I attended the same church from the time I was born to the time I was married.
It is a small church in a rural area. It was, and is, the place I think of when I think of “church home.” Everyone knew everyone. I was very well aware as a child that I was to mind all my elders, as they were all surrogate parents who would absolutely tell my mother if I misbehaved.
The members of that church embraced my first “serious” high school boyfriend, a non-Christian, KISS-loving guitarist who once whipped out a Zippo lighter mid-service to light a candle that had gone out. And when he dumped me unceremoniously on my birthday after a year and a half of dating, puffy-eyed and sniffling me couldn’t walk down the halls of the church the next Sunday without being approached by a dozen and a half ladies reassuring me that “it is the for best, honey, and you are going to be okay.”
When I lost loved ones, my church members came with food. When they lost loved ones, I cried with them. When my mother was injured in a bad accident, they came to the hospital and sat with her and with us. Some of them came to my high school graduation; I remember looking up to see them sitting alongside my proud parents in the bleachers. Almost the entire church showed up to my wedding, and it is one of the most joyous occasions I can remember. To this day, when I go home and visit, we all fall in with each other like…well, like family.
And every time I leave, I realize something: I don’t believe I will have this kind of experience with a church again. Not within a single congregation, anyway.
The church – and with it, the idea of the church family – has changed. Hugely. And one of the things that has changed – has perhaps been lost – is that church-wide feeling of connectedness – that sense of there being a real family of believers together who will hang in there through thick and thin, who all know each other, who sometimes bicker and argue but are there for each other, who remember the small details, who show up at the necessary times, who love each other.
There are plenty of reasons for it. Not many people live in multi-generation small towns any more, where everyone knows everyone and church life is an extension of social life. People and families uproot and move far more often now than they used to before due to jobs and schooling; it’s rare for anyone my age, at least locally, to have longstanding roots in the same area over time – or even to stay in the same area for longer than five years or so unless they have children. Even in areas where people don’t uproot, they change churches more often, I suspect, than they ever did before. Technology has replaced face-to-face and phone connection with other, more convenient modes of contact: convenient and efficient, to be sure, but also lacking in the some of the day-to-day interactions that create lifetime bonds. And churches themselves have gotten so big that in some it’s impossible for all the members to know each other. Better by far to get to know the attendees of your small group.
And the result is, I think, a new version of “church family” that is full of disconnects, fractures, and missed connections. Now, in church, we often hang out with those most like us demographically – our fellow small group members – and miss out on the chance to form the sort of oddball friendships that pop up in an intimate congregation full of varying genders, ages, and life stages. We build memories and bonds through church plans and activities and through scheduled small group meetings, but rarely through the incidentals of day to day living together; I hardly ever see my church members out at the grocery store, or at the mall, or walking their dogs. On top of that, our reliance on technology means that we get all the information with none of the warmth – and our bigger churches mean that a lot of people end up falling through the cracks.
Since I don’t think that old version of church community is going to come back again, and since I miss it, what I’ve done is to become intentional about creating my own “church family” – a motley crew of believers who, without a doubt, are going to be there for each other through thick and thin. That group includes the believers in my biological family, of course, but it also includes believers from other churches I have attended, Christian friends I’ve had the privilege of meeting through Bible studies or work, long-distance folks from my college years, and even a few believers I’ve connected with online who are dependable in praying and in praising.
This is the church family that I know will be there. If I need prayer, I can ask, and I will receive it. If there’s an emergency, they’ll be there in whatever way they can. If there is joy, they’ll share it. We encourage each other. We share good news and bad news with each other. We keep track of each other, and we know what’s happening in each other’s lives.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky few with a church family that has been really and truly integrated into your life – if so, then you are blessed indeed. But if you aren’t, take solace in the comfort that your “church community” doesn’t have to be composed solely of members of your congregation. Cherish the believing friends and family you have; draw them in; keep them close. Don’t lose contact with them, but instead reach out to them and pray for them and encourage them, and allow them to do the same for you.
“For where two or three gather in my name,” Jesus promises, “there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). Don’t be discouraged if your two or three – or four or five, or six or ten! – don’t all come from the same place. As long as we remain intentional about creating communities of believers, we’ll never lose our “church family” – regardless of what might be happening, or not happening, in the building where we attend services.