Growing up, I loved my church. In fact, when I went away to college, one of my favorite parts about spending a weekend in Chicago was going to church on Sunday morning.
Because going to church felt like going home.
I literally grew up in my church. My family started going there when I was in Kindergarten and it’s still where my mom worships today.
Many of my childhood memories are of church and include going to “Cricket Club”; Surrounding Psalty during the annual Advent Festival; Hanging out with Lois, my adopted Grandma; Playing piano and handbells; And singing with our children’s choir.
My adolescent memories are even more deeply linked to church. I remember exploring the book of Mark in confirmation and making signs while we were acolyting and flashing them at our favorite pastor, Kitty, in order to try to get her to laugh in the middle of her sermon.
I remember one fateful car ride on the way home from a youth rally, when we were complaining to Kitty about all the things that bothered us about our church. She listened to us, taking our opinions seriously and encouraged us to write our senior pastor a letter, explaining these concerns to him. We took her advice, and proudly gave this letter to our senior pastor. As a result, she nearly got fired. But much to our surprise, she stood by us, supporting us and teaching us that our church valued us – even though we were mere teenagers.
I also remember debating Scripture with our long-time Sunday School teacher, canoeing, and serving together on mission trips during high school. On a weekly basis, I remember walking into church and being warmly greeted and hugged by the Saints of our congregation. In fact, I remember learning about marriage by watching the Saints in our congregation interact with their spouses, many of whom came to my wedding. Perhaps most importantly, though, I remember learning how to care for others by watching how my church cared for my family when, in one six month season, my family endured four deaths.
Despite the fond memories I have of my church, make no mistake, I know it wasn’t perfect. It still isn’t.
It’s full of people who can’t get along and people who gossip about one another. It’s a place where money influences, sometimes too much, and where politics are played.
But it’s still my church. It’s still my family. And for most of my life, it’s been my home.
When I graduated college and decided to enter the crazy world of youth ministry, I remember being excited about finding a new church home until, that is, my world came crashing down around me, a mere 14 months after entering youth ministry. It’s then that I learned that churches have the power to deeply wound people.
I left that place scarred and so I entered my second job in youth ministry hugely critical of the church, reluctant to trust an institution I knew was capable of hurting me.
As a staff member at this church, I was expected to join a small group. Shortly after starting work there, my husband and I launched a new small group with another couple.
Together, we explored books by authors I had never heard of, whose writings rocked my world, knocking down long-held beliefs and replacing them with new, constantly evolving ideas about God and faith.
For a long time, I thought that’s what small group was: A place to have earth-shattering, life-altering conversations about faith. And had that been all it was, it would have been enough.
But then something else started happening.
Relationships began forming and slowly but surely, those relationships became the focal point of our small group. We still had amazing, paradigm-shifting conversations about faith, but rather than serving as the starting point of relationships, these conversations began happening as a result of the deep relationships we had with one another.
Over time, I realized that I looked forward to going “home” to my small group family each week, in much the same way that I once looked forward to going “home” to my church during college breaks. This small group family loved and cared for me no matter what. In fact, our family has seen each other through some incredibly difficult times – Through the death of spouses and grandparents; Through job losses; Through times of crises and times of stress; And through moves. We’ve also celebrated with each other during times of joy including the beginning of new jobs, marriages, and the birth of babies.
Because of this, it came as no surprise to me that when the time came for me to leave the church where this small group began, our small group decided that family ties were stronger than church boundaries and continued meeting anyway.
And perhaps that’s when the real miracle happened. Even though our group is, as a whole, super critical of the institutional church, in some mysterious way that I don’t quite understand, it’s been this family that God has used to redeem church for me, something that I didn’t even realize until a few weeks ago when my husband and I were at an event at our church where each person was asked to graphically illustrate their faith journey and then share their story with everyone else. When my husband shared his faith story, I was shocked to hear him describe our church as “home”.
That night, I got in the car and cried.
For so long, our small group family has been our church home. And in some ways, it always will be.
But now, for the first time, so is the church where I work.
I know this because when I open the door to Faith on Sunday mornings, I’m not just going to work. I’m going home.