I met with a girl today who had spent a year studying abroad. During her time away, she expressed to me how empty she felt during that time. It was hard to find a church family where she was located—especially in a primarily atheist nation (I am purposely omitting the name). As much as she felt distanced from Christians, she felt distanced from God. Far from home, in a foreign nation, with Christians few and far between, she felt so isolated. Why couldn’t she feel God like she did back home? How could she grow when there was nowhere to plant her roots?
I could have told her, “Of course you weren’t alone—God was with you,” and though it is true, God intentionally created more than one person on this earth. She knew God was with her, but she desired to be with other Christians. There are moments when our faith in God grows because we cannot lean on others, and there are times when we long to worship and pray with other believers. Those feelings are completely normal. For some, God gives grace to live in isolation, but for the majority of us, we are created to live among others.
It’s incredible how powerful a community can shape our view of God and ourselves. My friend has been home for some months now and expressed to me how overwhelming it has been to hear God speaking to her daily. She sees growth in her walk as she is meeting with other Christians, studying the word together, praying and pursuing Christ as a family. She no longer questions God’s whereabouts because she is feeling Him in the embrace of the girls in her small group, His joy in their laughter, His care in their eyes, and His presence in their midst. Her thoughts have drastically changed since she has physically not been alone.
Community, when done the right way, can be the most nurturing, encouraging, and strengthening environment. I have a theory it is God’s homeopathic medicine for the pain and brokenness that happens in this life.
Recently, my mom had major surgery, my aunt died of cancer, and I discovered my professor has terminal cancer—all within two weeks. The grief I felt was unmatched with anything I’ve faced yet; my heart was broken for so many reasons. I knew God was with me, but I was not okay. I was so far from being okay, or feeling strong, or hanging in there. I was a mess, to say the least. Do you know what helped? I texted a friend and asked if she was free to talk. She called me and I ugly cried, and I poured out everything that I was fearing and feeling. The next day I spoke to another friend for three hours, crying but even laughing a little. Then the next day another friend drove to my city to spend the weekend with me. By Monday, I was smiling and felt lighter, stronger, and sprinkled with goodness, hope, and love.
God was with me, but it was the people He put into my life that He used to uplift and encourage my heart.
Community is a gift to us from God.
If you think all this is a silly overstatement, perhaps you have been hurt/betrayed by other Christians—the community you wanted to trust and be vulnerable with—and found more pain instead of healing. Perhaps, you deeply love God but feel it’s unnecessary to meet with other Christians because God is enough for you. Maybe, you are one of those gifted with spiritual sensitivity and being in the church environment is an overload because of what you feel when you walk into a room full of people. Perhaps, none of these apply to you, and you simply haven’t experienced what it feels like to be part of a community, so you feel indifferent about it.
I don’t know you. I don’t know your story, your past or your present situation, and I’m not going to try to present you with a 3,000-word essay on why all Christians need to go to church every Sunday; this is not the point of this letter. I want you to know you aren’t alone, that Jesus loves the church because it is full of us. We are His church; the people of God. The church is not a building, not a steeple, not a cathedral, not a baptismal site, not anything immobile and breathless. The church is you, and the church is me.
Some personal thoughts I want to make known to you:
If you have experienced pain from us, first I want to ask your forgiveness on behalf of the church body for those who have hurt you, betrayed you, promised you something that never happened, ignored you and all the ways your heart has been broken by the way we lived or behaved towards you.
Second, being part of a church community does not have to look like going to a church meeting on Sundays. I believe the purpose of those meetings, at its core, is to have a safe place where we can gather to express our love for God together and learn from each other in our pursuit of Christ. This could look like meeting at someone’s house on Tuesday evenings with other Christians or in a tent with a crowd on a Friday afternoon. The location and day are irrelevant, because again, “the church” is a people, and it’s where two or more are gathered, God is in the midst. What’s most important is that we gather together, we seek God as a body, we worship Him in one voice, and we go through this life as a team; i.e., “doing life together.”
Third, your spiritual gifts are needed in this community of believers and beyond. Whatever you are feeling, sensing, seeing, dreaming about, creating, writing, hearing—those things you’ve been quiet about, kept hidden, out of fear or even obedience to God—know that those also are a valuable part of this community. I have a friend who can go into any place with people, and the Lord begins to reveal to her what is going on in their lives. Imagine going to a church meeting! It’s sometimes difficult for her, but she asked God to help her to mature in this gift so it would not overwhelm her and show her how she can use it to help others. Now, she has found others with similar gifting, and they commune together. Go at the pace God has set before you and do not be afraid in the ways He has called you. Your gifts are precisely that: a gift to us.
Lastly, I believe there are some who God has told not to attend a church service for a while, and I want to encourage your heart and tell you: you are not crazy, it is only for a season, and God will bring—if He hasn’t already—people in your life who will encourage you on the way. God may be preparing you, filling you, or healing you. In any case, keep going and obeying even if everyone doubts you or questions you. I’ve been there, and know there is such a sweet reward in the end.
Little notes to keep in mind about life within church community:
- Embrace the awkward! People are weird, funny creatures and sometimes awkwardness happens. Let it happen and soak it in because it will get better, and those wonderfully awkward moments will soon be few and far between… we hope. That moment when you first meet someone and experience “the awkward hug”? Yep. Embrace it. Literally.
- It’s a Give-and-Take environment. Just as you have a desire to be loved, know that others do as well. Community is not only about receiving but about what you can give. You have so much to offer, more than you think. Check out some ways your local church helps the community and consider volunteering once or twice a week. Look for opportunities to bless those around you in the way that feels right to you.
- Let people get to know you. Guard your heart, but don’t be afraid to be transparent and vulnerable. Your trust should be earned, but as people gain your trust, let yourself be known to them, little by little. Vulnerability and trust is risky business but have the potential to cultivate deep connections between you and others.
- Don’t wait to be pursued. This sounds a little harsh, but I’ve discovered we are all desiring to be known by others, but until one of us decides to be brave and seek out another, we’ll all be waiting around, gathering dust while being un-known. It’s as simple as this: when you want someone to talk to you, talk to someone or when you want another girl to ask you to coffee/tea, invite her to join you instead. Be brave! Take a risk! You never know what it could lead to.
- Hurt still happens. I’m sorry, but there is no perfect church, no perfect small group, no perfect bible study or worship team. We are people and imperfect. We are going to say things we wish we could take back, do things that can’t be undone, and make choices that have a profound impact—for better or worse. God’s answer to our choices is Jesus. He will give you what you need and guide you on what to say/do when you hurt others or when others hurt you. Hint: it starts with forgiveness.
- Get ready to learn. Bring your ideas and believes to the table but be willing to listen to others—even if you don’t agree with them. Humility will get you further in life and within a community than hanging on to your good ol’ pride. Let people help to lead you, teach you, train you and equip you for this life with God. If you are willing to be open, while never compromising God’s truth, you’ll find even children can become your greatest teachers.
Goodness, I have a lot to say about community! Princesses, thank you for taking the time to read through this letter. My desire is for it to encourage you to pursue God individually AND with the church. I know I speak a lot on this blog about the individual pursuit of God, so the Lord put it on my heart to talk about the communal pursuit of Him. Also, community is truly something God established, for more reasons than just sitting next to each other on Sunday mornings. It’s a source of healing for our spiritual lives, as well as emotionally and physically.
You were created to love and to be loved. Let it happen! There is a place for you here, and so much goodness waiting for you.
p.s. Today is my birthday, and I’m celebrating it with my friend!