Many families seek a congregation during the holiday season.
Finding the right one for you.
It was Christmas Eve and I was home with my son while my husband was working at his job in a profession that doesn’t distinguish between holidays and normal days. Although we had been living in Haymarket for over 10 years and had bounced around to different churches at random times and on select holidays, there had never been one that we called home…yet. My husband wasn’t crazy about the informal atmosphere and ultra-contemporary feel of some of the nondenominational places we had visited. But I wasn’t quite comfortable with the unfamiliar traditions and ultra-large congregation at some of the other churches we had tried. I began searching online for a service in our area that had the latest Christmas Eve service times in the hopes that we could attend as a family when my husband got off work. Although we hadn’t been regular church attendees, it was important to me that my family honored this Christian holiday.
The latest evening service was at a place where I already had made friends from previous interactions in the Haymarket community for so many years. Happy to have found one that fit our schedule, we put on our Christmas finery and headed to the service. The congregation was humble in size. Check. The people knew us and welcomed us at the door. Bonus. The pastor knew me by name. Impressive. As the service began, little bits from our childhoods in our respective denominations began to stand out to both me and my husband. During a specific prayer, I saw him smiling. The music, although contemporary songs that I knew from the radio, were sang in a way that made them feel traditional. The ending of the service brought tears to my eyes as we sang and one lit candle began a path to each parishioner until the whole room glowed with the most beautiful light. That feeling… this was it. We felt at home then, and still feel the same almost three years later.
So how do you find the house of worship, whether it be church, synagogue, or other faith based congregation that is right for YOU? Many would say the very first step is finding out if the particular house of worship you are considering shares your core religious values and teaches from the religious text you believe in. That may be the easy part.
A 2014 Pew Research Center study, U.S. Religious Landscapes, says that about half of U.S. adults search for a new congregation usually because their families have moved to a new town or city, something many families in our local area may relate to. The very first factor these families consider is the quality of the preaching, followed by the tone they felt coming from the congregation, meaning how welcoming they are and comfortable they make visitors feel. The style of worship services was another of the top factors that influenced visitors.
I asked Pastor Tim MacGowan of Living Hope Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Haymarket for some insight about what makes people decide which church is right for their family. He explains that many families factor in the availability of childcare or the quality of the youth group program for their teens. For some, it’s tradition and they want to attend the denomination they were raised in. For others, it may be how the leaders handle the religious texts: do they teach directly from the stories of the Bible, for example, or do they focus on the general topics instead?
Sister Joanna Burley, Director of Mission Integration and Communication for the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia in Bristow, emphasizes the fact that “prayer is deeply individual and private, and at the same time shared and social.” For that reason, it is imperative that parishioners feel a sense of belonging, fitting in. And even within denominations, each service is unique from the others. It is not possible for everything to be perfect, Sister Joanna says, but “when one’s soul rests, when a sense of peace and welcome and familiarity spreads like warmth through one’s heart and the mind is both comforted and challenged, then the place is right.”
Rabbi Schmuly Perlstein, of the Chabad of Greater Gainesville and Manassas, echoes these sentiments, saying that “if someone is walking into a synagogue, he or she is looking for something.” A place of worship should be the last place anyone should feel uncomfortable, he adds, since the primary purpose of being there is to get away from your environment and connect with God on a personal level.
So this explains how people seek out a home house of worship but doesn’t answer the question why. Pastor MacGowan points out one element of our modern world that leads people to seek out a religious home and family is the impact social media has had on our lives. Because there are becoming fewer and fewer opportunities for adults — and teens too — to cultivate personal relationships face-to-face, church becomes one of those places. If you do not have a network of support through work or your neighborhood, and your family lives far away, your place of worship can become that for you.
In our society, most people who have not been raised with religion do not suddenly make the decision to pursue it, Pastor MacGowan says. It is often triggered by an event, he says, like a marriage, the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, or a health crisis. And this trigger causes the person to begin to question his or her spirituality.
Families also may flock to houses of worship during religious holidays. Sister Joanna says there is something deeply sacred about the holidays, and even those who don’t attend regular services feel a pull to acknowledge their faith during these times. Rabbi Schmuly says that in this day and age, religion is not always a priority but these holiday times are when people feel a ‘gut-check’ and begin to examine exactly what is taking priority over their lives. “We have to be where our heart and souls find meaning; our souls tell us where to be,” he says.
“Holidays are a marking point,” Pastor MacGowan says, especially if someone has lost someone. It becomes ‘this is my first Christmas without my mom’ and people feel a void in their lives and begin to look for a support system. And because the holidays bring up questions about what they believe, church becomes a way to seek out help answering those questions. “God put in us a desire for real, meaningful relationships,” says Pastor MacGowan, adding that if you find a good church, you can have those relationships with people and with God, and they become very important in your life.
When I asked people in our community how they knew when they had found “the one” they all responded in different ways. Jenifer Griffin of Gainesville said her realization happened when she wanted to go to church, not had to. Jill Moser of Haymarket explained: “I knew we found the right church when Nancy [director of Student Ministries] scooped my newborn out of my hands and said ‘go eat, I’ll take care of him for a bit.’ ” Jill’s husband Dave found the content of the sermons was the biggest factor for him.
“It’s a connection that you have with the pastor and the congregation,” said Amanda Murphy of Haymarket, who feels that you know when you know but “it’s definitely not an easy journey finding the right place to worship.” A few others reported they felt like the pastor was talking directly to them at times. A Gainesville resident who attends church in Haymarket, Laura Newman feels connected to the pastor and members but also leaves feeling “full and inspired.” At first, Manassas resident Donna Dailey didn’t feel anything when attending some “nice churches,” but one particular visit changed all that. “By the time I left, I knew,” she says, adding that she finally felt comfortable to be herself and “it just felt right.” At times, feeling moved to tears, or laughing or nodding in agreement, Kim Williams of Manassas, says she “can’t wait to go back because I might have walked in empty but I left with a full tank.”
There were many reasons for my and my husband’s desire to find a home church, among them raising our children with faith and having a place for worship as a family each week. But we quickly found out that it meant so much more than that. After our first year of attending, in the midst of one of the most difficult times of our lives, our home church wrapped their arms around us and never let us go. They provided meals, support, encouragement, and most of all, love and prayers. To this day, my church family shows how much they care for me every single time I see them. My pastor maintains a personal relationship with my family through the years we’ve been attending. He has visited me in the hospital, christened my baby girl, and has been providing emotional support while communicating with me to assure me he is ready and available to help in any way, whenever my family may need it. To say that we don’t know how we would have made it through our crisis without them is an understatement.
You might not know right way that you have found your home. It may take several visits. It may take years to gain that kind of comfort. But when it happens, your life will be enhanced in ways you may not realize immediately. Your religious family will celebrate your successes and cry with your failures. They will be there in the midst of difficulty and when your life is at the highest point of happiness. Finding your “home” is possible.