What Church Means to Me
Unlike many of my peers, I have always had a good relationship with the church. As the daughter of a music pastor, I have fond memories of playing hide and seek during choir practice, inch-worming under the pews to spy on adults, sneaking thirds on brownies at potlucks, and coloring on our second-row pew until I was old enough to track with the sermons. In middle and high school, I cut my ministry teeth teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, corralling rowdy kids on VBS busses, and assembling care packages for the Ladies Missionary Fellowship. I get nostalgic when I think about the feel and smell of old hymnals, the sounds of lusty off-key voices, the taste of communion wafers and VBS Kool-Aid, the sight of the sanctuary decked for holidays, familiar traditions punctuating the calendar and setting my soul at ease.
While I loved the rhythms and rituals afforded by the weekly gatherings, the thing that defined church for me was its people. When I entered that space, I was surrounded by people who saw me, knew me, and nurtured me. For all their broken humanity (much of which I was blessedly ignorant in my childhood), these were the saints who formed, fed, and fortified my faith. They were, by cultural standards, not cool or hip. Most were not particularly well-off, stylish, or brilliant. They were Grandmothers who soothed my fevers when both parents were needed elsewhere, Dads whose sternness was betrayed by twinkling eyes, and Moms who patiently vacuumed crackers and glitter out of Sunday School carpet. I smile as I write this, recalling their faces and names, and consider myself blessed to have been seen and loved by those few hundred ordinary members of my congregation who gathered under that steep pitch every week to worship and commune.
Something curious happened, however, when it came time for my husband and I to follow our calling to build a church from scratch. I forgot what made church so meaningful to me. I was enticed by the methods of mega churches; the screens, the programs, the polished performances. I determined that, by being too folksy and familiar, my old church had alienated outsiders, especially the cool ones. I thought that striving to be culturally relevant while not dumbing down the message would attract hip, intelligent people (which is, of course, who I saw myself to be). I bought into the idea that flashy marketing and flawless music would draw a crowd, and that crowd size measured success. In short, I wanted a following, not a fellowship.
God in his mercy did not give me what I wanted.
Instead, he foiled my plans for greatness through a series of disappointments and disruptions, and gave me, in the end, the same basic church of my childhood (minus the choir and the organ). The ordinary people God brought to our little church reminded me what church is all about. Hearing them ask their questions after the teaching reminded me that church is not about performance, but participation. Listening to them lift their voices to sing along with imperfect musicians reminded me that it is not a place to be entertained, but to engage. Watching them get down on the floor with preschoolers reminded me that it is not about social status, but service. And observing their indiscriminate hospitality reminded me that church is not just for the put-together, but also for the down-and-out.
Fifteen years later, we find ourselves in a new phase of life, looking for a church again for our family to attend, this time in the Bible-belt South. We have visited a number of large churches, wondering if perhaps we’d like a change of pace - more programs for the kids, less intense involvement from us, a good sermon every week delivered by a bearded hipster pastor, rocking worship, gigantic screens, a perfect production. I wondered if my teenagers would be impressed with it all, like I once was, and beg us to attend the hottest act in town. Surprisingly, week after week, as we debrief in the van on the way home, they express their longing for less production, and more authentic community. And so, we are on the hunt for a smaller church that feels like a family gathering.
The church of my childhood was far from perfect. To hear me speak of it in another context, you would hear all the ways its legalism left me wounded and scarred. It had deep flaws, deriving from bad theology, authoritarian leadership, and a cult-like counter culture. You might look at all those scars and wonder why I haven’t given up on church altogether. Perhaps the reason I still love the church has to do with my definition of church, not as the sum of its practices and teachings, but as the weekly gathering of the family of God. This definition, indelible in my subconscious from my earliest church involvement, has allowed me to keep physically and emotionally showing up, adding my dishes to the potlucks, my voice to the worship, my efforts to the collective. The sermons may not always entertain, the music may not fit my style, the bulletins may have misspellings, and like every family, it might have some less-than-perfect members. But I am determined to count myself among those imperfect members and contribute to the family of God wherever I land because I have learned to value authentic community over slick production.