Limitless Classics: The Great Church Search

(This is a reprint of a Limitless Classic article from 2004.  This was one of my most popular and commented on posts, so I picked it first.  Enjoy.)

I’ve found myself, recently, in the rather uncomfortable position of looking for a good church. I’ve lived here in Little Rock for over a year now, and have never found a good local church. I’ve been to all the big popular ones, and found them to either be biblically unsound, or completely unfriendly (more so the latter). I can’t count the number of times I’ve been into a church and not greeted or welcomed at all. Not even by one person.
I’ve been going to my home town and my home church, Faith Ministries, about 2 1/2 hours away every weekend for the last year and some change. (And probably will continue to go there on Sunday mornings). But this whole experience has been incredibly eye opening.
It’s so easy for us "churched" christians to sit around and criticize the likes of Mac Swift from Vessel of Honour, [borked link…Mac’s page is down for good] or Messy Christian for not being in church, but I’ve found myself in the same situation lately. I have good company, at least.
I don’t guess I had ever known how completely alienated you can feel from the body of Christ, when you’re in the situation of looking for a church. Obviously it felt that way at the churches where no one greeted me, and I sat alone the entire service, and left without a "Thanks, come again!" But even the churches where you just don’t "click." Or the churches where you just can’t agree with everything being said. It left me feeling quite a bit like there was no place for me. I eventually gave up.
Then last month, I visited some friends who are youth pastors in Lexington, KY. They had such a great church and great christian friends . . . I knew my life was missing that. Oh, I still had my friends from my home church 2.5 hours away . . . but no one here in town. So I set back out on my search. And I was determined to find a place where I fit in, this time.
I learned quite a bit through this process about how newcomers feel at every church, and what they need to feel welcome. Since then, I’ve made the effort every Sunday at Faith Ministries to make sure everyone got exactly that. We have a great church there, (as I’m sure many of the churches I visited are) but we can be a bit anti-social towards newcomers. So, here’s my list of things that helped me find the church I was looking for, and things every church should have to make people feel welcome:

  1. A Big yellow pages ad. Unspiritual, I know. But the phone book had hundreds of churches. I went on the assumption that if they had a big yellow pages ad, then they were ready to handle new people coming in all alone, without a member inviting them. Erego, they’d probably be more friendly. So, I picked out the biggest ads from churches where I felt I could agree with the doctrine.
  2. A good website. Armed with about 4 church names I had gleaned from the big yellow pages ads, I looked up all their websites. One of them hadn’t been updated in awhile, so I crossed it off the list. How was I supposed to know if it was an active church? What the people were like? What was going on for people in my age range to do? Down to 3 now. One of them had odd service times, and I found the teachings to be a little flakey, in my opinion. . . 2 down. 2 Left. The last two looked like great churches from what I could tell. And I felt like I would enjoy the services immensely. But what I needed was a more than just a church – – I needed fellowship with a body of believers where I could fit in. I picked one that had a college and careers class on wednesday night. If I didn’t like it, I’d try out the other one next week.
  3. Greeters!!!!! I was more excited about this church trip than I had been in awhile. I just felt like it was going to be exactly what I was looking for. Heh. Right. I showed up early, because I knew I would have to find out where to go to meet up with the C&C class. I walked into the lobby and saw some people standing around and talking near the visitor’s table. I went over to the visitor’s table and looked at pamphlets, waiting on someone to come help me. No one ever did. I was altogether ignored. Maybe because the nearby group was all old, and they just assumed I was there with someone? Not a good excuse either way. I wandered into the middle of the foyer and decided to stand there looking out of place until someone spoke to me. No such luck. It was getting time for the service to start. I had better go ahead into the sanctuary, or I’d get left out in the foyer alone.
  4. ***Friendly people who want to reach out to others. Maybe this church’s regular greeter was out sick. But it was obvious to me that no one took it on themselves to meet a new person. This was, by far, the friendliest bunch yet, though. When I sat down, several people came by and shook my hand, and thanked me for coming. Even the pastor! I felt welcome. And that was a change. But no one ever told me where the people my age were! They were friendly, but uninformative. Ultimately, it’s the entire church’s responsibility to make visitors feel welcome. I’m 24 and sitting in a sea of blue hair . . . no one thought to tell me where the C&C class was? Right. Just no one bothered to.
  5. Information. You never know what to expect going into a new church. Even denominations can vary wildly with what you get from church to church. Either have an established system for informing visitors about the church, or just have it understood in within the congregation that someone should go help new people to get to know the church some. For instance, any random person could have come up and said, "Hi, thanks for coming. What brings you here?" I would say, "I saw you had a college and career’s class tonight, and I wanted to go to it." And they could show me where to go, introduce me to the teacher and some class members, and tell me a little about the church along the way. I’m convinced the greatest problem in our churches for getting people to come, and come back, is right here. For instance, if I were visiting a charismatic church for the first time, and didn’t really know what to expect, I’d appreciate the heads-up, "Thanks for coming. Have you ever been to a church like this? Well, you can have a seat anywhere. My family sits up here, and you can join us. We really love to worship God here, so you may see some types of worship you’ve never seen before. We like to worship with our hands raised and sometimes we dance to praise God." That’s plenty of info. I could then ask questions if I wanted to learn more.
  6. Loving people. I actually ended up enjoying the service, despite my bad experience at the beginning. Still, at the end, I was quite sure I’d never come back. I had begun to assume that maybe there was no C&C class, and they just hadn’t updated their website in awhile. But the pastor’s wife saved the day. Really, every member of the church should have been able to step up and do exactly what she did. At the end of the service, I was leaving, and she came up and introduced herself and thanked me for coming. I smiled and said something polite back. I was ready to get out of there. Then she started a conversation, and asked all about me, and what brought me there, and where I’m from, etc. This is the most important part. . . people who care. You can greet until you’re blue in the face, and pass out doctrinal statements and church by-laws to every visitor, and it’s useless if the people don’t care about the visitor. This was the first time I’d experienced that here. After we had a pleasant conversation, I felt like I had made a friend. She took me around and introduced me to most of the church staff, including the College and Career’s class teacher. . . who turned out to be just as nice. I was invited out to eat. I didn’t go, but that didn’t matter. I felt welcome, and wanted there. I felt loved. I had found my new home

No, churches aren’t just about nice people. . . but they sure help. The one thing that kept going through my mind during this time is: what if I was not a Christian? Why, I’d walk right out and never step foot in another church, the way I felt at most of these places. My faith wouldn’t falter because of a run of bad church visits, but how many times had a lost person walked into these same churches, hurting, and really needing help? And instead they found a machine, cold and uncaring. How many people had come to these places looking for answers, and were just overlooked by a church too wrapped up in its own self to notice them? It pains me to think about it.
I’m not writing this to pastors to change their church structure (although it’s fine if you do). I’m writing this so that maybe the next time we see someone new sitting nervously in a back pew at our church, we won’t let them leave without doing everything in our power to make them feel loved and accepted. So that maybe we’ll go out of our way to give a visitor everything they need — support, information, love, friendliness — to feel like this church is where they belong. And most of all, so that maybe the lost who come to our churches won’t leave that way.

UPDATE 07/06/06

Just to update this story, as I’m reprinting it . . . I have since gotten married and moved back to my home town.  We did find a church who had it all going for them in Hot Springs – First Assembly of God.  We found the services a bit structured for our taste, but for every other point, they had it down.  We are now attending my awesome church, Faith Ministries, in Crossett, and are trying to help with some of these exact concerns.


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