Moving from Pennsylvania to California wasn’t as hard as I expected. Granted, I had to find a way to pack up 21 years of my life and seamlessly transpose them into a different culture, but relatively speaking moving wasn’t difficult. To be completely honest, I started packing the night before I left. But that’s probably because I’m a guy. The hardest part of moving was not deciding what to take and what to leave behind, because that can be pretty easily organized and figured out. Instead, when I landed in California and began soaking up the southern sun I was blindsided by the realization that the church I grew up in was now 2,500 miles away. For the first time in my life I had to face the challenge of deciding for myself what church to call home.
It may not initially strike you as a big challenge, but it is. The type of church you grew up in will shape the way you “church shop” in a new area. My background was Mennonite, so naturally I was used to more conservative worship environments. However, California, at least this area, doesn’t have a wealth of conservative churches, and I had to become used to non-traditional services. Then there’s the huge question of how you break into the social scene of a church you want to start attending. Do you wait until someone notices you’re new and begins conversation, or do you go out of your way to make your presence known so that people begin to get to know you? I was involved in student ministries prior to the move out to Cali. When I began searching for a new church home, the ministries they had available was a huge deciding factor as well. Needless to say, the realization of the challenge I was about to face intimidated me a little, especially since I didn’t have the network of friends and family around me that I was so accustomed to.
But through my experience of finding a new home church, I learned several valuable lessons. First, don’t start “church shopping” with a huge list of expectations. The beauty of the Christian church being a global church is that there is a limitless spectrum of variety and personality that manifests itself through the local church. My prior home church was great, but the more I tried to find a new church exactly like my old one, the pickier and more judgmental I became. Truth is, all churches vary in approach and style, and you’re never going to find a new church that flawlessly replicates your previous one.
Second, explore. I firmly believe that God calls us to different things in different seasons of life. While my conservative background was great in laying a theological foundation for my faith, God was definitely doing something else in my life that required me to step away from what I was comfortable with. Like I previously mentioned, there’s a huge variety of church styles, but you have to take your socks off to dip your toes in new waters. Otherwise your socks get wet, and no one likes wet socks. As it turns out, I like my new church just as much, if not more than my old church, and I believe God has me there for a reason. God can never stretch us and bring us into something new and better if we keep holding too tightly to comfort.
Third, shop in groups. There are two types of people at Bible college: Those who are looking for a new church just like you are and those who are from the area and can recommend the church they already attend. Make friends with other students and explore churches in groups. For one, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable being surrounded by friends and able to focus more on going to church and finding one. For two, a large group of college kids stands out more than just a single person. Groups are the way you break into a church’s scene.
Fourth, keep in mind your future spouse might be at your new church. Just kidding. But seriously.
Prepare yourself. The challenge of changing churches was one that I didn’t expect until I woke up Sunday morning and realized I didn’t know where to go to church. While it can be a mildly daunting task, it’s loads of fun and can be an incredibly rewarding experience in realizing just how global and diverse the body of Christ actually is. Feeling just as at home in the church I’ve been attending for a year as I do in the church I attended for eight years made me realize how awesome God really is, that he unifies the hearts of believers all around the world, and how vitally important the local church is for spiritual formation, accountability, and personal growth.