After 29½ years, it was time to change churches. (The ½ matters, I always say, if it includes the Christmas pageant!)
I guess I want to document what this felt like. For one thing, it was a strange experience that deserves commentary; and for another thing, it might shed some light into what newcomers, visitors, shoppers and seekers experience when they first walk in our doors. Do keep in mind, though, that this is one person’s experience, and that one person has her own baggage and filters.
The church I left was a megachurch, a very good one. Over the time I was there, it had morphed considerably from the fellowship I joined in my late teens. I still miss that old vibe, but it was one for the times; churches should morph.
Three things were very weird for me in this process. The first was the novel experience of having a wishlist. I couldn’t decide if the wishlist was valid or not. It seemed so entitled. I was so ‘planted’ in my old church that any wishes I carried for it were prayers and whinges and discussions over coffee as a family member – not weekly dealbreakers that I held over it like a client. So, walking into fresh churches with a set of dealbreakers in the back of my head made me feel uncomfortable. Who was I to pass judgment on a church? Was I looking for reasons to write them off? Was I desperately looking for clues and cues to tell me I’d be okay there? “Please want me”?
Still, you know, selecting a church is like selecting a husband. You’re going to be long-term partners in the business of life. No man, or church, is perfect. All of them have strengths, weaknesses, flaws, beauties, a particular mindset, a direction. All of them are worthy. Yet not all of them are for you. Choose carefully, if you have the luxury of choosing. So, in the end, you really have to have (and can’t help having) a wishlist. (We decided to ‘date’ our new church for a month before ‘marrying’ it!)
What was on my wishlist? That’s very personal, so don’t take this as any kind of commentary on churches that don’t meet my particular description. In the end I was looking for a small puddle of sunlight in which to lift my hands to my beautiful God; a place my husband could enjoy and relax with me in; somewhere my gifts might make a contribution; authenticity; hopefully, the expression of spiritual gifts; and a core group of friends to do life with. It’s been a very long time since I woke up on a Sunday morning dying to get me to a nightclub.
These are mostly inward-focussed desires: things that I want in relation to myself. They don’t speak to the equally-important aspect of community engagement. But remember, as a missionaries’ kid I’ve spent my whole life facing outwards. I don’t underrate that, but I believe God wants a balance for us. Otherwise, He would never have had Paul describe us as a body.
The second weird thing was how excruciating it was to be churchless. Here I cannot tell how much this experience is unique to me. There is something very latchy about me as a third-culture kid. When I first moved from New Zealand to Australia, all of my immediate family were in the Philippines. I adopted myself into my church as a surrogate family, and held on like grim death. To leave that family decades later, even in its morphed form, was more wrenching than I expected. I thought (especially in traumatic seasons when I fantasised about leaving) that I would feel free, unfettered, the world my oyster, my time my own. Nuh-uh. I felt like a castaway. Adrift. Like a pot plant midway between pots, hanging helplessly in the air, roots dangling, soil crumbling away. Literally like a fish out of water, gasping and desperate. I HATED IT. I felt (but wasn’t) friendless. You don’t necessarily lose your friends when you change churches, but you do lose your social life. All the things that bring you together become inaccessible. I couldn’t just swan in and out, scooping up the cream without making a contribution or commitment. It didn’t seem right. So I felt isolated and alone, and I’d done it to myself. I wondered if this was one of the things people feel during a divorce.
As I’ve said, it’s hard to tell if I felt this so strongly because my attachment to church was more fanatical than is healthy. Could it possibly mean that strong attachment is the way it should be – that if you don’t find separation wrenching, you weren’t really part of the body? I’m not sure. I don’t want to push that interpretation at anyone else. Attachment is as individual as each person. So I’ll simply leave it as a record of what this individual felt.
The third weird thing is that when you already know what sort of things are in your ministry skillset, when you do walk into a new church, you can’t help but look for where you might fit. (It’s on the wishlist, after all.) So it’s a strange feeling for me to look at the team on the stage and be thinking, “Will this be my tribe? Will they like me? Will they find me Too Much? Not Enough? How long will it take to prove myself? Will I fit in? Have they got ten of me already? Will they think I overrate myself because I’ve served in a Big Church? Will they be disappointed in my rusty skills or happy that I have more than one? Will I step on anyone’s toes? Will I be allowed to step anywhere at all?” And then you meet them and you try really hard not to be yourself, because yourself is relaxed and loud and talkative and funny and affectionate, and you can’t throw all that at people you’ve known for five minutes. And so they get A-Ca-Awkward Beck who doesn’t know what to do with her hands when she talks. I do want to be honest about who I am and what I bring, such as it is … but I don’t want to lead with my resume. I just want a tribe who gets me and values me.
We’re in a mid-size and quite variegated suburban church now, and it’s working out. Will it be perfect? Of course not. Will we learn and grow and give and receive there? I feel sure we will. I’m grateful to God for the lovely people we’re getting to know, and a new adventure in a new season. Settling in. God is good.