I’ve been going to church since I was three years old. I remember ruby red-heart spotted, thick white tights and shiny plastic shoes with miniature buckles and plenty of scuff marks. Back then, we went to a Pentecostal church (not the long-hair, dress-wearing version, but the charismatic, speaking-in-tongues one). My grandma drove the oblong church bus scribbled with “Assemblies of God” on the door and dropped by our pot-hole infested, 6-house neighborhood, where my sisters and I piled in. There was no mistaking where this crew was headed. This was the 80s, before stringent car seat rules for children older than toddlers. So we got comfy in the vinyl leather seats, soon joined by rounds of college students and random churchgoers assigned on the route to church.
This was a church where you got gussied up for Sundays, so we usually wore our best, which was usually a clearance dress from K-Mart, and looked forward to stale crackers, cookies and tiny cups of juice at snack time during Sunday school. And yes, we had all the classic symbols of yesteryear’s Sunday school. There was the classic Noah’s Ark flannel board, learning “I’ve Got the Joy Joy Joy Joy Down in My Heart,” and yearly Christmas plays where I always hoped to play Mary, but ended up a Shepard, innkeeper or worse, just part of the choir.
I accepted Jesus into my heart — Christianese for the basic step one takes to become a Christian — around 7 or 8. It’s strange the very poignant details we remember from the many millions of moments of our lives. On that day, I was compelled to believe in Jesus — this God-person who made the blind see, the lame walk, the sick well, the outcast loved and the murderer miraculously forgiven.
It’s easy to say a little kid is duped into something like this. Well, of course you believed what you’ve been told since you were practically born, you may think. But it felt personal, authentic and eternal, in as a deep a way a little girl can know.
After my class that morning, I joined my Grandma in Big Church. Sometimes I sat with her, usually only on the days they served communion because I thought a papery little wafer and a gulp of grape juice was exciting I guess. I whispered to her proudly in the pew, “I accepted Jesus into my heart.”
So my relationship with Jesus — the foundation on which my entire life is built — began that day because my Grandma took me to church.
Since then, I’ve moved on to four different home churches over my lifetime — each unique in their own way, and all of them providing a spiritual home where I could exist, grow, commune, find comfort and feel God.
I have gone to church feeling empty, scared and alone. I’ve gone in good times and bad — in the midst of personal faith highs and in the lows of my worst, unmentionable sins. I’ve gone hungover and miserable. I’ve gone joyful and on the eve of mission trips to Lebanon, Kenya, Congo, where I experienced some of the most profound, beautiful moments of my life. I’ve joined a dozen small groups — some awful, some fantastic — and found lasting friendship with incredible women. When I’ve been in the depths of depression, heartbreak, moral conundrums, in the lowest valleys of my eating disorder and insecurities, I never gave up on the church, and the church has rarely failed me.
In Venezuela as a teenager, church was a large, tin-roofed structure with sunlight pouring in the side windows and heat you could eat in pieces around you — nearly suffocating. But the Venezuelans were used to it, and for a few moments I forgot the sweat inching down my ear lobes and remembered the simple words we’d practiced, “Estoy allegre” (meaning “I’m glad.”) No one around me spoke English, but I felt a beautiful kinship toward my brothers and sisters in Christ because we were at church.
It was a profound moment for me, recognizing that I could go anywhere in the world, step into a church (also known as a gathering of Believers) and know that God was there.
It’s always been in worship that God really shows up, for me. I could walk into church utterly resistant, unhappy to be there with a headache spiking and doubts lurking. But the moment voices lift in praise, it’s like we all momentarily let go of the baggage that consumes our lives. It’s like a little preview of heaven where everything is already good, where the God infiltrates the pews, the chairs, the couches, the floor — whatever we happen to be sitting or standing in.
Differences cease, languages convene, love and worship overwhelms insecurity, doubt and fear, and for just a bit, we remember exactly who made us and why we were made at all — to worship the One. I’d say I’m 50/50 on crying during worship at church. I can’t explain it other than to say God shows up in powerful ways when we sing to Him. The reciprocal love is vibing hard, and not a person in the room can deny or adequately explain the supernatural aura. It’s not like that every single time I sing at church — but often enough to know it’s not a fluke. Beautiful enough to believe if I just show up at the service, God is assuredly planning to meet me there.
Church isn’t a building or an obligation to me — it’s refuge, salve and fountain of wisdom and grace. If I don’t know what to do, I don’t skip church for weeks — I go as often as possible. Because even if God is everywhere and you don’t need a building to find him, it helps to seek Him in tangible ways, in respites where others can help carry toward Him if it feels too hard. We were created to need others in this way, and you needn’t be extroverted or pretty, socially skilled or normal to know the church has people you need when you can’t find them anywhere else.
This is one of the most significant benefits of church — the people. Those who attend are happier, less lonely, far more philanthropic, more civil and empathetic. And that’s because of people surrounding them.
I recognize that not everyone has experienced church in the positive ways that I have. There has been abuse, whispered and tucked away, hypocrisy and judgment, application of Scripture in harmful, hateful ways. There has been unfriendliness and forced attendance, unseemly political agendas and disgusting promotion of people, ideas or policies that have no place in a house of worship. I know I’m one of the lucky ones, who hasn’t gone to church under a fallen pastor or betrayed by a church leader I trusted. I wasn’t abused or taken advantage of, lied to or given an ultimatum.
The church was never meant to convey those things. The church is imperfect because it’s made up of people — you know, the ones who have, do and always will sin. That’s why we need Jesus and can do nothing but be honest about our failures and truths about human nature. My sister’s church had a t-shirt that read, “No Perfect People Allowed.” You won’t find them in my church, that’s for sure. But you’ll find a lot of people who love God, who want to love others better and who are trying to make this world a better place.
Not everyone — there will always be someone there for the wrong reasons. There will always be a false leader, a liar leading people astray — someone Satan is attempting to use to thwart God’s plan for you. I would never want those tactics, so thinly veiled and sadly effective, to keep someone from experiencing the wonder, mercy and solace of what God meant the church to be.
Even as attendance dwindles and faith skeptics arise, data continues to prove the undeniable benefits of faith — and specifically church attendance — for individuals and society. Church has begun to change — and there’s most certainly a congregation (again — simply meaning a group of people seeking to know God better) that fulfills distinctive spiritual needs. Perhaps it’s in a living room or a coffee shop or middle school gym. Maybe it’s the megachurch down the road — or maybe not. Keep looking.
The church is home to me, as dysfunctional as it can be. I see the church as a signpost of grace in every significant season of my life.
Leaving my church small group last night, I was reminded this kind of community is the actual life-giving substance that all that polling-related happiness and generosity and empathy comes back to. Man am I thankful for my Grandma, who was the first to introduce me to this beautiful refuge.