I come from a long line of churchgoing people: bishops, reverends, musicians, preachers, music ministers, church mothers, and deacons. Even before I had a relationship with God for myself, I assumed God must be real. Otherwise, I couldn’t reason why my great-grandma Sudie and the mothers of the church would gather in her living room to pray to him, why my grandma played and sang his songs, why my mom woke up in the morning and the first thing on her agenda was to listen to recordings of his Scripture.
My family taught me that church was a place you went to, not because there was a show to see or there was a particularly good singer that Sunday. You went to remind your soul that God is bigger than you, that there are things about God you’ll never understand. Church was a place to cry out, to moan, to laugh, to dance, to remember, to speak the future into existence. I would eventually have to find a relationship to God and to church for myself and learn from all the lessons church would teach me along the way.
Church of Origin
When I became a believer in Jesus as a teenager, the church my mom joined after recommitting her life to Jesus had a sense of formality. The women wore panty hose and slips under their dresses and skirts. The men wore suits and ties. Every leader, both men and women, proudly wore the title of deacon, missionary, minister, and elder. There was Communion on first Sunday, youth Sunday on fourth Sunday. There was a hymn of the month. A choir stand, choir director, horn section, a pianist and an organist, liturgical dancers, step team. (What can I say? It was the 1990s.) There was an offering, sometimes two. The choir sang a pre-sermonic song before one of our pastors or elders preached the sermon.
I learned the power of the Spirit of God. I learned to answer God when he called me. I learned to believe that God can change circumstances and people. That God can heal the sick and the wounded. To let God have his way, even if it meant the service ran long.
Church of My Twenties
The church of my college and early twenty-something years had very few titles. We called just about everyone except the pastor and his wife by their first names. We were young, and we wanted to find fresh ways to do church, so we eschewed a lot of the tradition we’d grown up with. We figured tradition wouldn’t draw people who may not be Christian. We kept our church service succinct, our song selection intentional. We left no pauses or awkward moments in the service. We trusted the Spirit of God could move through the plans we made.
I began to question my Church of Origin, the whooping and hollering of the Pentecostal preacher, the belief that giving an offering could ensure one’s blessings, the idea that I had to tarry to hear from God.
By the time I was twenty-five, the Church of My Twenties imploded. Terrible things were said. Wrong things were done and never addressed. It became an unhealthy place with unhealthy practices, so I left for the safety of my soul and my relationship with Jesus. I spent several months not going to church at all, wading through the church leadership voices I had let influence so many of my life’s decisions, trying desperately to hear the voice of God.
Church had hurt and wounded me. Church had disappointed me. Church had made me lose some of my naïveté. I didn’t want to leave Jesus, but I wasn’t too keen on his church, and I wasn’t so sure it was worth it to put my soul and heart at risk by being there.
Church in Unlikely Places
I went back to the arts scene I had begun to avoid while I was so busy doing church work. I found God in a lot of unlikely places. I learned to see the beauty of God in art galleries. I learned to listen and be humble by attending open mics. I discovered the freedom of God on a dance floor.
I decided to try church on Sundays again, but this time, I picked a church too big for me to be noticed or missed. I needed a place where I could hide while my church wounds were healing. I cried through almost every service. I said I wouldn’t. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. One Sunday, it was a song. The next Sunday, it was baptism, and the Sunday after that, it was the sermon.
After a few months, I joined a small group there. I spent the next two years studying the Bible and walking through life with those women. I learned about grace for what felt like the first time. I didn’t always make it to church on Sunday, but I did my best not to miss our group meetings. I learned God was more interested in my being with him than in what I could do for him. I learned I wasn’t valuable to God just because of my gifts or talents or ability to do. I learned my value came from Jesus and not my career or looks or connections or amount of cool.
Over the next few years, I was a part of two small groups like this. We walked each other through dating, marriage, breakups, promotions, career changes. I learned that church is so much more than a couple of songs and a sermon on Sunday. Church was also those women I told my mistakes and misgivings to, how we prayed for and with each other, how we pointed each other back to this sacred, ancient, yet always relevant text, how we reminded each other of our lifelong commitment to follow Jesus.
Church of My First Year of Marriage
When I started dating my then-boyfriend-now-husband, he had been a youth pastor for two years at a small church southeast of Atlanta. When I realized we were probably going to marry each other, I felt a small amount of panic about my relationship to church. I realized my lack of Sunday attendance wouldn’t fly as the future wife of a youth pastor.
After we got married, I wasn’t sure what the church’s expectations would be of me as the wife of a member of the pastoral staff. I panicked at being saddled with the expectations I had done such a good job of walking away from. I lived in that tension for the first year of our marriage, as my husband and I juggled our respective roles of youth leader and traveling performer.
There were some good and grounding things to our time at this church. It kept us humble because, no matter how much our talents were applauded at some out-of-town stage, we returned home to a church body that loved us but wasn’t enamored with the work we did. We came home to hosting events for students, meeting with parents of our youth, my husband doing hospital and jail visits while I attended women’s Bible study.
I watched my husband create cool experiences for the students out of the bare-bones budget he was given. I watched how every staff member worked more than the one job they were paid to do. How the church was small enough for people to miss you when you were gone. I learned to love the people there and learned to let them love me. They surrounded us with so much love and time and gifts for our wedding. Many of them prayed for us and supported our time on the road. I lived in the tension of not wanting to find myself church-busy and losing focus on God while also wanting to support my husband’s work in our church community. This tension never went away.
Right before our first anniversary, my husband’s youth pastor job ended. By the time we bought our first home a year later, we found ourselves longing for church community, missing the experience of knowing and being known. We wanted to find a church in our neighborhood. We didn’t want to commute to our church while driving past so many churches that were serving in our area. So we visited churches. Conservative, liberal, liturgical, and charismatic. Services that were barely long enough to sit down and services that lasted so long we wished we’d packed a lunch.
A friend of ours told us about a small church plant near our neighborhood and introduced us to the pastor. Service was long enough to sit down but not so long that it left me with regrets. The church took weekly Communion and sang the Doxology every week, along with a mix of soulful, traditional, and con- temporary songs about God. The pastor preached while giving cultural and historical context to the stories, texts, and principles in the Bible. We have found a sense of home there.
Sometimes church still makes me panic. When a person or a thing wounds us, the soul forgives but the body rarely forgets — our bodies and the church body. Our bodies remind us of what made us afraid before, of the signs that should make us run. Sometimes I need to be reminded I am safe now. I may have been hurt before, but that isn’t the only story I will ever live.
Today, church for me is a combination of the many church experiences I’ve had. It is a place that always holds the tensions of so many things. Church is a place that has wounded me, but it is also a place where I have found great healing.
As I get older, I find myself returning to the tradition of my Church of Origin. I sometimes long for the songs and hymns I learned as a kid, and I believe that God still performs miracles.
I still keep some of the enthusiasm of the Church of My Twenties, believing that Jesus followers, as the church we were meant to be, can really change our neighborhoods, cities, nation, and the world. I go to church some Sundays, but I know now that church community doesn’t end there.
God still meets me in the Church of Unlikely Places: coffee shop conversations, soul music concerts, family dinners, unplanned times of quiet or silence. I’m learning maybe these unlikely places are where I am more likely to connect with God than I thought. When I think of the Church of My First Year of Marriage, I remember watching my husband and the church staff walk with people through marriage, divorce, birth, death, sickness, and celebration. I know now being part of church community sometimes means walking the long road with people, and doing the work to make sure I am healthy and the church body is healthy too.
Now, my Church of Reconnection is starting to feel more like a place to remember; to grieve; to be reminded of joy; to focus on the cross, the crucifixion, the resurrection; to remember Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer and He knows what it’s like to heal. Church is becoming a place to live with other people while we all grow and change and are challenged. A place where I don’t have to hide or tuck away when I want to panic or run, a space where I can be honest when I’m afraid or unsure or uncomfortable. Church will never be perfect, because its people aren’t. But it can be healthy in its imperfection. It can be what Jesus intended. And I can be who Jesus intended too.
Excerpted with permission from How to Fix a Broken Record by Amena Brown, copyright Amena Brown Owen.
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How about you? Has how you’ve experienced or participated in the church changed over the years? Especially this year, church has been a different thing altogether for many of us. We’ve had to learn how to watch online, visit others with masks on, and serve in very different functions. How has that been for you? Come share with us! ~ Devotionals Daily