves to everyone, and began becoming part of the congregation. They didn’t wait to be asked.

If they found out there was a need, they volunteered. The kids volunteered too, becoming acolytes. The dad went on to have a place on the church council and the son became the youngest Eucharistic Minister in the Diocese at the age of 16. Since the father was an Army officer, we knew they would leave us one day and they did. Except for the oldest daughter. She stayed behind to go to school and has been a vital part of our church family all this time.

If we go to our new church lamenting the fact that it’s not like our old church, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and even bitterness. While we may have loved some of the ministries and activities at our old church, there’s no guarantee that the same will work in the new church. One might be able to transplant something from the former church but maybe not.

Interestingly, if after a few years, one decides to move back to the old hometown and return to the old church, it’s not the old church anymore. Some people have died or left. The pastor may have moved on and a new one, totally different from the old, leads in a way that is unfamiliar. New people have come who weren’t there back in “the day.” Like people, churches change with age.

A couple of years ago, I was in my old hometown and decided to attend Mountain View on a Sunday morning. It was the same sanctuary but, after 50 years, there were very few of the same people. My beloved pastor, after serving a number of churches, was retired and living in Virginia. The building was mostly the same, the worship similar, but, this time, I was a stranger … a visitor. My old church was, indeed, a totally new church from the church I left.

So, to those spiritual seekers of a church, whether going or coming, I would say, “Give thanks and appreciation for what was. Let it have a place of honor and affection in your heart and memories. But let it go and embrace the new that awaits. With patience, commitment, and time, the new church will not just be your new church. It will become a whole new family.”

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]