People, Not Place

This weekend, I went to services at the church I grew up in.

Even though it’s Monday morning now, it feels like Sunday morning is lingering a little longer this week. Because that place – that church – tends to linger in my heart after I leave it.

Going to that church is like coming home for me, in a lot of ways. It’s an imperfect homecoming- yes. But it’s also warm and familiar, in the way that only well-worn paths can be.

It’s the church where I went to Christian preschool, where I first experienced felt board Bible stories and Sunday school hymns. It’s where we dressed in our best dresses to go to Easter services and Christmas Eve, my sister and I twirling our skirts down the aisles of the sanctuary in the candlelight.

It’s where I watched my sister get baptized. Where I tasted my first communion.

Most importantly, it’s the church where I grew up in my relationship with our good, good God. It’s where I was allowed to ask tough questions and grapple with the mystery of our faith in a way that was safe and welcome.

That church is where I fell in love with youth group, and where good memories of those friendships spill over the edges of the pages of my journals. There were long Sunday nights in the church kitchen, when we stayed long after group concluded to eat cold pizza and steal soda from the vending machine. There were weekend retreats when we played Sardines in the basement for hours, feeling like we owned the whole church building as we sprinted through the halls in the dark with flashlights. There was the freshman kidnapping ritual each fall, when we snatched frightened 14-year-olds from their homes and took them back to the church for a huge sleepover.

Our church let us run and play and be ourselves in a way that I am so grateful for now. What an absolutely beautiful and fun place to belong as a high schooler.

Most importantly, that church is where I first asked Jesus to forgive those places in my small heart that felt heavy with guilt and lack. It’s where much of my story has been written, in beautiful and important ways.

This church looks nothing like it did when I was growing up. Not in physical appearances, anyway. And that’s something I’ve had to work through.

This church has redecorated, reorganized and relocated over the years. Sometimes, change was for the better. Sometimes, change was hard. Change was painful and raw.

For example: The pews and carpet in the large Santuary used to be this outrageous orange-red color until they were (thankfully) replaced with dark green upholstery in the 90s.

Good change.

Another example: When I was in high school, our congregation chose to sell the building where the church had been meeting for almost 100 years, and relocate from Centennial to Highlands Ranch, to attract more young families and start a new chapter.

Hard, hard change.

I remember the Sunday when everyone voted to sell. I hated it. I couldn’t understand why that building full of history and beauty and growth had to be replaced with something newer. It felt like a betrayal to me.

On the last Sunday we met in that sanctuary with the dark green pews, I tried to hold back tears, but they streamed down my face when the organ played the last hymn.

For me, the old building represented solidarity and comfort and tradition. So when we built and moved into a new building when I was in college, the process felt cold. The new walls were too new, too echo-y with the transition.

People told me that the building didn’t matter. That it wasn’t about the place. People said that the church would remain, no matter where we met. But I didn’t believe them at all. Families were leaving the church. People were wrestling with the newness like I was. We were saying goodbye to the place where I met God for the first time and where I felt God and His church walk with me into who I was becoming.

I mourned that place.

In the way that change often does, that change helped me grow up. My home church has always helped me to grow up, even if I was resistant.

The church may have changed outwardly, but it’s inward nature has remained the same. It took me a long time to see it.

But this weekend, I saw it clearly.

I walked into the new church – the building that is now very much the church home – and I was greeted by the familiar feeling of being known, and being loved.

Couples and families that watched me grow up and that have walked with our family for almost two decades surrounded me, greeted me and shook my hand. They asked me how I was doing and they meant it. In a slow and deliberate way, they smiled and said “Good to see you, Laura.”

I looked around the new sanctuary during service and recognized couples who had prayed for me, sent me packages, and supported me over the years. They were everywhere, those familiar faces.

Because of them, church doesn’t feel too different after all.

In his sermon this weekend, the pastor read from The Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5.

Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.”
– Matthew 5:7-9

He talked about the contradiction between the call of the Christian life and the way that the world preaches. He spoke on the tough and ambiguous road of Christianity.

He let me off the hook by acknowledging that change can be good, but also hard. And that’s ok.

People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered,” he quoted. “People will forget the good you’ve done to them and the ways you’ve served them.”

Love them anyway.”

I sat there, one of the young people that this church had helped to grow, and I realized that those words were what I learned from that place:

Love people anyway.

This church, and it’s people, have taught me that loving people and walking with them through the years isn’t easy or clean-cut. But you should do it anyway.

In this church, we have lost many members, some very unexpectedly and much too young. In this church, people have felt the sting of conflict and the peace of forgiveness. In this church, people have worked selflessly to see programs and people flourish. In this church, we’ve had many pastors come and go, some to new positions, and others to new phases of life.

But in the change, the love has remained. This church – my church – has taught me that.

Children will grow and families will evolve. People might get hurt and leave. There will be redecorating, remodeling, and relocating.

But the heartbeat of the place will endure. In memories and bread broken together. In the stories still shared. In the friendships that persevere and extend past generational lines.

Love people anyway.”

In the end, I guess they were right. The building didn’t matter. The building isn’t what brings comfort or community.

The church is not a place, but people.

The people that look you in the eye and shake your hand. The people that sing with you, shoulder-to-shoulder. The people that remember you and give you a place to belong.

Imperfect, yes.

But also warm and familiar, in the way that only well-worn paths can be.

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