By Anna Fasolino
“Will all the visitors please stand up?” We never wanted to obey, but when every eye in the church immediately stared at us, guilt propelled us out of our seats.
If the church was small and a regular stop for us, the pastor’s next words were inevitable. “It’s always good to see your family.” Unspoken were the thoughts in all of their minds. How long ago had it been since our last visit? Six months? A year?
I grew up in a family of chronic church-hoppers. We’d attend a church for a few months, find something one of my family members disliked, and move on to the next one. That meant church splits never devastated us. We didn’t have to put up with unruly children. We didn’t have to grieve when a church elder died or the preacher ran off with the secretary. We heard sermons regularly and participated in Bible studies with others, so we had some Christian fellowship. But we never committed to one body of believers because we never found the perfect church.
We moved often enough that we had a large variety of churches from which to choose. Some churches had delicious potlucks but (we thought) bad preaching and music. Some were too big and impersonal. Others we considered too wild during worship. I remember visiting one conservative meeting in a person’s home where they observed silence before the service. No one was able to tell us about the rule, so our efforts to visit with people beforehand fell flat. That intense awkwardness, combined with my mom’s anxiety over her too-short hair, kept us from visiting again. As a teenager, I often found myself passing judgment on church members. They sing all these hymns but don’t really sing them from their hearts. They spend too much time on announcements. Their kids are running everywhere and no one is paying any attention. Their clothes are immodest. They spend too much money on things like television screens and drum sets. I was the lofty outsider.
Now, as my husband and I start our own family, I’ve realized something. Even if the perfect church existed, once we walked inside, it would cease being the perfect church. Why? Because we are sinners who desperately need a Savior. We gather every Sunday anyway because we need each other, as flawed as we all are. We gather because of these words from the writer of Hebrews: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:24, 25). We gather because it is together, not separately, that we are the bride of Christ. We gather—and become faithful members—because we love not only the Church universal, but also our local church.
Soon after I gave birth to our son, I had postnatal complications that sent me back to the hospital. Our fellow church members prayed for me, brought us meals, and sent me texts of encouragement. The same has happened for many others in our small congregation, including a young mother who had thyroid cancer and needed meals and help with her two babies during the treatment.
But it’s not just when trials or tragedy come that we need our church family. We need them for regular encouragement to pursue Christ more and not fall into sin or depression or loneliness. That means meals together, impromptu or scheduled prayer groups, and Bible studies. We need our church like we need our family, because in Christ we are family.
Is it harder to be committed to a church body than to church hop? Absolutely! Today our church is such an integral part of our lives that every trial the church goes through has an impact on my husband and me as well. When we are without a minister for a while, when members disagree with one another, when someone moves away or dies, when it seems we are more focused on trivial pursuits than Christ, we grieve. But the rewards far outweigh the difficulties. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus said (John 13:35), and in a solid church with faithful, regenerate members, you get to experience that love.
I still see the same problems I saw when I was younger. Announcements take up time we should use for worshipping God. Time is spent worrying about how attractive we look instead of preparing our hearts to hear God’s Word. People aren’t always made to feel welcome when they walk through the door. Money isn’t always spent in the most effective way to further God’s kingdom. Perhaps I’m even more critical than most people because of my past as a chronic church transient. My eyes have been trained to spot potential problems.
The difference is that now I see these problems as ours, not theirs. If I notice something doesn’t work, it’s up to me to help fix it. I need to greet newcomers and welcome them into my home for a meal. I need to repent of spending more time on dressing up for church than memorizing the Scripture our preacher asked us to memorize a week ago. I need to help corral the children and find ways to help the church save money on administrative costs so we can give more to missions. How can I pass judgment on the church when I am the church?
Curtis Adkison, an old friend and a member of a small church in Louisiana, says, “My church is all family. And I don’t mean blood either. We love to worship together, pray together and for each other, and we talk daily to one another. I know more about my church family than I know about my own family. We’re not afraid to tell each other about our struggles and ask for prayer so we may overcome them. We are a church who firmly believes in missions giving and support . . . . Not only do I love my church family, but I look forward to seeing them no less than twice a week.” His eyes fill with tears as he talks about the connection he shares with his church family.
We must be discerning about the doctrines we believe and let our children learn. We must be careful about the songs we sing and the way we worship. However, we don’t need to search for reasons to leave a church body. Instead, we should search for reasons to stay.
My church isn’t perfect, partly because I am a member. But never again will I stand on the outside when I can be a loved and loving member of the family that will be with me for eternity.
Anna Fasolino is a writer and former teacher who lives in Texas with her husband and infant son.