When we knew we were going to move from GA to SC several years ago, we checked into churches and schools as well as housing long before time to go. One church had a Christian school that we liked. But on our first day visiting the church after our move, the pastor announced his resignation due to health problems.
We continued visiting for a while to make sure the school would be a good place for our kids. But we didn’t feel we could make a decision about the church until they chose a new pastor and we could see what kind of man he was and what direction they were going.
So we continued to visit around. We finally settled our choice between this church, still without a pastor, and one other. At this second church, we were invited to attend a membership class to learn what the church was all about. The class was supposed to run about four weeks, if I remember correctly. But the class discussions stretched the length of the class out for several more weeks. We got to know a few people and were asked to participate in various church functions.
In the meantime, the first church called a new pastor. We went back to that church a few times and met with the pastor. Both churches were good, but we felt this first church was a better fit for us.
My husband called the pastor of the second church to let him know we wouldn’t be attending any more. The pastor asked if they had done anything wrong that would cause us not to join there. No, my husband said. Theirs was a fine church. We just felt the first church was where we should be at this point in time.
Any time we ran into the second pastor in town, the encounter felt a little awkward. We hadn’t meant to “lead them on.” In hindsight, perhaps we should not have attended the membership class until we knew we were ready to take that step. On the other hand, the class was presented as the best way to learn about the church. We also didn’t feel we should have abstained from church fellowships, the Missions banquet, etc., until we joined. Going to those events is part of getting to know the church.
I know it can be frustrating to feel like you’ve invested time in people who visit your church, only to have them join somewhere else.
But if I had a chance to speak to the pastor or anyone from the second church now, I would love to tell them your ministry counted, even if we didn’t join. The teaching, kindness, invitations, and conversations were not wasted. They still ministered to us.
Most pastors and church members know that, deep down. They are kind to people for the Lord’s sake, not just to gather church members. Yet I understand the potential for frustration and disappointment.
Our pastor in GA used to faithfully visit people and talk to them about the Lord. He once commented that when someone he talked to became a Christian or decided to get back into church, suddenly relatives seemed to come out of the woodwork to fold the person into their church. He was tempted to think “Where were you before now?” But he knew the principle that one person plants the seed, another waters, but God is the one who brings a soul to Himself (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). While experiencing a pang that his own church was small, ultimately he wanted the new believer or reclaimed backslider to be where God wanted them, where they could best get established and grow in Him. And I’m sure most ministers and church members want the same.
The last time we searched for a new church, we noticed that not many people greeted first-time visitors. The pastor always made it a point to meet us (with one exception). But often only one other person spoke to us beyond a nod. Perhaps they think the occasional new face is just passing through. It’s usually after a few visits, especially to smaller services like Wednesday prayer meetings, before people seem to loosen up. I don’t think they are consciously thinking, “We”ll see if they’re going to stick around first before we open up to them,” but it can feel that way. I know greeting strangers in church feels awkward except to the most outgoing extroverts. One of the hardest things for me to do is greet someone I don’t know. I’m usually fine once I get started, but that initial contact can be daunting. But it’s always worth it.
So many churches sound the same on their websites. Even churches with almost identical statements of faith can have vastly different personalities and emphases. My husband said that “no” concerning a potential church is relatively easy to come to, but a “yes” takes longer. Sometimes on the very first visit, we can tell a church is not for us. But other times, it takes a while to really get a feel for where the church is and where it’s going. I suppose it’s an embarrassment of riches that in most American cities, we have so many options to choose from.
No church is perfect, of course. None will tick every little preference. Church visitors know that.
But as they seek the place God has for them, where they can best grow and serve, they might have to try several places. Choosing one doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything “wrong” with the others.
So as people come through our doors, we welcome them, we minister to them as unto the Lord, we want God’s best for them. If they don’t stay in our church, they’re still “family,” if they are believers. If they don’t know the Lord, we lovingly try to point them to Him. We hope they all stay on. But if they don’t, we want to be able to rest in the fact that we’ve helped them draw closer to Him in the time they were with us.
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