Dinnertime was the worst.
I was 21 years old and had just transferred to a small college in Florida. I didn’t know anyone at my new school. Everyone else had lots of friends.
I was alone.
Going to class wasn’t so bad. Sitting, listening to the professor lecture, I didn’t stand out as the new kid. I took notes and then moved on to the next class just like everyone else.
But dinnertime was different.
Walking into the cafeteria, it was clear that everyone (except me) had dozens of friends. Everyone was having fun, laughing, talking, and enjoying their meals, while I sat alone, eating as quickly as possible so that I could leave as quickly as possible.
Have you ever felt like this? Alone in a crowd?
Being the new student was tough at first, but I soon made friends and began to feel as part of the school community. No longer did I have to eat dinner by myself and never again would I feel so alone…
Until 2 years ago when I moved to Vancouver, a city where I knew virtually no one.
Only this time, instead of the school cafeteria being the most intimidating part of the week, it was church that stirred my anxiety.
Walking through the doors of Westside for the first time brought back the loneliness that I had felt many years before. There were many smiling faces, and greeters even said “Hello” as I entered the church, but there I was, surrounded by hundreds of fellow Christians, and I was all alone.
What did it feel like when you first came to Westside?
Coming into a big church for the first time, especially if you are by yourself, can feel overwhelming. What do I do? Where should I sit? How do people here act? Do I belong?
In theory, there should be no more welcoming a place. Church is full of Christians. Christians are nice. And these are Canadian Christians…who could be nicer!
But, no matter where you are or who are you are surrounded by, being alone in a crowd is uncomfortable. And, if that’s how you feel right now, I’d like to share a few ideas that might help.
How to Build Community When You Feel Alone in a Crowd
1. Know that you’re not the only one
I made 2 rules when I first came to Westside.
Rule #1: I always had to sit in the front row. Why? I figured that if I sat in the back, it would be too easy to slip in and out undetected. Sitting in the front row was guaranteed to slow down my post-church exit.
Rule #2: As soon as the service ended, I had to turn around and introduce myself to whoever was sitting behind me. Sure, it would likely feel a bit awkward, but if I didn’t initiate, how could I expect others to?
What happened when I first tested these 2 rules?
Sitting in the front row, I turned around and introduced myself to the couple sitting behind me.
And guess what?
They were both new to Westside too! After our conversation, they actually thanked me for saying hello because they too felt a little out of place.
This has now happened more times than I can count. Feeling like the new person myself, I’ve met others who are just as new and who are just as eager to make friends and build community.
You are not alone. You are surrounded by others who would like to get to know you just as much as you would like to get to know them.
2. Don’t hesitate - jump in right away
On my very first Sunday at Westside, I joined a Community Group. At that point, I didn’t even know if I was staying in Vancouver long-term, but I understood that if I wanted to feel at home, I would have to get to know people outside of Sunday morning church services.
The people in my Community Group became my first Vancouver friends. They introduced me to Westside Outdoors and my friend group expanded. They invited me to serve at The Melting Pot and Dinner of Love and I quickly began to feel even more at home.
Building community at a big church can be challenging because so many people come and go. It can be easy to get lost in the crowd.
But, there are also advantages of attending a church of Westside’s size: There are dozens of groups and ministries to get involved in. There is something here for you. Don’t wait – choose something, anything, to get involved in and do it right away.
3. Be consistent and be patient
When I joined my first CG, I’ll admit that I wasn’t convinced it was the right one for me. I didn’t feel an instant connection with anyone in the group, and I considered leaving it to try another one.
Fortunately, I stayed.
True community comes with vulnerability. It’s when we begin sharing life with each other that deep relationships are formed. That’s not likely to happen in a week, or even a month. It takes time and consistent investment.
I remember the turning point in my CG came when we spent an entire evening in prayer. It was a small group that night, so maybe we felt safer to share the real stuff that was happening in our lives. Sharing, praying, be vulnerable. That night was when I knew that I was in the right place after all.
If you’ve put yourself out there by joining a CG or another ministry, but you still don’t feel like you’ve found your community, be patient. Think back to your deepest relationships – did any of those develop quickly? Didn’t they take time and consistent investment? The same will be true for your church community.
These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned about building community at Westside, and in life in general. What’s your next step going to be? How are you going to invest this week in building your community?
Dave has been attending Westside for the past year where he serves in the Bridging the Gap ministry as well as a Community Group leader. He has been a health coach since 2001 and was chosen as "Canada's Top Fitness Professional" in 2013. He hosts the weekly Make Your Body Work podcast and just released his latest book, Can't Lose.