For our third church visit, this past Sunday, Chad and I visited a Bible Fellowship Church just a couple minutes from our house. Like the Mennonite church we visited a few weeks ago, this church was small and friendly, about 30 people at the service. Unlike the Mennonite church, it was not very diverse, but rather Chad and I felt out of place as the youngest couple in the room by probably twenty years. (After the service ended we saw a couple other younger men, two teenagers, and one child.) Part of me kept thinking, we need a place with other younger people, with people who at the same stage of life as us. And part of me thought, how much does that matter if we feel at home here?
As soon as we walked in we were welcomed and several people introduced themselves. What stood out about this church to me was their community and their commitment to service, both of which I’m seeking. When the service began, an elder welcomed everyone, including one couple back from vacation, another member returning after losing her husband, and visitors, Jamie and Chad. It was a little funny to be called out by name from the pulpit, but you could tell they were happy we there. When it came time for the pastor to lead the congregation in prayer, he spoke openly and specifically about prayer requests in their community, updating the members on illnesses, family news, and upcoming service opportunities. Here, in this church, you are not lost in crowd. You are a close, intimate and important person. It was the best expression of community I’ve seen during a Sunday service. Catching up on prayer requests was not reserved for small groups or conversations by the coffee maker. It was public, from the pulpit, shared among all the members.
Service was also an important part of the community here. This church helps support another in Newark, New Jersey and shares their building with a local Spanish church who needs a space. The pastor told us that some members of the church attended the Spanish church’s service last week to help welcome their new pastor from Argentina, and I thought, they not only share their space, they share their joy and their support.
Special this Sunday, the church had a guest to play piano and lead worship. Members requested their favorite hymns. The pastor and three others even sang an a cappella rendition of a “retro” hymn, as they called it. Before beginning one of the women said they talked about the lyrics while practicing last night in their kitchen, and the image of them sitting in their home, around a kitchen table, singing together was so endearing.
After the service several other people introduced themselves. I think we must have met half the congregation. Chad and I talked that night about how hard it is for us to “church shop,” to visit churches and look for one where we belong. We have mixed feelings about critiquing services, comparing worship styles, and evaluating sermons. And this church, in particular, felt hard to just visit. The people were so welcoming and friendly, and genuinely glad we came that it felt sad and disappointing to think we might not come back. I’m intentionally withholding myself from making any decisions right now about where we will make our home, but that makes it hard to come and go, to enter these communities just to leave again. And I’m withholding the decision because going to church has been hard to begin with, so I’m protecting myself a little bit, and because we’re exploring what church means to us, and because we’re trying to find something we can really commit to wholeheartedly.
But the process is not easy. It’s not easy for me to walk into a new place each Sunday. It’s not easy for me to return friendliness because I’m terrible at small talk. It’s not easy for me to picture myself as part of the community and then walk out not knowing if we’ll come back. And you get only one chance each week to try somewhere new, which makes the process feel long, even overwhelming at times when we consider how many churches there are.
For this week, we found a place where the people are connected to each other and to God, and it was lovely. And whether we go back or not, I’m glad this kind of church is there and that these people welcome each other back after illnesses and deaths and vacations, that they know each other and what’s happening, and they commit themselves to taking care of others, inside and outside of their congregation.