I grew up in the church that my parents literally turned around in one Sunday back in 1979, fell madly in love and got married. The air conditioning in that church owes their thanks to my parent's union: it was so hot that June and everyone was so miserable that they immediately voted to put in air. My Dad served as an Elder, my mom was a frequent soloist (Sandi Patty anyone?) and I was the church pianist from around age sixteen until I was twenty-eight. I was practically born into church attendance. I was even born on a Sunday. I've always known church.
I have not, however, always known about finding a new church.
A few months after my husband I married, we felt very called to leave where we were currently and set down roots elsewhere. This was not without fear or heartbreak. Leaving anywhere warm and familiar and comfortable is terrifying. It just is. It's also hurtful and confusing and something no one wants to do if they don't have to. Ironically, we "ended up" in the midst of a much larger church body than we were accustomed and also a church body that I had been a limited part of for years and years, once upon a time when I served as a youth leader. I used to lead a girl's small group and made lessons and newsletters every week, went to Sunday night youth group, Summer trips, and the whole nine yards. I was committed. I was exactly where I needed to be. And now? Now, we're back, again.
This time, however, I am married and a young mother. This time, I am not known by the youth kids and the ones that knew me are getting married themselves (crazy!). This time, I am still involved with the choir, but no one knows or remembers me - I guess time and baby weight will do that to a person. Many of the people that I knew and served with and adored have been placed by God elsewhere... so I'm new. I'm just one of many in a sea of faces during one of the three services.
When we found out we were pregnant last year, I recall vividly sitting in service at our new church and wanting to bawl my eyes out. There was no one really to tell. There was no one who really knew us well enough that would burst into joyful tears with me. There was no one to ask us out for lunch afterwards. That day, I wanted my prior church family in the most painful of ways. I wanted to announce our coming child and have everyone squeal and us all join downstairs for a carry-in lunch. I wanted community.
This past Sunday we had our son dedicated. Our families were there and I was so excited. I was excited to be doing this, because I felt that it was intrinsically important. Despite taking a five month hiatus from church (I know, I know) and very nearly not returning... we did. And God is blessing us so much that it makes my toes curl. The day we finally returned to church post-baby, I told my husband as we pulled into the parking lot, "I feel giddy." I wanted to jump out of my skin. We were back.
And now, a year+ since that lonely day, sitting in the pew all pregnant and hormonal and tearful, we are joyful. We are received. We have people who notice if we are not there. We are loved. We have friends who practiced with their video camera days before Joel's dedication to make sure it was ready to go. When we arrived for church, they were already seated on the very front row. For us. For our son. How beautiful is that? We have been welcomed. We have been offered hospitality in a land where we didn't belong and where we felt that we never would.
Once we decided to stand tall and dig in our heels, we (my husband and I) told each other that if we were going to go back - we had to get serious. We had to start being givers, not just takers. If we wanted to make friends, then maybe we needed to make the first move. If we wanted to not be strangers, then maybe we needed to get involved. We joined a Small Group, he played softball and I nervously joined a MOPS group. I frequently stalk people on Facebook that I meet just once or that I haven't even met at all in an effort to branch out. Not just for my benefit, but hopefully for theirs, too.
Because, the way I think, I bet they don't want to be alone, either. I bet they feel nervous and scared and wishing to belong more than maybe they do. Sometimes I see young mothers, just like me, and I wonder how long they've been attending and do they still feel brand new? Has anyone helped them carve out a place for themselves? Has anyone said, "Here, let's dig you a place right here for your roots. Right here next to mine."
I was reading last week and came across a quote by Julianus Pomerius that said, "Un-bend one's self." And that's such a hard thing to do. But it's what you must do. You have to open your life, your home. You have to get past your nerves and join a group or sing in the choir. If you don't, you won't stay. And if you don't... maybe they won't stay. We can't stay wrapped in the same cocoon of friendships, small groups or activities. You have to branch out. Serve where you've never served before. Sit in *gasp* a new pew on the other side of the sanctuary. Learn names, not just faces. Study the church directory. These people are your sacred family.
Neglecting to show hospitality is a Biblical no-no. We focus so much on not killing, not envying, and not cheating on our spouses with each other's spouses, that we overlook some simple things like loving as Christ loves us and being hospitable. "Be alert servants of the Master... don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality." (Romans 12:1, The Message).
For the record: we're all needy Christians. We're all in need of some kindness and outreach.
If there is a place where people should never feel alone, it is in the midst of the Body of Christ. The last place you should feel like an alien or an outsider or a very nearly unwelcome observer is in the church. What is a church really accomplishing if the people within its walls feel as though they are invisible? Is it their fault that they feel that way... or is it the fault of us, as Christians (Christ-followers) not executing the commandments of kindness and mercy very well? Church can't just be about what you get from what - it has to be about what you can give. Where you can lend a hand. Who you can hold a door open for or who you can invite to your mid-week Bible study. It's about asking God's people - young and old - into your home. Into your lives. It's about the older mingling with the younger - learning, growing and serving together.
It's about being the Body. Some are hands. Some are feet. But we're all connected. We need to make sure that when we gather together on Sunday mornings (and the days in between) that we're acting like it...
"For this very reason, make every effort
to add to your faith goodness; and to
goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge,
self-control; and to self-control,
perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;
and to godliness, brotherly kindness;
and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you
possess these qualities in
i n c r e a s i n g
measure they will keep you from being
ineffective and unproductive
in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."
~ 2 Peter 1:5-8