We knew we had to attend consecutive Sundays to get a feel for the church, so we did. And every week, the message was biblically sound, and I liked the pastor’s balanced preaching and his humble, approachable demeanor. Best of all, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, almost on a weekly basis, there was something the pastor would say or something we would sing in worship that would move me to tears.
This was all a very new and surprising experience for me because Church #1 was so different style-wise from our former church. Our home church had about 4,000 people (which is HUGE for Long Island) on a Sunday over three services. It had about a 50-piece orchestra and 75 person choir (I think. I’m so bad with estimating). The pastors wore suits and ties, there are 80-100 active ministries, and eight pastors on staff. There were all kinds of bells and whistles. And honestly, I had loved all of it.
Church #1 had about 50-60 people. The worship team consisted of a woman on a keyboard, 2 singers, a guitarist and a drummer. The pastor wore khakis and a button-down. There was no youth group (not enough teenagers), but it had a small children’s church and nursery, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, and a food pantry. It was simple. But there was something very refreshing, very first-century-church-simple about it. It seemed to scale church back to the essentials, like it wasn’t trying to impress or be something it wasn’t. But it was so affirming to sense the Holy Spirit’s presence across denominational lines. The Holy Spirit wasn’t confined to just the Pentecostal churches (as if I already didn’t know that!).
These were believers who lived in my neighborhood, in my community – and loved Jesus just like I did. They are just as much a part of the body of Christ as my home church, as much as my husband and I, as much as every believer.
And I felt convicted: if there was a body of believers meeting together in my community, praying for my community, reaching out to my community – why were we driving 40 minutes away to be involved there? And that kind of sealed it for me. As long as I didn’t hear anything doctrinally or theologically off-base, I felt in my Spirit that this was the place for us.
My husband felt the same.
So, our plan was to meet with the pastor and attend for 6-12 months before committing or getting involved. We set up a meeting with the pastor to learn about him, his vision for the church, the church’s doctrine, and to tell him about us, where we had come from, and why we were seeking to attend this church. I am so glad we did this. I loved hearing Pastor John’s heart, his vision for our church, and even his philosophy of ministry and leadership. Equally pleased, Pastor John was actually really refreshed by the meeting, too. I guess in his ministry experience, people don’t really change churches in the way we were going about it. That was surprising to us – how else would you do it? But he was pleased all the same.
True to our word, we attended, got to know the people and the pastor, attended church events, engaged for a year, all the while praying. We knew long before we officially committed that this was the church for us, but we stayed true to the process.
After a year, we also set up a follow-up meeting with our former pastor. We told him about our process, our decision and where we felt the Lord was leading us. He was so encouraging and gracious. He even encouraged us to make a clean break from our home church, to really show commitment and loyalty to our new church. He prayed for us, blessed our going, and even said he would write a letter to our new pastor to ‘recommend’ us, so to speak. Our pastor wanted to do a clean hand-off to Pastor John and let him know that we were leaving with the church’s blessing and well-wishes, not with any kind of animosity on either side.
So, here we are, in our little church around the corner. We just went through the membership process, and we love being here. We love getting to know Christians in our community. We love knowing that we are spiritually investing in and reaching out to the neighborhood we live in. And we love the commute (can’t beat three minutes and a mile and a half). Seriously, we love that it is so close that we can easily be involved; that has been huge. And we love that we can offer our energy and gifts and resources to a church where they really could benefit from them. In fact, we were asked to be on the missions committee (which is our passion), as soon as we were official members. Of course, we said yes.
So, we had a very positive church-change experience. I know that isn’t the case with everyone, for various reasons: pastors can get possessive and take it personally; there are hurts and offenses that cause people to leave; people leave because they aren’t being ‘fed’ (that’s another post). We were fortunate.
If there might be a church-change in your future, here are a few things we learned:
1. Pray. This should go without saying. Do not leave or join a church without being in prayer and letting the Holy Spirit lead you. Our flesh wants to come and go for many reasons that aren’t necessarily the right reasons. God may want you to stick out a tough situation in church when you want to split – or He may want you to leave when you want to stay. Cover it in prayer.
2. Take your time. Don’t rush into being a member or getting involved. Take time to really get to know the new church. Attend for a consecutive amount of weeks or months. You can’t really get a feel for the theology of a church or the spiritual atmosphere in a week or two. Anyone can have a great service – or two. You want to get a feel for the big picture of the church. Don’t cave in to pressure to join or volunteer too quickly. A healthy pastor and church will respect the process.
3. Communicate. Talk with both your former pastor and your potentially new pastor. You want to be above-board in this whole process. Don’t let guilt or awkwardness keep you from talking to your former pastor. If the Lord is leading you, there’s no need to feel bad about that. Your pastor shouldn’t be personally insulted either. Let the new pastor know your intentions. I would recommend you meet with him face to face.
4. Assess your motives. Why do you want to leave your church? Why do you want to find a new one? I’m not saying you shouldn’t leave if your needs aren’t being met or for other reasons, but as you pray, really try to discern God’s heart. Sometimes it’s not about what we are getting but what we are contributing. It’s a balance.
5. Once you find a new church, commit. There is something to be said about putting your stakes in and letting that be known. It lets people know they can count on you, and you can count on them. A formal commitment changes a lot (think ‘marriage’). If you can pull out easily, you may never really give it the investment it deserves or stick out tough times in your new church. People ‘church-hop’ too easily and never persevere through a tough time. The church isn’t an institution or a building. It is a body of people you are committing to. Christ loves His church, and we should too. We should be willing to commit to this local body and invest ourselves in it.
We are excited about being part of this new church! We are grateful for God’s leading.
As one of my mentors once said, “It’s good to be in the kingdom.”