Many of us have experienced the loneliness and confusion that revolves around church attendance and religion. We know it’s God’s will for us to get connected, but it often comes with messy experiences, internal questions and life altering decisions. We know this post by Rachael will touch many hearts, and perhaps bring healing to those who have felt like they need to give the Bride of Christ a second chance.
Inviting people into the church community can be one of the most awkward things to do, but as I have learned, it is also one of the most powerful. Sometimes someone is just standing before us, waiting and hoping for that invitation. And sometimes they are running far, far away from it, towards less awkward things, like brunch. Today I want to share my own story of how my friends invited me to church by inviting me into life-giving community.
It all started in 2010. I left my family and friends and all I ever knew, and traveled with my life partner 3,000 miles across this great country and showed up on California’s doorstep with zero clues.
But really, how big of a deal is moving to a new state? We will show up to church a few times and go to lunch with some friends. Next, we will go on vacation and raise our children together.
One problem with that plan is I had no history or connection to a person on this coast beside a handful of family members I had only met a few times. The other problem is, California is like another country, completely culturally different from the deep South (where I lived for ten years) or the rural Midwest (where I grew up). It’s possible I was also recovering from a season of spiritual and ministry burn-out. (So…maybe more than one problem here.)
Upon our arrival to this great state, we had been out of church for at least three years, which seemed like a decade. If you had told me at that time that we actually would be uncommitted to church for close to a decade, I would have been extremely concerned for myself. (And plenty of people were, which was mildly irritating, impossible to explain, and yet super understandable.)
I have a rich spiritual lineage and was raised in a home that encouraged me to cultivate a deep faith in God. David and I met working together in ministry, so the early stages of our friendship were also nurtured the same type of spiritual atmosphere. It was a community of zealous young adults going after a lifestyle of prayer, fasting and worship. (Not a bad place to meet a spouse, if I do say). The time I spent with this ministry was profoundly formative to the person I am today. I sometimes say that the year I was there feels like ten years in the impact it had on my life. Overall it was extremely positive, but being twenty-three and lacking maturity in many areas, my relationship and boundary-setting skills were not fully developed, and I fell into some imbalance and confusion.
A few months after we got married, something weird started to happen where one day, I couldn’t stand any more church. Any more Christian jargon. Any more acoustic guitars. Any more religious obligations. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the thought of church just made me want to run the opposite way. There was one particularly low Sunday I remember sitting on the steps of our townhome begging David not to make me go.
At the time it seemed like something dark and shameful was happening to me. Looking back ten years on myself, it was really probably just your garden variety ministry burn-out and also being sort of a typical Millennial about church things. I had come to feel like church was a disingenuous place of leaders with a bunch of visions they wanted us to fulfill. I also had some intellectual/philosophical questions about the Bible and Christian faith, which ironically I had never really sought answers to before this “church crisis.”
I was really hoping that after we moved everything would just be fixed. We were optimistic and immediately tried getting “plugged in” to church, but that actually just left us more confused and weirded out.
Then a wonderful thing happened. I got pregnant with K.K. and decided to have a home birth and stop drinking diet soda. (That was so hard, the soda part.) I found a community of other home birth and naturally-minded mothers who, just so happened to be Jesus people. Some of them, unbeknownst to me, leaders at a big, local church called The Father’s House.
We all had our first babies around the same time and we called ourselves the Crunchy Moms. I’ll never forget my first time at my friend Katie’s house…I just felt like I had finally found some people that I wanted to throw myself upon and cry “PLEASE, PLEASE INVITE ME OVER AGAIN.” I felt energized and hopeful…especially that I would be invited back for more of this energy and hopefulness.
They did invite me again. They also invited me to church, but not just to church…into their actual lives. It was barbecues and baby showers and play dates and group texts. Meal trains and clothing exchanges and park dates and prayer meetings.
We did go to church a few times out of obligation and even had stretches at a time where we would go maybe once a month. We tried and tried again at various churches, primarily with awkward results. (We mostly had brunch. Because trying to sprint from your seat to your car without being greeted by friendly congregates is a panic attack, but waffles with whipped cream just let you live.)
These friends kept on inviting me into their lives over about a four year period. They kept including me in their baby showers and park dates. They probably kept wondering what was up with me and my weird church attendance issues (They were definitely wondering). Any time the subject would come up, I would pretty much make up a new answer. “Yes, we’re going to church in Roseville. Oh, no we’re going over here now.” Or simply, “No, we don’t go to church here.” Let me tell you if you want to make it awkward, hang out with Christians and tell them you don’t go to church anywhere.
I can’t tell you how many times I laid my head on my pillow at night and just wondered, “WHY? WHY IS THIS HARD? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? WHY CAN’T I JUST MAKE MYSELF DO THIS?”
But I can tell you this, Jesus was not scandalized by my church attendance records. At a time when I could not deal with walking into a church building, He sent friends to be the Church to me. They gave me the free gift of friendship and community, no strings attached. No spiritual checklist. No special performance. No slots to fill. Just friendship and love and acceptance and someone to text in the middle of the night. It was the Zoe life of Christ, shared freely.
Last year in November, I went to my first IF Table. I was invited, of course, by the same friends who had been inviting me to these kinds of things for four years. I walked into my friend Arianna’s house. In this process of being part of that table, a new thing awakened in my heart. I wanted to come back. Not just to come back for the food (though that was really good), but to be part of a church again, for real. Like in a tithing-regular-attendance-taking communion kind of way. As we met together over the winter and spring, I stopped feeling like a skeptic and an imposter and started to feel a legitimate sense of belonging.
At the end of 2015, that church moved into a new building. Something strange happened. First, we went to it…on our own accord. Second, instead of being annoyed about the lights and sound system and mega-church seating (like we were SOOOO sure we would be), we actually loved it. (“Judge not, lest ye end up eating your words and being asked to write a blog about it.” —Me)
As we walked out of our first service in the new building, David looked at me and said, “You know, this is the first time in years that I have been to church and felt like I belonged here.”
And I said, “You know what? Me too.”
A few months later we were sitting in a sermon called The Invitation. Right in the middle of it, our pastor said, “You know…you’re here because someone invited you.” Yeah, that was me. I was that person who was really here because I had been invited to this stuff a whole bunch of times. Otherwise, I knew I wouldn’t have been sitting in that seat. As this realization dawned on me, I felt incredibly humbled, and yet incredibly loved and pursued at the same time. (That’s how you know it’s the Holy Spirit talking.)
On that day, the confusing bits and pieces of the last ten years sort of started to fall into some semblance of a story. Mine is the story of being invited to the table and told that I belonged. Strangers took a risk on me. They spent their friend-equity on me. They gave me something that I couldn’t create alone.
After it was all said and done, it wasn’t church leaders suddenly becoming faultless saints or all my intellectual questions being answered (though having some of those questions addressed did help) that brought me back to church. It was Jesus-people inviting me to share in life-giving community, everywhere from the church sanctuary to their own dining room tables.