Don't leave it up to a church you're visiting to make you feel at home. Make yourself at home as much as possible. You are a Christian; the Church is your home.
The real title of this post is How To Make Yourself At Home At A New Church or Your Current Church For That Matter. And yes, I'm the sort to capitalize every word in a title. A fig for your style manuals.
This post started as I was meditating on a philosophy of moving. As in, moving houses. I'm in the middle of a move now. Making yourself at home in a new place isn't easy; depending on several factors, it can be impossible, but the more traction such an effort gains, the more at home you'll feel. It occurred to me during my ruminations that much of it could be helpful when thinking of making a move to a new church. But I think these can also serve to make you feel more at home in your own hometown and in the church of your youth.
Learn the history of the local church. By this I mean, not to learn the history of churches in your town, but learn the history of the local church you're moving into. Although the former would certainly only do you good as well, and provide context for the latter. When was the church founded, and why? Was it a split or a plant? Or a little of both? Are any original members around? Chat with them. Why was the church founded? What was so important back in 2004/1986/1961/1847? Was there a theological issue? An empty spot on the map that needed filling?
Your quest to discover the church's history will put you in positive (probably) contact with old folks who will respond to your engagement by engaging with you. There goes So-and-So, who cares about this church. And it will give you a context that will lead to greater empathy for whatever struggles or "issues" (what a word!) the church might have. For example, perhaps you think the deacons and older members think too much about the physical facilities of the church. Discovering that the founding generation of your church were involved in a church split which excluded them from the old church's property and then took twenty-five years of hard work to buy what they have now, will increase your patience and sympathy when without that knowledge you would have simply dismissed that generation as materialistic or greedy.
Most of what you discover won't be as clearly linked as that to your new church's personality, but the mere study will increase your sense of belonging and ownership.
As a subset of this, learn the history of the community and town, especially of how your church has affected and been affected by it. What happened to the church when the plant closed? What did the church do in town when the plant closed?
Learn church history. Know church history generally. Why do these Raspberry Sherbet Baptists always serve raspberry sherbet at social functions? How does this exist in the context of church socials generally? Your church tradition always served rum raisin, which you and I can agree is objectively better as a frozen dessert, but as with the previous category, knowledge will increase empathy.
And this goes into the worship service, in questions of style and content, including what would be considered matters of sin. This is not something light to say, but the truth is that we all have our pet peeves, things we will accept or not, things that will make us angry on behalf of God and others that we think are totally cool. A pause and an evaluation of our personal ecclesiastical history can be enlightening. For example, most Protestants, whether they use wine in the Lord's Supper or not, don't bat an eye at the use of grape juice. I believe that it's biblically quite clear cut: the use of grape juice or anything not wine in the service is a sin. We're not going to argue about it here, because that's part of the point (i.e. not arguing all the time). We ought to offer to God the worship he institutes, and some things are not a question simply of style; but God is gracious and merciful, he accepts our poor offerings and even, dare we say it, our strange fire. Or perhaps better put, he accepts us. We're his. That's how big Jesus is. When I visit a church that serves grape juice, I take the Lord's Supper with a clean conscious, even believing it to truly be the Lord's Supper, because I am confident that God accepts not only me, but these other poor believers I am eating with.
Knowing the perfidious history of the abstinence movement in the evangelical church not only increases the sureness of my belief in the necessity of wine, it increases my sympathy for believers and churches who have come up in that milieu. Like any other "there but for the grace of God go I" moment, it ought to increase our humility and our awareness that we ourselves, and likely our home church traditions, are full of sin and error as well.
This past Sunday we worshiped at a church where we sang a "Jesus is my boyfriend" song with 1980s-style saxophone. I couldn't help but laugh. But I didn't doubt that it was worship. And I know those brothers might have thought our psalms unnecessarily difficult. This is not to say that one of us isn't right, or that nothing the people of God does in worship isn't sin, or that some things aren't worth leaving a church or walking out of a service for, but it is to say that we should be charitable, and aware that God laughs over us with joy, not contempt. Thanks be to Christ.
Churches don't do things for no reason. They may not know why they do things, just like individuals. But they learned it from somewhere. Learn that context.
Make a friend. Shortly after arriving at your new church, you should invite someone over. Or better yet, if you can pull it off, invite yourself over! Beyond the obvious benefits of the individual and family relationships that will begin to be built, you and your family will begin to know the church through it. Ask about the church, how your new friend fits in, what (without gossiping) have been the joys and frustrations of their walk in this church.
Meet a leader. It's ideal, of course, to be able to host the pastor or go to the pastor's house, although in some churches that can be a real challenge, for good reasons and bad. So invite over an elder, a deacon, a worship leader. Ask about the church. Find out especially what they love about the church. But also try to find out a little something about the inner workings of the church. Not for "political" advancement, but because even a small understanding of the complexities of your new church's inner life will still some of your impatiences as they come up.
Tithe. Because you ought to tithe to the church. If you've been visiting for a while, tithe. Even if next month you end up deciding not to move to this new church. Tithes are not, after all, the membership dues of a club. They are a church's corporate worship, and your personal worship. This show of gratitude is still worship even when you are between churches (a state of being, by the way, that is highly undesirable). And don't consider that tithing gives you extra rights or more of a voice in the church. It is simply worship, and you're worshiping at this local church.
Become a member as soon as possible. When you become a member at a church, you are putting yourself and your family under its authority and care, both positive and negative. You're telling everyone that these men are your shepherds, even if that means discipline. By the way, seek out a church that disciplines; you will know if your new church is such a one if you have studied it as described above.
This item, like the others, is simply an expression of the idea that you should commit yourself to your new church. Avoid the vice of church hopping, which is just a way of saying that you're not willing to live with the people of God.
Use possessive pronouns. Say "my church" and "our church". And try not to be apologetic about it. Is your church bigger than you think churches should be? whiter? richer? less evangelistic? less fiery? less whatever? No need to say so all the time. Some of you will have no idea what I'm talking about here. That's good. Others will know exactly what I'm saying. This doesn't mean you don't ever say "I wish my church were more thus and so," but that it's not the first thing you think of when you tell someone new about your church.
Complaining about your church, new-to-you or not, is harder when you say "my". Because then you're making yourself a part of whatever the problem is. Try not to talk from the outside.
I hope this list of thoughts is helpful. My experience has been that transitions between churches are easier when we decide to do the work ourselves, and not to put it on the doorstep of others. Of course churches ought to welcome and work to welcome newcomers, but if we put ourselves in their shoes we see that life is busy and hard, and that perhaps we also would have trouble stepping up to the plate.
In a way, we are attempting to step into their lives. Ours are already disrupted. It is harder for them to step out of rhythm, even if only for a moment, than it would be for you to join their dance. Don't sit on the sidelines waiting. Try to step in there. Stumble, get embarrassed a little, don't take yourself too seriously.
And most of all, let us not give up meeting together.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.