Have you been away from parish life for a while, but now feel like returning? You're not alone.
Every now and then I hear from someone who, because they are interested in mysticism or contemplation, decide to participate in their neighborhood parish or congregation. Problem is, they left church many years (perhaps as a teenager or young adult) and now, deeply interested in the spiritual life, they recognize that they need a communal expression of faith but they simply find returning to church to be a strange and not necessarily welcoming experience.
So if you've been away from church for a while, how do you re-enter it? Especially if, in the meantime, you have discovered meaningful spirituality?
Here are a few tips from both my experience of returning to church, and also a few things I've learned even since my time of re-entry. Hopefully these will be helpful for you, if you are just now "coming back."
- You don't have to remain in the congregation (or denomination) you grew up in. Many people find that returning to the church of their childhood - or even a similar church, say of the same denomination - is painful. While it may be that God is calling you to an opportunity to heal some old wounds, you might also find that this is a time for exploration: finding a new community where you can make a fresh start.
- Just like every denomination is different, so too, every congregation is different. Find the right one for you. Churches are like people: each one has a different personality. Even within the same denomination, some churches are more liberal than others, or more justice-oriented, or even more contemplative. Even if you know you want to be involved in a Catholic Church, try to visit different congregations or parishes. See which one speaks to you.
- Beware of projection. You are not sixteen any more. If the last time you regularly participated in a church you were still a teenager, you might unconsciously relate to even a new church with the mind of a teenager (or young adult). It's important to remember that you are an adult now, and that you can expect the pastor and other leaders of the community to treat you as an adult, with the respect and dignity that you would expect from any other adult. If you find that you are feeling particularly defensive or reactive, think through what's going on: maybe you have to reassure your "inner teenager" that it's okay to relate to church as a grownup now.
- It's okay to have contemplative, interfaith or ecumenical interests. When you were last in a church, you may have been told that it's not okay to be interested in Buddhism, or in centering prayer, or in mysticism. Alas, plenty of churches have a narrow understanding of Christianity. But there are also plenty of churches where it's okay and even exciting to be interested in contemplation, mysticism, and ecumenical or interfaith work. Get to know the pastor of your church: invite him or her to lunch. Describe your interests, and see what response you get. If it's negative, you know you haven't found your home church yet. But you might be pleasantly surprised at just how many pastors are very much interested in these same things.
- You get to decide your level of involvement. Churches are non-profit organizations, dependant on financial support on volunteer efforts from their members. You may find that returning to church includes some subtle (or not-so-subtle) pressure to "get involved." Getting involved in a church can be a joyful experience, but you get to decide just how involved, and how soon. Beware of over-committing: there is such a thing as church-member burnout. It's better to start slow - maybe just one activity outside of Sunday worship at first. Then as you get more familiar with the community, you might change or expand your commitment - but only when you're ready.
- You get out of it what you put into it. This may seem to be a contradiction of #5, but they go together. While you don't want to over-commit, beware of under-committing too. Returning to church works best when we make a conscious commit to it. This includes the intention to help make our local parish the best it can be. If you are passionate about recycling and your church doesn't have a recycling program, you may be the person God has in mind to start one. Or to start a centering prayer group, or an interfaith book group. As you get to know your faith community, remember that finding the right level of involvement - which eventually may include taking on a leadership role - will be the best way for you to find satisfaction and even joy in your membership.
- Remember, Churches are like people. The perfect one doesn't exist. Even the most wonderful church will sooner or later let you down, and often (just like in romance) the qualities that attracted you at first may be the qualities that eventually will bug you the most. I once joined a church with a vibrant outreach ministry, active justice work, tons of programming opportunities. Eventually I became frustrated because the church seemed too active and not contemplative enough. If you leave a church every time you feel let down by it, you'll never stay in one place long enough for it to become "home." My advice? Find the church that feels right for you, and then learn to love it, warts and all.
When people who have been "away from organized religion" for a while decide to join a parish, it's a blessing. They bring a fresh perspective and an understanding of our world that others in the community may lack. So if you feel the urge to explore joining a faith community, please pursue it. And may God richly bless you!