I've been to church in lots of places (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Utah, New York, Washington, Arizona, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Venezuela, North Carolina, Connecticut, and probably a few more I can't remember), and from time to time I've heard (as some of you have, no doubt, too) someone say, often in a testimony, that "the church is the same everywhere you go."
Well, no, it isn't.
And, yes, it is.
Yes, the meeting structure is the same (generally a three-hour block on Sundays, generally the same curriculum, of course the same scriptures (assuming they're available in the language of the congregation), though perhaps in different languages), but part of what makes the church the church are the people. And given the diversity of geography, ethnicity, language, economic standing, political views, family stage, age, and so on, we can't expect things to be the same everywhere.
To be sure, I'm playing a bit of a game here. When some say "the church" is the same everywhere, they mean the gospel. And God and the gospel don't change from place to place. But local culture (infused by all those differences I mentioned above) plays a big role in what an individual congregation is like.
We have lived in some wards where, as active members with long experience in the church, we were sorely needed by a tired bishop to help staff organizations in the ward. And we've lived in other wards where we were a dime-a-dozen in terms of our experience. We lived in international wards where we spoke the minority language and had to rely on translation, and we've been in some wards where others spoke the minority language. Small inner city congregations have unique challenges compared with suburban units, just as suburban units have their own set of challenges.
To be sure, we hope we find some comfort in the "sameness" of congregations when we travel or move from place to place. But many have also felt the disappointment that a new ward just isn't the same as the one they left.
My wife and I have moved more often than we ever imagined we would. We've been "new" in 11 wards, including times we've moved back into a ward after having been away, and including two ward divisions. We've developed a couple of coping mechanisms for our moves.
First, we try to join the ward choir wherever we go, assuming there is one. It's something we enjoy doing, and we are able to find a few like minded folks pretty quickly.
Second, we try to get to know our ward leaders in the bishopric, Relief Society, priesthood, and whatever organizations our kids might be in. We know the bishop is often too busy, but by our reaching out we get to know a few people, and hope that a friendship sticks.
Finally, we seek opportunities to serve. We'll tell the bishop early on that we're ready for callings when he's ready to extend them (so he won't hold off allowing a "settling in" period). And we volunteer to do stuff where it's needed and where we can. I've made a couple of good friends helping to unload someone else's moving van.
What's your experience in different wards and branches? How have you coped with the changes?