June 29, 2017

Mike Bell: Some Thoughts on Change

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Note from CM: Good to hear from our friend from the north country, Mike Bell, today. As remains the case for many of us, the ecclesiastical journey continues for Mike. Here’s his latest update.

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Seventeen.  That is the number of churches that I have been involved in, each for more than a year. It may seem like a lot, but most of the changes were for fairly innocuous reasons.

Many of the changes have been as a result of moves.  London, England to Peterborough, Ontario, to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, back to Peterborough, on to university in London, Ontario, up after graduation to Ottawa, Ontario, west to Regina, Saskatchewan for more education, and finally back east to Hamilton, Ontario for work.

Two of changes were as a result of church closures.   One was a requirement for denominational accreditation.  One because of feeling that God was calling me in a different direction.  Only two were primarily as a result of theological or philosophical differences.

The last change was definitely the hardest.  We had been at our church for eight years, longer than I had been at any other church since my childhood. I agonized about my decision for two years before I made the final break.  I don’t want to get into why I felt I had to leave, but rather experiences in trying to find a new church.

I am an extrovert.  I make new acquaintances easily.  I remember six weeks into our last church a church member asked me “How long have you been here now?”  “Six weeks,”  I replied. “Wow,” she said.  “It seems like forever.”

Sliding into that church had been pretty easy.  My wife had been involved with a ladies Bible Study for a number years prior to attending.  I knew a couple of people from soccer.  The church very quickly felt like family.  One of the things that became very important to me was the relationships we had built up in our small group.  That was the hardest thing to let go.

At least I thought I was an extrovert.  Finding a church this time around was extremely difficult.  There were three churches that we visited that I think could have worked.  One where I was impressed with their eclectic music selection (music is very important to me.)  At another I was impressed with the friendliness of the people and the welcome I received.  The third had some strong points as well.

But the same thought struck me as I visited each of these churches: “I don’t think I have the energy to try and build another set of relationships. I don’t know that I can go into a new situation and start all over again.”  It seemed incredibly difficult and I wondered if how I was feeling was how an introvert might feel going into a new situation.

We did find a church that we have settled upon.  We have been there over a year now.  We still feel pretty anonymous, though the small group we attend has certainly helped.  I did have a few prior connections to some of families within the small group:  A guy with whom I had played soccer; a co-coach in hockey; a guy I had met at a mission conference years ago and knew by reputation; a family whose kids I had coached in soccer.

Our season of change is nearing an end.  Through it I have had a new appreciation of how difficult change can be, especially for those who might find making relationships difficult.  It has helped me see with a different set of eyes what walking into a new church can be like for many.  I think that it also encourages me to be of help to others who find themselves in similar circumstances.

Comments

  1. Ben Cribbin says:

    I’m glad you you’ve found another church Mike. I hope it becomes home soon.

    I left church because I didn’t think there were any that could help me grow, though I’m still very much involved in the world of christianity (thanks to Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, and this blog). I live in a foreign country, spend most of my time with fellow expats, and am wondering how long I’ll stay here. I have a job (teaching English), and there are plenty of expat communities that i can join – writing groups, colleagues etc. I’d like to become deeply invested in a place, and a community, somewhere green, where we can work on building friendships, supporting each other, enjoying life, and doing whatever work we have the chance to do in the world.

    If any commenters words of wisdom, prayers, or experience to share related to this, i’d like to hear them.

    Ben x

    • Michael Bell says:

      The new church has started to feel like home, though it has taken over a year to start to feel that way. The church setting in not conducive to social interaction, but the small group certainly helps in that. On the positive side the preaching is outstanding!

    • Ben, it’s quite an adventure and challenge living in another country and trying to find community there. My husband and I lived in Korea for 5 years teaching English. The churches where English was spoken were few, but there was one on our campus which we chose to attend all 5 years. I found it was really important just to jump right in to relationships. I made some amazing friends and I’m thankful for the time we had together, although I miss them a lot. In January we moved to Croatia where our son and his wife serve as missionaries. We decided we wanted to be close to some family. It’s been a little harder here to make close friends quickly, although I’m not giving up. So, keep trying. Hang in there. I also have found my life enriched so much by being friends with people from a variety of cultures.

  2. Great post Michael. You struck a few chords with me: I was in my mid-fifties when my wife and I made our last church change, and 59 when I finally jumped into a small group (that I now co-lead). I am an introvert most of the time or all of the time but come out of my dreamland for special occasions (like small group….lol).
    Many in our small group are either widowed, divorced, or both.

    How daunting these transitions are in our 50’s and 60’s. What grace is needed to walk the trails of GOD at this age, and “at altitude”. Blessings on you in your new journey, and may GOD grace you with walking, and camping friends….closer than brothers.

  3. For 37 years my wife and I have (or had) built our relationships around people we met at church (unfortunately 30 of those years were in unhealthy Baptist churches). It has been a comfort to know that when we made a move (changed locations) we would make friends at church in the new town.

    But it has been difficult most of the time (as Mike notes). I am not an extrovert, though one has to take the initiative to make friends at church. We have always had to be the ones to ask others out to dinner or to our home, always had to join into activities, etc. In fact, a few years back we spent about 8 months visiting a number of churches (6 or 7 I think) and were for the most part completely invisible (despite hearing sermons about how they were all about ‘connecting’ with people – more than once I wanted to raise my hand and say ‘been here 6 times, haven’t met anyone, not even the pastor’).

    I have worked from home for most of the last 25 years and between that and our social lives revolving around church, I really hadn’t known many non-Christian (or unchurched) people. In fact, for most of those first 30 years I heard a subtle (and often not-so-subtle) message that those ‘heathens’ were dangerous – drunkards, adulterers, baby-killers, thieves, and of course, Democrats! The only reason to have anything to do with them (and only for short periods in a controlled environment) was to evangelize them.

    Early this year we left a church we had been at for about a year (for various reasons, one of which was the lack of relationships) and are ‘in transition’. We decided to just take the summer off and go when we feel like it (which hasn’t been much). We bought a boat and have been spending weekends on the lake (sleeping on the boat). It has been a refreshing (and freeing) change. But what is surprising to me and my wife is that we have made more friends with far less effort in one summer than we did in years of going to church. And we don’t have to take the initiative – people are always inviting us to tie up to their boat or come down the dock for a drink (or a meal) on their boat or come to their lake house. And we have found those ‘heathens’ to be far more gracious, accepting, and unpretentious than virtually all the Christians we have known over the years. They don’t always have to be right, and they don’t feel the need to ‘fix’ people.

    It’s ironic that many churches proclaim they have the ‘answer’ to everything and offer an ‘abundant life’ (with an attitude of self-congratulatory triumphalism) yet are full of lonely people who can more easily find friendships in ‘the world’ – and often more genuine friendships at that. Is that the kind of churches Jesus wants?

    • Michael Bell says:

      I would say that my closest friends in town are from my daughter’s cycling community. Probably because they are the people I spend the most time with. I think friendship is made best in an environment where people are just “hanging out” – No agendas, no ulterior motives.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I think friendship is made best in an environment where people are just “hanging out” – No agendas, no ulterior motives.

        Which is why you can’t make them in the American Evangelical Bubble.

  4. Ronald Avra says:

    You are dead on that it takes a considerable amount of energy (and time) to establish and maintain relationships.

    • Exactly.

      This is why I come to the defense of church congregants who appear “unfriendly.” It’s difficult to begin and keep friendships, and most of us who’ve been in a particular church for a period of time already have their friendship circle. It’s extremely difficult for me to say, “Hey, here’s a new family! I’ll go make friends with them!” There’s just so many folks that a person can have a deep relationship with, and church time is the best time for me to keep/maintain relationships with people I only see once or twice a week.

      • Michael Bell says:

        ““Hey, here’s a new family! I’ll go make friends with them!””

        That is the part I find easy. What I find hard is being on the other end of the equation. Being in the situation I was in has made me even more aware of the “new family”.

  5. I’ve gone through a lot of church changes over the past decade or so, though not nearly as many as you, Mike.
    I was deeply involved in a non-demon fellowship for over 10 years — that is until it blew up and ceased to exist practically overnight. That was one of the hardest things emotionally that I have ever had to cope with. After that, I involved myself in small home church gatherings, but all of those petered out eventually. These days I attend a small Baptist church — mainly because my elderly mother plugged in there and she needs me to drive her to church on Sunday mornings. I have been hesitant to become a member or get involved in leadership, though they did recently draft me to play bass guitar in the praise and worship team. I enjoy playing music in just about any setting. On Wednesday nights I gather with some local closet heretics in an old hotel ballroom, where we talk about religious and spiritual issues that are generally out of bounds in most conventional church settings. I do enjoy those discussions, though it’s mostly just a lot of talk and very little action.
    I guess I have come to see myself as having a somewhat dysfunctional church family made up of a wide variety of Christ followers with whom I have made close connections over the years — rather than a specific group of people that meets at a specific place and time under a specific brand name. Most of those I consider part of my church family “go” to different churches than I do, though usually we did serve together in some kind of organized church situation in the past. Some are members of my family. Some are old friends. Some I see and talk to every day. Some I only see once or twice a year. But they’re all people with whom I feel comfortable praying or worshipping or serving or just talking about the Lord — with or without the context of a formal church setting.

    • >> I was deeply involved in a non-demon fellowship for over 10 years —

      Those non-demon fellowships are getting harder and harder to find. 🙂

      • Yes, I thought that was one of the better typos. 🙂

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          In Bob Aspirin’s Mythadventures fantasy/humor series, the word “demon” is short for “dimensional traveler” and “Imps” and “Deveels” are dimensional travelers from the dimensions of Imper and Deva known for con jobs and ripoffs.

      • Oopsie. I can’t believe I did that.
        And, yes, we were exclusionary against demons, fallen angels, wraiths, vampires, werewolves, orcs, witches, warlocks, necromancers, balrogs, and other such creatures from the Bottomless Pit. Trolls were welcome, so long as they sat in the back and behaved themselves.

  6. “I don’t think I have the energy to try and build another set of relationships. I don’t know that I can go into a new situation and start all over again.” To put it into sports terminology, “Let the game come to you.” Without knowing you let me say that I can guess most of the churches you have been a part of are better for your having been there but how you approach things now may be more subdued than how you did years ago. The back seat may be more fitting than the front right now. Do I sound like an astrologist? Stay in the flow of what’s happening now and let it be what it needs to be now. I say that because I used to be front and center and I could make that happen again if I chose to but it wouldn’t be organic anymore. My two cents.

  7. Sorry the musically eclectic place didn’t work out!

    I’m feelin you quite a bit right now. Just took a new call after burning out at the last place after 5 years. We had good friends there that had become like family, and the godparents of our two children, who were born in New York. It was time to go.

    So now in the new congregation, I’m just not in a hurry to rebuild the same relational network. I’m just to tired to try, and my inner cynic isn’t going to let me spend that much effort on it. But honestly, I’m OK to just take those things slow and work on the long game. I’m going to be there doing my thing and serving the people, so I imagine that presence will lead to developing friendships over time.

    However, I do not believe it is the job of the church to meet so many relationship needs for us. I think when we turn to a congregation to be our entire circle (which doesn’t sound like something you would do, but most do), we wind up losing any connection with those who are not a part of the church. I’m ok to let my circle of religious friends be a smaller part of my life, in the hope that this time I can develop more and better relationships outside the congregation. I no longer have any judgement for the kind of people who just want to show up on Sunday morning and then go home. In our theology, that is enough. We come to receive grace from Christ through Word and Sacrament, and all the bustle of the purpose-driven all ages 24/7 community family activity center can wait. The last church consumed my life, and the lives of most of its members. I don’t want to be consumed by the church. I come to consume the gifts of God, and having been filled, return to the world to love and serve my neighbor through my vocation.

    It’s hard walking away from some of the closest friends you’ve ever had in church work. Several of them are making the trek way out here to visit. There is a certain loneliness to starting over like this, and there is no shortcut around patience. But I am certainly learning to lower my expectations of the church in this area. The most important thing is to be where Christ has put us, and allow him to provide for our needs in His way. And sometimes there will be an uncomfortably long period of limbo.

    • Miguel, I hear the pain in your words, and I hope you won’t take it amiss if I say this sounds like a good move for you all the way around. You seem to be doing quite well with it, all things considered. I hope you can go with the flow of your particular grieving process and find new and better ways of understanding. God bless you and your family and your whole new situation.

      • Thank you, Charles. It is indeed a good move for us. Almost as if we have finally reached the light at the end of a very long tunnel. Right now it doesn’t feel a whole lot like grieving because there are so many other sources of relief. Despite a rather turbulent past with church work, we are relatively optimistic that this call could be one we stick with for a long time.

    • MIchael Bell says:

      Always appreciate your comments and perspective Miguel. In my experience the older I got the harder it got to make the necessary changes, so I envy your youth. Hoping that this next season of ministry is a restorative one for you.

  8. My wife was born in Hamilton, Michael.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Note from CM: Good to hear from our friend from the north country, Mike Bell, today.

    De Great White North, Eh?