Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Church Family

As we start talking about some shifts that have happened within the church culture in the past twenty years, it's important that we remember what things looked like not that long ago. To do that, it's important to tell part of my own story. 

I was born into the world, not the church. We were not a Christian family, and even now, I am the only member of my immediate family who attends church. I had a natural curiosity about Christianity and begged to go to a few services, but I was always taught what a "proper event" church was and how I should be on my "best behavior" and wearing my best clothes. My guess is that this is not a foreign description for many, inside or outside the church, in that day and age. 

For awhile, I went to church with my great-aunt, who would faithfully pick me up on Sunday mornings. The most important thing about being in church with her was listening quietly and learning as much as I could, including memorizing things like the names of all twelve disciples. Information was key. So were the two dollars in my pocket, which my mother insisted were necessary for attending church. 

Even with these early exposures, I found myself still curious about church culture and Christianity. It was neat, but there was something that I felt was missing, although I couldn't have told you what it was. It seemed a lot like school, like somewhere else to go to learn something. I was a nerd; I could learn with the best of them. But learning wasn't really what I was looking for. I kept going back, but I wasn't finding what I was looking for. Not exactly. 

Fast forward a few years to whatever counted as a social life for an awkward middle school student with very few friends, and I had this one friend who was super-connected to his church. We would work together on school projects, and he would take me to his church building to work on the projects because they had a fully stocked arts and crafts supply room and nobody seemed to mind us working there. 

What struck me the most about his church was the way everyone knew his name when he walked in. That just blew my mind. Soon, his youth ministers started visiting school for lunch and sitting at our table, bringing enough Arby's for everyone. Within one visit, they knew everyone's name. I went to a Wednesday night service, and everyone stopped to talk to everyone, including the kids. Everyone knew everyone, and the conversations were just natural. 

I attended a Sunday morning service, and it was the same - greeting everyone by name, hanging out in the lobby until the music started. Talking. Laughing. Hugging. What was strange was that even when I attended an interchurch youth rally, these kids came right up and started hugging each other and talking like they were old friends. (I would find out later that these youth groups ran into each other so frequently that there were, indeed, real friendships between them.) 

That was the thing I had still been looking for in church. And here it was. 

It's strange because in the early days of my church life, we had a church of over 500 members, and everyone knew everyone. They knew their extended family members. They knew where they worked. They knew where they lived. We did a scavenger hunt as a youth group once - as a bunch of middle and high school kids - that gave us clues to a member in the church, and that meant we were supposed to go to their house next. And this group of kids I was hanging out with - they got every clue right. Every single one. And when they figured out who they were supposed to see, they knew right where that person's house was. If any of them had had a driver's license, they could have taken us there themselves. 

We held church events all the time, and we went because of the opportunity to hang out with folks that we knew well and liked hanging out with. No one sat for very long in the same place at a pitch-in because there were too many families they wanted to visit with. We held euchre nights and switched up partners all night. We would look at each other and say things like, "Hey, I'm going to Byrl's house to rake leaves. Wanna come?" And we all knew it wasn't about raking leaves; it was about being with Byrl. 

It was this kind of family that I came into. It was this kind of community that drew me finally, fully, into the church. It was a very natural fellowship, and fellowship was the nature of the church. And the body was so interconnected that if, say, Debbie was missing for more than one week, we instantly knew it. If Bill was in the hospital, everyone knew it - it didn't take an announcement from the pulpit. When my dad died, even though I was new to this fellowship, this church showed up in massive numbers at the funeral home - they barely knew me, and they didn't know my dad at all, but they were here for it. They were here for me. 

That's the way that church was not that long ago. 

And then...the church culture changed. Church hopping/church shopping, yes, but something even more than that. 

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