Moving across the country has come with a lot of new experiences, and one of my priorities from the very beginning has been to find a church. I was super involved in my church in California, and honestly, it was one of the hardest things to leave when I packed up and moved 3000 miles away to the east coast to be closer to family. I was so spiritually fed. I loved the people and the atmosphere and the community. I still watch the sermons online *almost* every week. Not that any church is perfect, but coming from what I left behind, it’s been extremely tough to find a church community I want to be part of here in Maryland. The people are different and the culture is different, and honestly, so much of it just feels foreign compared to what I am used to. I am trying so hard not to compare each new church I visit to the one I left behind, but it is just so hard!
Yet from the beginning, I have established three different things that I am looking for in a church that I want to call home. And really what I have discovered along the way is that finding a church is a lot like dating.
Here are the three things I am looking for in a church:
ONE: It has to have a nice, easy to navigate website.
Okay, you may laugh or roll your eyes at me, but for a person who is brand new to Maryland and who came here not knowing anyone, and therefore had no one to make church recommendations, this is where the whole church-finding journey has started for me. Google has been my best friend! I’ve searched for churches in my area and have been getting my very first feel for them through their website. And honestly, in this day and age, a website says a lot. This has been my first impression for each and every church that I have visited. I don’t just glance at the homepage, I actually click on the links because I want to get a feel for what the church is all about, what I can expect the atmosphere to be like, the size of the congregation, what the small groups are like, what the sermons are about, what church involvement looks like. A website has the potential to say a lot, and while I am not going to judge a church solely on what their website looks like, I will 100% tell you that I have picked ones with sermon series that I like, and what they look based on photos and their social media accounts, etc. to be the type of atmosphere that I am looking for. If the website is super outdated or has cartoon pictures of God (like, come on guys) or tells me nothing more than when the meeting times are, it will probably be on the bottom of the list when it comes my church quest.
I’m not going to choose a church solely based on their website, like I said, but in this day and age, this is how so many are first introduced to a whole lot of things. It can feel extremely vulnerable to single gal who knows no one, always walking into different churches alone every Sunday. I’m definitely an introvert, and want to get a taste of things before everyone comes and introduces themselves to me–that is far too overwhelming! Being able to check out a website allows me to have that introduction and gives me a sense of what I can expect when I visit. I’d rather know a little about the church before I get there, rather than it being a blind date.
It’s a lot like online dating, to be honest with you. And no shame, I’m definitely on more than one website/app! It’s like scrolling through someone’s online profile–getting a quick introduction to who they are, getting to see some pictures, perhaps even sending a few quick messages back and forth and learning something a little more about them. This is the beginning to potentially getting to meet someone and know more about them. And in my experience, online dating profiles can both be a good representation of who a person is, and also a terrible one. I’ve chatted with guys that are great, and ones that turn out to be a little cray (it’s a tough world out there!). You can’t fully get to know a person through their online dating profile, not at all! But it is the beginning, the first impression, and usually allows you to figure out if you want to get to know them a little bit more or move on. And yes, sometimes you just have to say yes to ones that don’t hit the mark just from a profile page, because you can’t explain a whole person and get to know them that way. But if we’re comparing first impressions, a church website is a lot like an online dating profile.
TWO: The teaching can’t just be topical studies.
This is a big one for me, actually. I have visited many churches over the years. I’ve even worked in a few (children’s ministry intern to the max here!), I’ve been a missionary overseas and partnered with specific churches (miss you, England!), and have experienced a whole range from traditional to liturgical to contemporary services in a whole host of denominations. I’ve heard many different preaching styles as well. And while yes, I do have a type of atmosphere that I prefer, the teaching itself is a major part of what I am looking for in a church. I want to be spiritually fed. I want to always be learning more about God and knowing Him more fully. I want to be pushed in my relationship with God. I want to read through the Bible verse by verse and understand, as much as I can this side of Heaven, what God has to say to us and who He is. That means, I want to actually go through whole books of the Bible. I want to learn about the Bible in context. And honestly, this has been one of the biggest disappointments when it comes to my church search in Maryland so far.
There is a time and a place for topical studies, don’t get me wrong! I have learned so much from series on identity or walking through hardship or highlighting specific people of the Bible. I truly have! But when that is all that is ever taught on, I feel that there is a disservice to the congregation. Topical studies seem to be more heavy on the application side than anything else, and we need to be learning how to apply the Bible to our lives, absolutely! We need to be speaking truth over all that we do, and learn how to live out our faith. But topical studies tend to pull verses and passages out of the Bible, and at times use them out of context, which is my biggest pet peeve (I went to Bible college and have a teaching background. Teaching and CONTEXT are important to me!). I think it is just as important to know the context of a story or passage as it is to know how to apply it to our lives. In my experiences, topical studies tend to be more us-focused, rather than God-focused. Whereas if we are going through a book of the Bible verse by verse and are immersed in the actual context, I think we learn a lot more about God that way. Topical studies are great, but if we don’t have context to build a foundation off of them, I don’t think we’re actually learning and being changed.
My previous church spent two whole years going through the book of Genesis, and it was one of most life-changing sermon series I have ever had the privilege of being a part of. We’re the church. The children of God. Shouldn’t we actually read His Word together, rather than flip through it and pick out good one-liners that fit a topic that we want to teach on?
Again, it’s like dating. In order to get to know someone, you actually need to get to know them! You need context for certain situations to understand where they are coming from. Maybe they like sports. Maybe that person is super into soccer and can tell you absolutely everything you could ever want to know or not know about it. But if you are getting to know someone and all they talk about is soccer and nothing else, you’re not actually getting to know them. You’re just getting one small piece of the puzzle. Really, you’re just learning about soccer and not the person themselves.
THREE: There has to be an active community that I can be part of.
Church community is so important! Not only does God call us to do life in community–hi, it’s biblical!–but as someone that is new to the area, I am looking for a church that I can be part of and make friends and get to know the people around me. I’m sort of counting on church to give me a social life! So one of the things that I am absolutely checking out from the very beginning is the small group situation. I love getting to learn and enjoy relationships with people who are a variety of ages, but am also hoping that any church that I join will have people my age there as well. It is tough to be a few months out from turning 30 and single in the church, because I am definitely a minority, and a lot of what I am finding are small groups for married people. And don’t get me wrong, I love my married friends! But I also want to find a place for myself in there somewhere, whether that be a group that is a mix of all ages, or of married and singles together. I just want community!
Right now I have a short list of churches that I’ve visited and enjoyed and am trying out for a bit to really discover more about what they are all about and find that place that I want to join. It makes me feel like I’m dating multiple people at once as I get to know them–I’ve had some awesome conversations getting to know people after service, have been invited to a few different church’s getting started classes to learn more about what they are all about, I’ve been invited to small groups, and to even join some of sweet ladies I have met on hikes through all the trails in this area. It’s been super sweet, and it’s been such a warm welcome everywhere that I have visited. And I’m diving in because I want to learn more, but I also feel a little conflicted about it because I’m dating multiple churches at once right now, and at some point I’m going to have to have that tough conversation about being monogamous when it comes to the church I end up going to. Casually dating churches as I get to know them is actually pretty fun. Casual dating in real life is totally not my thing, but I can imagine if it were, and if I were seeing multiple guys at once, that it would be something like this! Right now I’m just getting to know people, getting to know what each church is all about, and not quite at the place where I am ready to make that commitment.
It has been tough to find a church community here. I have to constantly remind myself not to compare each place that I visit to my old boyfriend, ahem, my previous church. I am looking for a place where I can grow and make friends and be super involved–I’m looking for that church home while still mourning for the one I had to leave behind. It’s been somewhat exhausting at times, but also a great experience. I am growing and learning and stretching as well, and having to be vulnerable and put myself out there. Just like in the dating world. Like everything else that has come with this move, it is going to take time. The right one will come along–well, at least, the perfectly imperfect church for this time and stage of my life. And in the meantime, I’m getting to experience a lot of different types of churches and meet lots of different people. But I am ready to be a one-church kind of gal and put my dating days behind me!