From the time I was very small I was also interested in witches and magic, nature, animals, and a deep desire to protect them and our planet. So in High school when I met some students from two different schools that were pagan I was intrigued. Around this time I also had developed a genuine love for philosophy. The more I read, the more I felt like I had finally belonged somewhere. This religion was proclaiming itself as an anti-religion (practice based on tradition or obligation) and it was all about "if it harm none, do as you will" furthermore, it was gentle and kind to animals and our planet.
When I became pregnant I was in the army and was the only chaplains assistant to ever proclaim my religion as "wiccan." Yet the chaplain that I worked under was Baptist. One day we sat down and talked about why I was wiccan and what I loved about it, if there was anything that I didn't like, and if I knew anything about Baptists. He never tried to convert me and he welcomed my input during prayer meetings and other chaplain led events. He even let me lead a non-denominational worship group. It was very encouraging. Too soon my time in the service was over as September 11 had just occurred and by being a single mom I was looking at either leaving my newborn to fight overseas or accept an honorable discharge so that I did not have to leave him. I had always wanted to be a mom and was told that I would never conceive, so I choose to stay with my miracle baby. I moved out of my moms house and into my own apartment and started teaching special needs students in a all-inclusive preschool. A church in my area was offering a sign language class for free and so I jumped at the chance so that I could better teach my students.
Ironically, the church that hosted this event was a church that my dad took me to for a short time after my parents divorce. This church actually had a daddy daughter dance when I was in sixth grade. My dad had purchased this knee length prom-type dress for me to wear. It was forest green, my favorite color at the time, and it was the most thoughtful present he ever purchased for me. But I was so embarrassed because I was way over dressed for this small-church occasion. Yet every single one of the girls at the party were gracious and kind and complemented me even though we both knew that it was more than a bit much. I was blown away with how sweet everyone was. We went to the church for a few weeks and then, my dad fell away again. He was a smoker and someone felt comfortable enough to encourage him to quit smoking, that was the last time we attended.
Being back at the church felt so nostalgic and sweet. I remembered all of the programs that they had for kids and how all of the kids seemed to not only love being there but genuinely wanted to love the Lord and the world the way that the Lord would want them to do. Remembering this made me realize that I didn't want to force my child into one religion, that I wanted him to experience other churches so that he could choose what to believe. (In my years of searching I had been to a Jewish ceremony, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, American Baptist, AME/African Methodist Episcopalian, Episcopalian, and Wiccan "churches" with friends). So after a few Sundays I worked up enough courage to visit this church that had such great children's programs so that I could give my child the chance to form his own opinion on religion.
I sat in the very last pew, without a Bible, mouthed the words to the songs that were catchy but that I had never heard, and then listened as a new pastor was giving his first sermon to the church. He was going to be voted on to see if he was the new pastor of the church or not. But all I knew at the time was that he was a guest preacher and he was speaking of truths that I had never heard a Christian own before. He spoke of three chairs and how Christan's fit one of three chairs. I am probably going to butcher this (it was twelve years ago) so I am only going to give you the gist and hopefully get the "chairs" right. Basically the first chair is for the Christians that show up on holidays and special occasions, that have a Bible or maybe don't, but if they do it just sits in its spot and looks nice. The second chair is for the people who go to church on Sundays, follow along with their Bibles, go to Sunday school and learn the stories. They listen and participate in service but after that they are done with their obligation. The third chair is for those who actively want to know God. They come to church eager to learn, they volunteer for things, they read their Bibles throughout the week and meditate on the lessons from the weekend prior. They try to show Christ's love to others in the work place and in their daily actions. They are on fire for the Lord. The second chair is luke-warm Christians, and the first chair are people who do not have a relationship with Christ.
I was blown away. He was admitting to all of the hypocrisy that I grew up hating about Christians. He was talking about everything that pushed me away from God. And he pointed it back to me. Was I willing to let what others did/do dictate what I was going to choose for my life. After hearing him speak I was never the same. But it wasn't just his words that moved me. During the "greeting" when you are supposed to shake hands with those around you, it wasn't a race to see how many hands you could shake. And it wasn't a "shake hands with my family/friends that I am sitting beside and talk about something so nobody in front of or behind me turns in my direction and expects me to extend a hand." People were actually walking around, shaking hands with familiar faces and stopping to talk briefly before moving on to another. I had several people shake my hand and welcome me to the church. You could tell that they genuinely wanted to welcome me. Then something even more special occurred. At the end of service as everyone was leaving I had to go up and introduce myself to the pastor. You see, even though I went on my own desire. I was a part of the crisis pregnancy center in our town and if you choose to go to church and have the pastor sign your church program you could earn extra points for things that you needed for your baby. So I figured that I was there for my child anyway, why not be brave enough to say "I need your autograph because I go to the crisis pregnancy center." It was almost as hard as talking about it on this blog since I have never shared my first pregnancy details publicly. So when people were leaving the church there was this one girl, I will call her "A" because if she reads this I want her to know how important she is to my story, and her name starts with A. (I am so original aren't I?) "A" bolts down the aisle just short of jogging with her hand extending in front of her three pews in front of me and says "HI, I am "A" I am so glad that you could come today, is this your first time here?" She then tells me all about the Sunday School class for people are age, she asks me to come back next week, and offers her phone number so that I can call her if I need anything. I was floored. I had a bigger reception here than my family ever did in the YEARS I had attended the church I went to as a child. After speaking with her I was very fortunate that there was also a volunteer from the Crisis pregnancy center attending so she walked up with me to talk to the pastor.
After attending for a few months I was put on bed rest due to pre-term labor. I had ladies bring over books form the church library and other things to keep me occupied while I was resting. I had people bring meals and keep me company. And the day that my son was born I had so many visitors that from the moment he was born (there were people in the waiting room) until visiting hours were per that day, I never once had an empty room. They were there to celebrate his life but to show me that they were going to love on me and my son, we were not alone. That pastor became and is still the head pastor of that church. He baptized me when I was 9months pregnant, he dedicated my son, my mom started coming to church and he baptized her too!, he married Brendan and I, dedicated Avagrace, and baptized my sister and brother in law. Together we witnessed miracles happen in the first years of me becoming a Christian. I looked forward to being at church every Sunday, Wednesday Night, and many other times throughout the week. I volunteered in everything from teaching Sunday School to cleaning the Church. I went to Sunday School and I was part of a women's Bible Study that took place at "A's" house on a different night of the week. I truly had a "home" at that church.
So that is my story and my ode to what it is to belong to a church. Without the surrounding of loving, genuine, real people who mess up but seek to continue on Loving God and serving others, than I would not be who I am today.
At some point in your search for a home church you may become discouraged, perhaps even very discouraged. You may even want to quit and just do worship at home with just your family. And that may be ok for a while, but without the presence of other believers in your life it is much easier to fall away, be discouraged and lonely, and stagnate in your process of growing in your faith. It is much like when you plant a garden of vegetables. If you plant just one vegetable by its lonesome it is more susceptible to being a critters dinner, or to be trampled. But if you plant a garden with many vegetables, critters still may come but they are much less likely to be trampled. You will still be hit with temptations, sin, and the feelings of loneliness and discouragement. But when you are plugged in to a body of believers who become your church family, you are less likely to fall away and more able to handle the challenges that you will face because you have others to surround you and help you through those challenges. Here are a few scriptures that I read when I am feeling especially discouraged in my search for a church FAMILY. (Also, if you read 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, you will see that it speaks of believers coming together and while it is a rebuke against the negative attributes that can be given to a church, it is showing us that being a church family who is unified and comes together to care for each other IS THE GOAL!
Hebrews 10:25 English Standard Version
Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another...
So yes, a church is really needed. That can come in many forms. It can be a bricks and mortar type building with a sanctuary and pews. It can be a rented hotel conference room with a group of like minded individuals that want to worship together and also invite others to attend, it can be a home church with families meeting in each others homes. But the purpose of church is to worship, study, follow God's will, and uphold each other in the ways of the Lord.
Obviously, church will look different to everyone but it is important. So don't give up. Continue in prayer and deed with the purpose of finding a body of believers that you can come together with for the purposes listed above.