When I first walked into church as an adult, it felt like coming home. But I didn’t feel ‘at home’ in evangelical Christian circles for quite some time. It was wonderful but very weird too. I literally didn’t know how to act, how to ‘be’. What was now expected of me, what was I supposed to do, let alone believe?
Back in my secular world, I struggled to convey my new-found faith to my sceptical friends and family, and for a while it seemed that I didn’t fit in anywhere.
It’s easy to forget what Christianity looks like from the outside, but hopefully my reflections on those early days will help you minister to those newcomers in (or maybe soon to join) your congregation. Here are ten things I’ve learned...
1. ‘Giving your life to Jesus’ is only the beginning…
The general idea is that someone responds to a gospel presentation either at church, a Christian ‘event’ or on an Alpha course. Everyone cheers.
The convert is now safely on their faith journey.
In my case, though, it was more of a crash landing than a happy ever after. The familiar ‘church stuff’ that I’m now happily steeped in was completely alien to me. It was as if needed new software in my brain to process what was going on.
But everyone’s different, and maybe that should be my first observation. One size doesn’t fit all. Friends of mine with no church background at all have raced to the front at altar calls, then happily attended discipleship classes and house groups.
I also know from other friends and feedback I’ve had that not everyone settles into church life quite so easily. So don’t assume that just because they’ve had ‘the moment’ all will be well.
2. ...Nevertheless, that moment of commitment is significant
I used to wonder why there was such a fuss made over people ‘saying a prayer of acceptance’. How can so much depend on just one response? But I’m glad I made a proper commitment, because when I’m tempted to give up I remember what I promised, and that is that I will not walk away.
There are days when my faith doesn’t make sense, when I can’t turn on the news without crying, and when Christians talk about healing I struggle to believe in; when my friend Val says she still thinks the Church is a club she’ll never join, and I worry that I’m not praying enough or in the right way and maybe it’s my fault that I don’t ‘get it’
At those times I remember where I was nine years ago ? that I promised to try to find God, to surrender everything to him, and to pray even if I wasn’t sure anyone was listening.
3. ‘Personal relationship with Jesus’ is a weird concept
One of my earliest memories of church as an adult is standing in a Sunday morning service feeling a bit lost. Everyone around me had their eyes closed, singing ‘Jesus I love you’ and I remember thinking, what on earth did that mean? How could I love him? How could I even know him, let alone have this ‘personal relationship’ that everyone was talking about?
I see Jesus through other people
On the Alpha course I’d attended, the leader had shown us a copy of the famous Holman Hunt painting, ‘Light of the World’. The effect of seeing Jesus at the door was powerful; it made me want to lie on the floor and weep.
So Jesus knocked, I responded and invited him in to my life. But what next? It was a slow process and started with a thank you. I’d look out of the window at church and focus on a flower or a bird and praise God for that. I thanked him for the people he’d put in my life ? my husband, family and friends.
But actually in those early days ? and still now ? I see Jesus through other people. If there are ‘thin’ places on this planet where God’s presence is felt more keenly, then for me there are ‘thin’ people who point me to Christ. And they’re not necessarily super-spiritual; just doing what they believe God has told them to do. I want to be one of those people. That’s both exciting,and scary.
4. Church culture, even the ‘normal’ bits, takes some getting used to
At first, the culture was a major sticking point for me. Bring and share or ‘pot luck’ lunches were strange. House group made me feel socially awkward and out of my depth. Praying out loud in a group is still an issue. Standing in someone’s front room on a Wednesday singing and drinking soup was not NORMAL.
But I’m now entirely happy for people to lay hands on my shoulder during prayer, although I will never forget how that felt for the first time ? how vulnerable I was. I hated being the centre of attention, even if it was just one person praying.
There is one thing, however, I will never get used to, and that is sharing ‘the grace’ when everyone has to look round and make eye contact with each other. Thankfully that doesn’t happen very often at the church I go to, but the next time it does I’m going to crawl under my chair and hide.
5. Rightly or wrongly, most non-Christians think we’re a strange breed
My non-Christian friends still give me a hard time. I’m pleased about that; they challenge me and help me remember what all this looks like from the ‘outside’
I think they’ve realised that this isn’t a fad for me, that my faith is now part of my identity. I also hope that they’ve realised that becoming a Christian hasn’t turned me into a narrow-minded bigot. It hurts me to write that because that is how believers are often seen. Nine years after coming to faith, I still feel utterly frustrated that the Church in this country is seen as a place of judgement. We have a clear biblical mandate to share the good news, and I worry that my friends won’t even consider Christianity because of our perceived views on a few issues.
It’s got to the point now where it’s almost a cliché to say that Christians are known more for what they’re against than what they’re for. And I know that’s not what church is all about. I found grace, safety, forgiveness and hope. I see the people in my church and the Christians I know reaching out into their communities, praying, working and accepting people. But the perception is still there ? it seems to be taking its time to reach those who don’t move in church circles. I wish we could get beyond the arguments over women leaders and same-sex equality and get on with the job of being Christ to people.
6. The Bible doesn’t make sense
I entered the Church as a 30-something with a lot of life experience that informed the way I saw the world. The major attraction for me was the message of grace and acceptance that was preached. But what confused me for some time was the Bible and how it’s been interpreted in so many different ways by so many different people to the point that Christians will fight (sometimes literally) to defend their views.
As a new Christian, this almost put me off the scriptures completely. Whose ‘version’ was right? What verses were for the people of the Old Testament? What needed to be taken ‘in context’, what directly translates to us today and how on earth do you decide? I remember being told that there was a very clear way to read the Bible and that I was just making life difficult for myself. That didn’t help.
What did help was a very kind priest telling me that Jesus is the key to interpreting the Bible. That’s probably laughably obvious to most people but it was one of the most important things I’ve ever been told.
So far I’ve learned that the Bible tells me that God loves me, that I am special to him, and that if I call on his name he will hear me and act. Jesus tells stories that back that up; he encourages me to seek the kingdom of God, that it’s the most precious thing. He tells me that God cares about the lost, that he is like a shepherd and will search for a missing sheep. Jesus tells me to care for the least, the poor and the lonely and that I shouldn’t be trying to impress others, but that the Father knows my heart.
Coming to the Bible for the first time and many times after that can be confusing. Perhaps we need to remember to be patient, loving and excited by people wrestling with it, rather than trying to instruct them in whatever doctrine we subscribe to.
7. We sometimes confuse discipleship with achieving ‘doctrinal soundness’
Perhaps some Christians think I should add various other statements to what I’ve worked out from the Bible so far. I’ve often wondered if a personal relationship with Jesus is enough. Are there things I need to do and, more importantly, believe to be a‘proper’ churchgoer?
All this leads me to wonder what exactly we expect of new disciples; are we trying to give them the space to explore what Christianity means to them? That may well sound terribly lax ? surely the right doctrine is important. Or is the whole point forthem to become ‘just like us’?
New Christians will come into church with their own beliefs. And we’re back to those thorny issues again. Many these days ? especially young people in their 20s or 30s ? will not agree with the Church’s more traditional teachings. Is it necessary for them to agree with you on those subjects for them to be accepted? What would your church do?
8. Pressure to be continuously joyful is off-putting
It seems that the word joy means different things to different people. Some people think it means being abundantly cheerful and constantly upbeat. I’ve come across a strange assumption in church circles that questions and challenges to the status quo are distinctly unChristian.
One woman told me recently she was told to stop asking difficult questions about the Bible at house group. She found a new group but a neighbour of mine quit church altogether when his questions were deemed too negative for his pastors.
I’ve even picked up on an attitude that says it’s not even biblical for believers to be grumpy or downbeat, that Paul wrote his joyful letter to the Philippians from jail. I’ve really struggled with this. Thankfully there are plenty of Bible heroes I can relate to (including Paul) who are not eternally optimistic and who have stuff to work out and deal with.
But I do have joy. I may not show it often but it’s there. In the quiet times, sometimes on a run and mostly behind closed doors I’m floored by the beauty and fragility of life and faith.
I worry that my friends won’t even consider Christianity because of our perceived views on a few issues
I don’t understand the cross, but I do know it has given me hope. Joy to me is a feeling I can’t put into words, of thankfulness and wonder that overwhelms me, that somehow this speck of dust that I am is precious to God. That the light does shine in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.
9. The community, for all its imperfection, is second to none
The Church community is one of the main reasons I can’t walk away from my faith.
For one thing, it’s always been fun. One memory I have from the big regional church where I started going to church was when a man’s phone started ringing in the middle of a sermon. Quick as a flash the preacher quipped, ‘That’s his wine merchant, you know.’
After my shaky start I began to enjoy going to church; it was interesting, I learned about the Bible and my faith, and sang my heart out.
Now we’re at a smaller place of worship and I love it even more. I look around on a Sunday morning and see an amazing group of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, people who would never spend time together if it weren’t for Christ.
There’s the 80-year-old who looks after the babies at the toddler group, the physicist who inspires the primary school-age kids, the woman with Down’s Syndrome, the shy teenager.
I listen, fascinated, when people tell their stories at the front and I hear of their own individual challenges and joys and tales of how Jesus has touched their lives.
I’ve found peace and laughter and a safe place where I can be vulnerable, and where I belong; where people know my views may not be exactly the same as theirs, but who love and accept me just the same.
10. Much as we might want to wrest control from God, it’s best to leave it up to him
When you’re dealing with people who are new to church, being warm and friendly obviously helps, but it is possible to go overboard with the welcome. I’m still haunted by the story of the first-time visitor who was chased into the toilets by a greeterwielding a newcomer’s form.
I was lucky, or perhaps I should now say ‘blessed’, that I started off at a church that gave time and space to everyone who came through the doors, whether they’d been there five minutes or 30 years.
The leaders were relaxed, they were confident in their God and wielded little ‘control’. For a while I was happy just to stand at the back, listening; eventually I started to take part.
It’s obviously good to know what has worked in the past with new believers and those who have yet to commit, but it’s sometimes easy to think there might be a magic formula and instant results to be had. My own church community has always been supportive rather than suffocating, with room for individual response.
What makes a good disciple? There will probably be as many different answers as people asked, but the aim is surely to help newcomers develop a faith that’s strong and personal.
In my case, it’s a faith I’m still working out with fear and trembling, because it means everything to me.