It’s not very often I meet other Christians who are former atheists. Typically, in church circles I’m surrounded by people who grew up in church, often that very church. They’ve been in the church lifestyle since birth. They’ve never experienced being new to the faith. On the occasion that I do meet a convert – whether that be a convert to Christianity altogether or a convert to a new and vastly different denomination – they frequently struggle adjusting to the culture of their faith and their church. There are a lot of things that are completely foreign to us converts that are totally normal to those who grew up in church. There is new vocabulary. There’s a new way of living. There’s a very large bible to study and spend years coming to understand many things. There are also controversies and doctrines to sort through. There are labels and cliques and movements and categories. With the people comes pressure, agendas, preaching every perspective on every topic, teachings that are true and teachings that are false all mingled in together, and a mountain of confusion. It’s an immense transition from the secular life. There are some random thoughts I’d like to tell new converts, things I wish someone had told me when I was a new Christian nearly 15 years ago (2005).
Congratulations. You’re a new Christian? That’s awesome! Truly, it is an amazing thing. Your whole life will be different with this change. Walking with Jesus is a completely different way to live. There is hope, peace, and faith like you’ve never experienced before. Becoming a Christian is the most life-changing thing you’ll ever do. It is exciting, the newness of faith, the way it refreshes your soul. It can also be overwhelming because there’s so much new information and so many people have different opinions on every little thing. There is also a sea of churches to choose from and denominations and so many things to look at while you’re trying to figure out where you belong.
The first thing I would say to the brand new Christian me is this: Take your time exploring. You don’t have to pick sides or adopt labels. You can visit different churches, study different beliefs, and go your own path.
You don’t have to choose a denomination right away. Actually, you don’t have to choose a denomination at all. It would be wise to spend a few years studying the bible and forming your own faith before you decide which denomination matches your beliefs and interpretations the closest.
You should find a church. You might stay there forever or you might move on to different churches. It’s actually pretty common for people to stop going to a church or start going to another. There are so many reasons for this. I want you to know that it’s okay. It is okay if you feel led to plant yourself somewhere else. It’s okay if they are different denominations. You don’t commit your life to a church. I have visited many churches. I was Catholic when I was a new Christian (I thought that was the oldest denomination so I picked that one). Then I went to a Baptist church. A bit over 5 years after becoming Christian, I started going to an Apostolic Pentecostal church. That’s the denominational category I’ve settled in, but I actually switched churches last year. And that’s okay. Go where you feel God wants you.
If you leave a church, be aware that church folk get a bit jealous and may completely cut social ties with anyone who leaves their group. Even when switching to a church of the same kind, it’s not uncommon for people to have hard feelings towards whoever left. Don’t take it personally. The first time I left a church I was basically shunned. Everybody stopped talking to me. I would try to say hello to people in public and they would literally turn their backs to me. It was awkward. I had no idea Christians did that, at least not Southern Baptists. I thought that sort of radical behavior was for ultra-conservative churches or cults. Nope, it turns out even the mainstream can be salty and cold-shoulder anyone who dare move on to where God leads them.
Denominations are a crazy thing. They can kind of be name brand snobs. People often think their denomination is the best, the most right, the closest to God, superior to all others. Okay. You do you. They bash each other a lot. Don’t get wrapped up in that. The people at different churches under a different label are still your brothers and sisters in Christ.
You don’t have to do anything you are not comfortable with. You are guaranteed to encounter people who pressure you or instruct you to do what they think you should do. Especially as a convert, you’re going to have people in churches that think it is their place to guide you. They don’t always communicate well. They have good intentions, but can make people uncomfortable by telling them what to do or not do. A good mentor gets to know you and where you want to go; they journey with you taking you further into understanding and growing. Good mentors are rare. You’re going to have people that tell you to do things you don’t want to do. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to say you’re not comfortable with that or that’s not really your thing. Piece of advice: Keep your distance from the bossy ones. They will choke out your growth and do more spiritual damage than you think they can.
Don’t buy into the division. Seek unity. Seek fellowship. Seek to learn and grow. Seek to build each other up. There are many Christians who tear each other down all the time. Those are not your people. Stay away from anyone with a spirit of division. They are destructive to your walk with God.
Get to know your bible. It’s a different kind of book. There are different ways to study. Become familiar with the different sections, their purpose, their relevancy today, and different ways to study it. The bible is the book of truth you need to use to check whatever you’re being told.
Pray even when you suck at it. I remember the first time I prayed. I was 17 and on my knees at my bedside at night. I remember shaking I was so nervous to talk to God. I had no idea how to pray. I had never seen either of my parents pray. I didn’t know the right way to do it or if I was doing it wrong. I was afraid I’d be disrespectful or say the wrong thing. Listen, God is your heavenly father. You can talk to him. Your prayer life will improve with practice. It will become something that strengthens you, guides you, and gives you peace. Get in the habit of praying daily. It doesn’t have to be fancy or long. There is a time for in depth prayers and there is a time for quick ones. Get yourself in a praying church where you can hear the seasoned saints praying. It will build your prayer life. Try out some prayer meetings. It’s okay to just watch. You don’t have to pray in front of people. Put yourself in the atmosphere of prayer. You’ll learn how to go about it and how to be strong in your prayer life.
Give yourself grace. You’re not perfect, none of us are. You’re going to screw up. You’re going to sin. You’re going to have days that you do things you know you shouldn’t have done. You’re always just one step away from redirecting. Repent. Forgive yourself. Let go of shame. Get back on track. It’s okay. You can always come back to God. No matter how far you’ve gone, how long you’ve been distant, no matter what you’ve done or what you struggle with, Jesus still wants you. He’ll take you back. There is no darkness too dark. There is no situation he can’t move in. There is no one he can’t redeem. There is no one so broken God can’t restore them. Don’t ever think you can’t come back. You can always come home.
Some of your beliefs are likely to change over time. It’s a good thing to grow. Many of my beliefs have changed over the years. Before I was Christian, I knew next to nothing. I knew people believed some guy named Jesus died on a cross, there was a heaven and hell, they had a bible, there were 10 commandments (but I didn’t know what they were), and the popular Noah’s Ark nursery theme was based on a bible story about a flood. That’s literally all I knew. I didn’t know much beyond that when I became a Christian. I didn’t understand even the basics. It was all new to me. Naturally, 15 years into the faith I understand things in much more depth than I did as a newbie. There was always a lot of criticism when my beliefs would change. People acted like I was being inconsistent or wishy-washy. Really, I was simply growing. That’s a good thing.
Your journey is your own. Remember that. Faith is a very personal thing. Your walk with God is between you and Jesus. It’s not for anyone else to control or take authority over. It’s not something for people to tear down, criticize, or correct when your walk doesn’t look identical to theirs. You will learn and grow at your own pace. You will have your ups and downs. We all go through seasons of abundance and seasons of seeking or struggling. When the noise around you gets to be too much, pull back and spend some time alone with God. Study the bible. Pray. Listen for that still, small voice. Walk with Jesus always.
If you are seeking for some things to study first as you are in the early stages of being a Jesus follower, here is what I would recommend.
If you are a convert to Christianity, what would you go back and tell the brand new Christian you?