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An Open Letter to the Local Church (Located Near a Military Installation. Part 1)

Empty Church pews in the local church

* I will start by saying that this post is not calling out a specific church, placing blame, or pointing fingers. This post has been a long time coming. It is more or less an observation to start a dialogue between military families and church leadership to encourage and equip the local church with an inside look into what helps the military community and what hurts it within the context of the local church body. It should also be noted that this is one family's observations, so if you are a military family or on staff at a church and have anything to add, please comment below to help continue the conversation.

For the church located near a military installation,

We are a military family that has been living a nomadic life for the last thirteen years. Through moving from place to place, we have been blessed to check out and be a part of several local churches. When orders come down, and we find out where our new duty station will be, one of our top priorities is researching the new area we will begin to call home. Researching the local churches in the area makes the top of this list so that we have a decent idea of where to check out right away.

We have discovered through this process that while the research is seemingly helpful, we genuinely don't get an accurate feel for the church until we are physically in it. There have been churches at the top of our list to visit that end up not being what we thought once we were there. This can be a disheartening process for the military family. Church shopping can quickly become overwhelming, and watching church from the comfort of one's couch becomes increasingly appealing. Here's the thing, though: military families NEED a church body. We NEED a community of believers around us. The military lifestyle can be very isolating and lonely. It's a lifestyle filled with stress, change, and adaptation. The challenges of military life also create a need for sound doctrine and a community willing to meet us where we are.

Here are a few observations about my fellow military families you should know as a church body. We are church homeless. This is a given, but why not start with the obvious? For many of us military families, we seek our next church home. This provides you (the local church) with a beautiful opportunity. Knowing this and actively welcoming us into your church congregation with open arms can do wonders for both parties. (As a side note, this needs to be more than just a handshake and a polite I'm so glad you are here statement once a week). I can't tell you how many times we have attended a church for multiple weeks where no word was spoken. While this looks to be a seemingly minor issue of being welcoming, this fact can be very telling of the health of the church body.

Consider it like this: a new military family sits in the back. No one is sitting around them, nor is anyone interacting with them. Everyone greets those who regularly attend, not wanting to put forth the effort for awkward introductions and small talk. Despite the silence, this family continues to visit for a few weeks as they determine if this is the church they want to stay at. As quickly as they arrived and quietly observed for several weeks, they were suddenly gone. While some view this as a missed opportunity to say hello or a family just checking out another church, this is what I see.

I see a family determining if this church body will include them in their already well-established body of believers. I see a wife desperate for community as she looks around, waiting for someone to say something to acknowledge her existence. I see a husband analyzing whether this church body will truly support his family while deployed. I see a family who yearns for their "home" church while trying to stay open-minded. Ultimately, I see the potential for military families to drift into the notion that the church is not for them and that they are not needed or wanted.

One of the many challenges of having a local church near a military installation is the high turnover rate. Keeping programs going with a revolving door of volunteers constantly coming and going is hard. I am sure the continuous ebb and flow of church members can get exhausting for the staff and the local members. As a local, seeing your church home thrive one month and take a heavy hit of losses the next month would be rather disheartening. It's easy to stop trying to rely on said military members because that creates a hole to be filled once they are gone.

While I can understand the frustrations of this issue, there is also beauty to be found. What an incredible opportunity you have as a church to fulfill the Great Commission within the walls of your church building. As new military families come in, choose to pour into them. Disciple them. Support them while they are in the area. Treat them like family or friends that you have known your whole life. The impact that you will make on them will move with them to the next duty station. This in and of itself is a tangible way to be mission-minded within the walls of your church building.

As you are reading this, I hope this encourages you rather than reading defensively. This letter intends not to tear down the local church and point out flaws but to help build up those who may be struggling with this. I am sure there are some churches located near military installations that are thriving. They have a vision for the revolving door and have implemented steps to embrace the perpetual motion rather than fight it. For the churches who are in the trenches with this issue, I see you. There is a divide. The gap that forms between your military body and local body can be a frustrating one. The lack of support as a pastor to know how to reach and invest in your military members can be discouraging.

For now, I hope we can both agree that there is an issue, and to start bridging the gap and supporting one another, we must acknowledge when something isn't working. How do we get there? What can the military members of your body implement to help bridge the gap? How can the locals of your body step up to the plate and have a heart for consistent change?

In part two, I plan to dive into some ideas for the church staff and hopefully shed some light on what we, as military families, look for.

As we discuss this topic, I hope and pray that the local church will feel more equipped to welcome their military members with open arms and understand what helps us step into a new church every few years and thrive.


Valerie McNulty

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