I grew up in church. I was seven days old the first time I went and attended every Sunday, usually more than once, from that point on. It didn’t take all that much thought. Sunday equals church. And I loved it.
Then life changed, as it does. Among other things, I moved a fair distance away from the church I’d always attended and had kids who always seemed to choose the weekends to get sick. Someone challenged me on why it was so important to me to be there each week and I had no good answer. “Because it’s what you do on Sundays” didn’t seem like a good enough reason. I kept going, both to the church I’d grown up in and one a lot closer to home, but I also kept wondering why. I still loved church and still desperately wanted to be there each week. I just didn’t know why.
Christmas is always a busy time of year and this past one was particularly so. Between Christmas itself, holidays, sickness and family visiting from various parts of Australia, Sundays just seemed to keep passing me by. For three months. Three months of 10am Sunday going by, thinking of the fact that church was happening, and I wasn’t there.
I finally got back to church a fortnight ago after three very long months away. You should have seen how giddy I was with excitement getting ready. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to church! I don’t think I stopped grinning the entire service.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t spent time with God in all that time, or listened to worship music or anything like that. I’d even heard some sermons. But there was something so exciting about actually being there in the building.
The excitement wasn’t even about meeting God there. He’d been with me, close by me, that whole time I’d been away. The excitement was purely about the people. Spending time with other Christians. The very visible reminder that in this crazy Christian life, I’m not alone.
I can ‘do’ the Christian life – spend time with God, find my worth and encouragement in him, grow in my relationship with him, read book after book… With the amount of great teaching books available, the internet and its millions of podcasts, sermons and worship sessions and even full church services streamed online, it’d be easy to never have to go to a physical church again. I could do it, as I’m sure many people do. I certainly wouldn’t turn away from God. But I’d be lonely.
The truth is, I need the encouragement of others. I need that reminder that I’m not alone.
That girl struggling like me to understand why God doesn’t answer our deepest heart prayers.
The admission of a guy who, like me, still wants to be in control despite constantly trying to give it over to God.
The kids crying beside me and their parents doing the best they can parenting them, all the while wondering if anything they do or say will ever be enough.
One woman crying as her heart breaks in prayer; another whose smile beneath closed eyes makes me wonder what words of approval and love God is whispering to her heart.
The ninety-year-old man who’s been faithfully following God three times longer than I’ve been alive and whose prayers and excitement about heaven leave me awestruck.
The mums up the back feeding their babies and trying so hard to keep little ones occupied that they haven’t heard a word of the sermon. But they’ve been together.
Hearing story after story of lives changed and struggles overcome and knowing that if God could do that in that particular person, he could do the same in me.
I need church. Not for my relationship with God, but for me. For my own faith and encouragement. To remind me that in this upside-down Christian life – where servanthood is valued above prestige and faith so often defies human logic – I’m not alone. I love standing alongside all these people and worshiping God together. It feels like a glimpse into heaven. I appreciate the sermons, but it’s the people I cherish, even if I don’t even know all their names. God does, and that’s all that matters.
I know a lot of people who don’t believe church is important – both Christians and non-Christians. They claim it’s full of hypocrites and idiots and people they don’t agree with. Crying kids and bad music distract them. That lady’s too over-the-top-welcoming to be real (and therefore must be faking it). They learn better on their own. The pastor doesn’t know what he’s talking about… And the list goes on.
Maybe I’ve wondered on occasion, when faced with hurtful people or when I spent the entire time outside with my own crying child whether it really was.
Why? Because I’m as broken and messed up as they are, and it’s the encouragement of knowing I’m not alone that makes all the difference.
Churches aren’t perfect. They never will be. There will always be something, or someone, you don’t agree with. But whether it’s a congregation of ten people or a thousand, held in a backyard or a cathedral, has a band leading the music, a lone guitar or people singing badly along with a cd, we need church because we need each other.
Extrovert or introvert, we were never meant to do life alone.