My husband, Mickey, and I pored over church websites like dating profiles. When you move to a new city, without any family or friends, you start from scratch. We needed to find a new church and we didn’t really know anyone in the area so we couldn’t rely on “set-ups.”
Church searching is totally like dating – an ever-hopeful series of semi-awkward but interesting meetings.
Most church websites say something like, “Everyone is welcome! Come as you are for contemporary worship and relevant preaching!” Which is as generic as a dating profile that says, “I like hanging out, and having a good time.”
Despite the lack of stand-out originality, you can still start the winnowing process. Pictures of women with long skirts and Duggar-style, hair-sprayed bangs? Out. Any mention of “young earth” theology? Out.
But what was left was still a sea of churches that all sounded alike. And at that point all you can do is start meeting them.
First date #1: “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.” (Like, never.)
We decided to try the most popular church first. I mean, if everyone likes it, it has to be great, right?
We pulled into the parking lot early, but could only find a spot half a mile from the entrance. It was July and it was 90 degrees at 10 AM. Mickey took the 30-pound, infant, car seat/carrier with our future-line-backer-sized, 5-month-old, while I tried to keep our 2-year-old from getting hit by cars swooping in for open spots.
The heat rose in waves from the freshly paved blacktop and we were both dripping sweat (literally) by the time the parking guy yelled, “You’re walking on the wrong side!” Oops.
When we checked our children in, the nursery lady literally laughed when I asked if they had closer parking for families with young children. Awkward. Apparently neither one of us were making a great first impression.
We made it through worship and the majority of the message, but then the speaker strayed from their website message of inclusivity. “There’s a growing problem,” he said. “More and more people who call themselves Christians are supporting gay marriage.”
Throw the flag! First date foul!
You’re not supposed to talk about sex, religion or politics (which is the church-search-world equivalent of gender roles, other religions and prescriptive political views) on first dates. (Of course, I broke that rule on like every first date I ever had, because, really, what else matters?) But, perhaps, some of these topics are best reserved for conversations rather than rants from a pulpit in front of first-time guests.
Mickey leaned over and said, “Are you ready to go?”
And then we walked out – during a prayer – which is the dating equivalent of saying you’re going to the bathroom and then never coming back.
First date #2: “It’s not you, it’s me.”
After church #1, I looked for the most contemporary website I could find. I found a church that met in a space in a strip mall. We had no trouble parking.
We breezed in and it was immediately obvious that this church looked nothing like its profile pictures. There were only about 15 people there (maybe less) and we knew within seconds that it wasn’t the church for us, but we stayed because we didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
I missed a portion of the service to nurse our infant in the car. There was a warm summer rain and as I watched the water roll down our windshield, I wondered if we’d ever find a church with people like us.
First date #3: “Let’s just stay friends.”
We squeezed into balcony seats of a growing church literally stuffed to the belfry with young families. We took communion. Thank goodness they passed the trays because there was no way we could have all made it to the front. Plus, I always struggle to tear a piece from the loaf and I end up with a giant piece making it look like I’m an utter glutton for the Bread of Life. Embarrassing.
Our relatively, newly potty-trained daughter had an accident, but at least it was somewhere with tons of kids. I mean, seriously, you can’t believe the number of kids they squeezed in that building.
Overall, it felt like a date with someone who clearly belongs in the friend-zone. There is something comforting and familiar, but no spark. And we weren’t ready to settle.
First date #4: “You are AMAZING and I just want to keep on believing that this feeling will go on, and on, and on!”
Just as we were starting to feel discouraged, we found a church that clicked. The worship was honest, the congregation young, and hopeful, and the pastor the kind of cool that isn’t afraid to drink beer in a bar while talking about Jesus. He was real, and relatable, and he preached about caring for the poor and oppressed.
Our first date was going well.
And then we got a sign. At the end of the service, when the older children were released from their Sunday school class to come into the main meeting area for the closing music, a multi-ethnic stream of children paraded down the stairs and one of the boys (who I thought must have been in foster care or adopted) went to stand with the pastor’s wife.
I looked over at my husband, because I knew what his response would be. His eyes were moist and he leaned into my ear to say softly, “I’m in.”
In any new relationship, you put the most emphasis on what you have in common.
“You mean you grew up conservative evangelical, too?! You think the whole modesty thing heaped on women is ridiculous? Me too! Oh my goodness, we have so much in common!”
And for my husband:
“You mean you grew up totally different than that crazy conservative world my wife grew up in? You’re a sinner saved by grace and you like Pearl Jam? Me too! Hell yeah! We have so much in common!”
My husband (who swears like a surgeon) felt perfectly at ease with this pastor who wasn’t afraid to use profanity from time to time. We were so thankful to have found these people – this church – and we dove in with the carefree abandon of people who had never been hurt. The pastor is a big Journey fan and would sometimes reference their music on Sundays. Cue the music!
So now I come to you with open arms
Nothing to hide, believe what I say
So here I am, with open arms
Hoping you’ll see what your love means to me
Falling in love is crazy. You don’t need sleep or food or air, because you live off the soul-thrill of finding someone who makes everything seem so much more beautiful.
And so it was with church #4. We started hosting a group in our home. I would sometimes work the overnight shift in an ER an hour away, pick up groceries on my way home in the morning, sleep for a few hours and then make a meal for the 20-30 people who were coming over to pray, share, and fellowship over dinner. I didn’t even care when there wasn’t anything left for me to eat.
When the elders said they wanted to start renting a new building, we rolled up our sleeves and helped them convert a dingy factory in the right part of town (the poor side) into a meeting place. Everyone came together in rooms choked with paint fumes to scrub away oily grime and recover chair cushions and paint some more. In the sanctuary, we hung giant modern light fixtures made from hula-hoops duct-taped together and spray-painted gold. It was homemade Pinterest magic and it was beautiful.
I will always remember our first Sunday in our new building together. We were all tired, but so incredibly grateful to be in this place – to be together – to be a family. We were having a full-blown Journey moment:
Just a small town girl
Livin’ in a lonely world…
Just a city boy
Born and raised in [North] Detroit…
Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to this feelin’…
But you know where this is going. This is not a happily-ever-after story.
Roll the time-passage musical montage; we are headed for heartbreak.