Dr. Randy White
Almost everyone has had the experience of searching for and finally settling into a new church from time to time. As a pastor of over 25 years, I’ve welcomed well over 1,000 new members and countless more new “faithful attendees” in churches I’ve served. I want to share a few words about how to join a new church from a pastor’s perspective. I will use the words join and member in a pretty broad scope since some churches have formal membership and others do not. (That would be an article for another day and one which I’m not very passionate about.) But for the purposes of this article, I’m referring to active participation in a local church.
So, here are my thoughts on how to join a church.
Join with the best knowledge available about the church’s doctrine.
A generation ago, you could almost know for certain what doctrine a church held based on the church’s denominational or fellowship-related associations. Today, these things mean nothing. I was once invited to preach at a church that was a part of one of the most liberal denominations in American Christianity. However, the pastor was a strong dispensational teacher teaching solid theology, and the church was one of the most solidly evangelistic and Biblical churches in town. On a more common front, I’ve seen churches whose denominational label would have once put them in the “conservative” category that are deeply leftist in their theology. In a sense, the only kind of label that still have any type of meaning is “liberal” or “fundamentalist.” If a church uses one of those labels, they probably mean it. (Incidentally, if I was looking for a church home, in most towns, I would start with the fundamentalist churches. They may have their “issues,” but denial of the inerrancy of Scripture would not be one of them.)
So, before you join a church, do some research on the church’s doctrine. Start by searching a church’s website, which is typically devoid of theology (in which case you probably can move on, since a church that cares about theology will want to put it on their website). However, website statements of faith are notoriously (and possibly necessarily) narrow in their scope. So, before you join the church, make an appointment with the pastor (he’s the guy who stands in the front and preaches every Sunday, regardless of how many people have a “Pastor” title on the church’s staff page). The pastor is the man who sets the theological tone for the congregation. If you can’t meet with him, then you’ll never have a pastor you can meet with, and I have no idea why you would want to be part of such a club.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people join the church, become active, and then say, “Oh, I didn’t know you believed that…that is a deal breaker and I’m out of here.” And on every single case, the “that” is so prominent in my ministry that I simply have to conclude that the person joined our church without doing their theological homework. As a pastor, I’ll say quite bluntly: It’s not my fault that you don’t know my theology, it’s yours.
When you meet the Pastor, tell him, “Here are some views that I care about. Will you shoot straight with me and tell me where my views differ from yours?”
What about the pastors who hem and haw around theological questions? Honestly, that answers your question. They don’t have a theological position due either to ignorance or to lack of concern or to focus on more pragmatic issues of church growth (i.e.: theology offends).
Can I say that I want my church’s theology to be so clear and so narrow that it does offend those who have different theological persuasions? If they are offended, they are forced to consider their persuasions. If they consider them, they realize either that a) they are wrong, b) they are too convinced their persuasion to fellowship with those who hold a mutually exclusive position or c) they are willing to overlook that area and join the church. I’d rather new members consider these issues before they join, not after.
Immerse yourself in fellowship.
Once you have decided that the church fits theologically, then it is time to dive into the task of getting to know people. I know that the current members should reach out to you, invite you to lunch, involve you in the church social activities, etc. That is what they should do. But I also know that they are just people and often busy people. They have good intentions and bad follow-through. You can complain about how “unfriendly” they are and move on to the next group of unfriendly humans. Or you can just decide, “I’m the new kid on the block, I’ll take the initiative.” When you do that, those unfriendly humans will open up fairly quickly.
Does the church have a fellowship time? Be there. Does the church have a meal? Be there. Does the church need a volunteer to hand out bulletins? Do it. Does the kitchen need to be cleaned after the pot-luck? Roll up your sleeves.
If you will take the initiative in friendships, they will develop fairly quickly. Avoid the, “I don’t know why I have to be the one…” syndrome. It will take away the fun of building new friendships.
Avoid the “hero of the day” status.
If you’ve been active in a previous church, especially in some kind of leadership capacity, it is easy to unknowingly step in as the “Hero of the Day.” Especially in a small church (which ought to be high on your list of prospective churches), your involvement in a previous church will be needed and even welcomed. But there is the temptation to say, “I can fix all of this church’s problems.” If you’ve come from the Bible belt to one of the secular communities of the American West (like mine), you can become convinced that just a few simple little changes would spark immediate church growth and that life will never be the same.
Just remember, with humility, that lots of people have come and gone from that little church, and the church still stands. Many of the members of that church have been faithfully serving for decades and have probably even learned a few things along the way.
In a small church, we are excited when a new member comes. We may give you the Hero status ourselves, or you may become a self-declared Hero. Neither one is going to end well. You’ll get burned or burned out, you’ll leave the church stomping your feet and shaking the dust off your sandals, and the church will say, “Good riddance, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Rather than be the Hero, just be the faithful servant. Do little, non-leadership tasks. Be faithful in attendance. Sing cheerfully. Take out the trash. Invite someone to lunch. Save the Hero status for another day.
Don’t be the expert.
In a very similar vein, be careful not to be the “church-health, revival, best-way-to-do-it expert” in your new church. Try to bite your tongue from saying, “The way we did it back at First Church was….” In all honesty, the small church you are in has probably tried that before, too. It is just a basic fact that things don’t work in point A like they work in point B. Furthermore, you’ll look arrogant and disrespectful if you give your expert advice too often.
Respect the leadership and structure that is already in place.
I’ve seen, on a number of occasions, that when the new Hero, expert, or theological guru got mad and left the church, they tried to influence others in the church to do the same. This is often after only a few weeks or months of involvement. Personally, I think this is simply grossly disrespectful, and I have no tolerance nor sympathy toward it. If the church’s theology, leadership, or methods were so bad, you should have had the discernment to stay away in the beginning. Very often, yesterday’s Hero leaves the church with just enough knowledge to know who the younger, newer, more vulnerable members are, and this scoundrel of a Hero will contact those members to “warn” them.
If you get into a church and find that it isn’t what you expected, do the right thing. Make another appointment with the pastor, graciously let him know that you need to begin the search for another church, that you wish him well, and then move on. When asked about it, simply tell others that you have visited with the pastor and you prefer that they speak to him. (I’ll have more of this in my next article.)
I’m sure you didn’t join your church because it was such a bad church that only you could fix it. If you did, you were sorely confused to begin with. When you do make a mistake, just “man up,” graciously deal with it, and begin the search for another church.
–and in today’s world, that could be a very long search.
Next in this series: “How to leave a church,” followed by “How to deal with a changing church.”
Looking for good Bible study? Consider coming to our Labor-day retreat in Branson.