“You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, and just because you go to church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian.”
Growing up in the shiny, proud buckle of the bible belt, I genuinely cannot recall how many times I’ve heard the above statement. And for the first six or so years of my being a follower of Christ, I subscribed pretty closely to that thought.
Between my meeting Jesus in the fourth grade and my becoming involved in a church as a tenth grader, there obviously existed quite some time in which I wasn’t connected to a local body of believers. Yet throughout all that time, I was, indeed, a Christ-follower, a believer, a Christian. Even apart from a church.
So what’s the big deal with church? Isn’t following Jesus a me-and-God type deal?
It wasn’t until this past Sunday that I truly grasped just how significant–better yet, imperative–the local church is to those who follow Jesus.
I was baptized into membership at First Baptist Church of Attalla in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. What a time that was.
Never before had I been so connected to a group of people, to brothers and sisters in Christ with the common goal of growing nearer and dearer to our Heavenly Father. It was truly life-changing and only the beginning of the spiritual growth that has brought me to where I am now (on God’s mission in Phoenix) and will continue until my final breath. Needless to say, I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without the impact of my church back home.
While I’ve known this to be true for years, the idea became incarnate as I attended a church service in the Valley this Sunday.
I speak to God best through music. I possess literally no musical talent, but I love it and sing my heart out nonetheless (sorry to those who sit near me!)
Because of the different types of services we’ve attended in Phoenix for our community research, my worship fix had been running rather low and I was craving what I call a Jesus jam session something fierce. As I sipped my chai latte and walked up the steps alongside two of my teammates, I convinced myself this service was going to be great. Just what I was needing.
As we walked in and found our seats in the small city theater, my heart counted down the minutes till worship would commence. An acoustic version of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a song dear to my heart, flowed from a meek, blonde girl and her guitar in the midst of technical difficulties; not what I was expecting, but undoubtedly refreshing.
With my heart still longing to worship God in what I consider my typical fashion, the congregation was instead encouraged to greet one another. In a very Danie-esque fashion, I observed the members of this church interact with one another, hug each other’s children, and exchange eager words and smiles. This is the community we’ve seen to be lacking in the Phoenix area. How awesome is it that it’s right here?!?
Yet as the service progressed, my longing to worship my Father only grew, meeting my longing to be back home in my church, urging my longing to see Phoenicians come to know Jesus. I continued to observe as the church taught its children on social injustice issues in the area, as God’s word was reduced to (quite literally, in the words of the stand-in pastor) a fairy tale. As I intently listened to the post-sermon announcements in attempt to grasp some bit of truth from this body, I heard desperate pleas for intimate community accompanied by Truth.
This church recognized the area’s need for community, for a sense of belonging in a city full of outsiders, people hailing from all across the nation and globe. Its doors and membership are open wide to anyone who finds their way in. Yet those people are not met with truth within that grouping. They are gathered with neighbors longing for the same community they seek themselves and expected to relate in ways they aren’t aware of, through conversations they’re afraid of, in a Spirit they don’t know of.
As I quietly hummed the words of “How Great Thou Art” at the service’s conclusion, my heart cried out to the Lord on behalf of these people, for the points they were missing, for the community they seek yet cannot find in the absence of the Creator of community Himself. Tears welled up in my eyes as I choked down my yearning to be home, to be away from that place, to be surrounded by His presence and His children.
I have never left a church spiritually drained until I walked out of that building.
I spent the afternoon with my right earbud in, pouring out my long-awaited Jesus jam session, praying and breaking for the people of Phoenix and their lacking the community they so desperately desire.
For the past five weeks my team and I have been exploring, interviewing, and actively researching the Encanto Village of Phoenix as the groundwork for a future church plant in the area. Talking to people who live and work in Encanto about how a church could effectively impact the area has in itself totally altered the way I view the local church and its role in its physical location.
The one need nearly every single person has mentioned to us? A desire for community.
The idea of intentionally hanging out with people, of close friendships, of sharing life with one another, it doesn’t really exist here, at least not in our experience.
Churches in the Encanto area hold wide-open arms to any and all people: a beautiful thing. Yet what is lacking is the exchange of truth. There exists no opportunity to be vulnerable with each other, to bear one another’s burdens, to encourage one another in love and truth.
And, honestly, that didn’t seem like a huge deal until I took a step back to assess my own walk with Christ-centered community. Like most of my breakthroughs, this epiphany came through the words of another writer, this time from Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth.
As we discussed our findings of people’s longing for community, a pastor we’ve been assisting with his church’s food distribution went to his office and returned with a book in hand. He talked about how deeply community is explained and obtained in the book as he placed it in my hand; I simultaneously concluded that I would not be reading this book before the summer’s end.
Yet, lo and behold, I opened that book a few days ago, and already I’m seeing my conceptions of church and community completely torn to shreds and rebuilt in light and truth.
Community is not simply welcoming every type of person to be near you. Rather, community is inviting and taking those people with you through your life’s ups and downs, asking them to do the same for you, and faithfully pointing each other to God and the cross through it all. Granted, I believe community can be found outside the local church, but there’s something special about the connection among believers and the people they share their lives with, a thought provoked by reading Vanier’s words on community.
What’s the use of a group of people who share nothing but proximity? I can access that at the grocery store, in a huge University of Alabama lecture hall, heck, in Times Square. But a group of people who share their hardships, their celebrations, their struggles with one another? That produces growth. And that is community.
Fear often overshadows the desire to be vulnerable and open with people outside of ourselves. To even express some things verbally seems unbearably painful and paralyzingly terrifying. Yet within each of us lives an innate desire to be part of that kind of community. It’s the way we were wired, the way our minds and emotions were knit together by the hands of our Father.
How beautiful is that??
I only see the beauty of God-centered community more when I sit in a Phoenix coffee shop and observe people hiding behind the walls of their books and laptops, when I see them enveloped in the world of their phones, when I hear them casually mention their lack of friends despite their living here for more than a year. It’s a broken beauty, but have you ever seen a mosaic? Shattered pieces, substances that might singularly be considered worthless, are placed together at the Artist’s discretion to form a masterpiece, a creation that cannot be duplicated or replicated.
“We are broken, but we are loved.” That’s what Vanier wrote about humanity, God’s chosen vessels of earthly community and relationship.
This team is witnessing God’s masterpiece of community in its beginning phases. Sometimes its extremely difficult and discouraging; beginnings are exciting until they get mundane, until consistent progress eventually brings forth the climax, the desired product. We most likely will not see the residents of Encanto interact with this kind of community. The first team of GenSend Phoenix will be far removed when the people we’ve met come into contact with the Christ-centered community for which we’ve found they so desperately long.
But we are the beginning. Our team itself serves as an example of Christian community, of the often feared vulnerability we all crave as human beings, of the local church when a healthy one doesn’t exist. As we meet people one-by-one, we are introducing them to the idea of true friendship, of people intertwined in one another’s life no matter the mess and pain of it all.
I am still longing for home, for my church and the community it offers, for my familiar Jesus jam sessions, but more than anything I long for the residents of Encanto, of Phoenix, of the U.S., and of the world, to realize its need for deep, heartfelt community in the arms of their Father and His children.