My husband and I recently experienced a season of being on the road full-time because of his job. For 28 months, we didn’t have our own home or car, and we were constantly moving. We lived in 14 different cities across 11 states, drove 18 rental cars, made dozens of new friends, tried a plethora of new coffee & tea shops, and were an active part of 12 different churches.
There was a lot I learned during our travels, but one thing that stands out is how the experience changed my perspective of “going to church.” As someone who was a church regular since before I could walk, going to church has never been new to me. But not having a consistent church home for over two years made me think about the purpose of church in a whole new way.
Early in our adventure, my husband and I decided to find a church we could attend at every new place we lived. It wasn’t exactly an easy thing to do and was sometimes discouraging, but I’m so glad we made the effort. As a result, we met some wonderful people, made friends we still keep up with today, and figured out what having a church home really means to us. We learned how to jump in and make a church ours, what mattered to us in choosing a church, and so much more.
Here are four things I learned from our experience attending 12 different churches in only a couple of years.
1. Your church home is a consistent community.
This may be one thing you don’t fully grasp the value of until you‘ve lost it. While we were moving so often (every few weeks to every few months), I realized how scary it is to go someplace where no one knows you. Who can you call when there’s an emergency? Who is going to stand by your family when something bad happens? You are suddenly facing all the ups and downs of life without a nearby support network.
But when you find the right kind of church home, you find a new kind of family. You find people who’ll rally around you when things are hard and who’ll celebrate with you when things are good. You find a place where you belong, where people know your name and your job and your interests. And you’re able to begin making true friends.
While traveling, I quickly figured out why God didn’t create us to be life-long nomads, always on our own. God designed us as relational people who need others. Since my husband and I were constantly strangers to everyone around us, it didn’t take me long to realize how special it is to “no longer [be] strangers and aliens, but [to be] fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
I still vividly remember a handful of interactions with people who welcomed us wholeheartedly into their church community. They circled around us as Jesus intended the church to do, not just with their words but with their actions.
I remember the women’s small group I got to attend only a handful of times in Pooler, Georgia. After my last meeting with them, those women circled together and prayed the kindest words over me.
I remember two thoughtful church families who invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them when ours weren’t nearby.
I remember how an older gentleman at the church we attended in Fort Wayne, Indiana, would come find us after every service. He always remembered our names and would ask how we were doing and what we’d done that week. He never let us feel unnoticed or overlooked.
I remember the lady who took me out to lunch one day after we visited her church in Maryland. She made it her personal mission to connect with us and include us in the church’s activities.
These people gave us a local community when we had none, which is exactly what God intended the church to be.
2. There’s more than one way to “do church.”
If you, like me, grew up going to one kind of church your whole life, you’re likely very used to the way your church did things. The music sounds like this, everyone wears these clothes, sermons are this long, and communion happens this way. You may have assumed that these are the “right“ ways to do things. You may even have been taught that.
But this is not the case. Humans are not all the same. The world’s cultures are not all the same. We are not all in the same place in our walk with God. So why would our church services all be the same?
Over the years, I’ve seen all kinds of churches — ones where they preached in two different languages in the same service, ones where they met in a school’s gymnasium, ones where the worship service featured lights and drums and special effects, and ones where the organ and orchestra ruled.
Seeing all the different ways church services are done across this country alone was eye-opening. I saw firsthand that God is present in any church service where believers are gathered with the sole purpose of worshipping Him. After all, He promised in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” I watched this happen in all different kinds of church cultures. If His people’s hearts and minds are turned toward Him, God will meet us in any church — regardless of what kind of building we’re meeting in, what we’re wearing, or how many or how few people are there.
3. Church connects you with believers wherever you go.
I always found it incredible how my husband and I could walk into a brand-new church where we didn’t know a single soul and yet still feel so connected to everyone around us. We were all singing to the same God, praying to the same God, and hearing from the same God all service long. I didn’t know anything about these people, but we already had something in common — our faith.
That commonality allowed my husband and I to instantly connect with other believers wherever we went. It made it easier to develop friendships, because not only did we see each other every week, but we knew we shared the same faith and values. While it’s certainly important to connect with people who are different from us, including non-Christians, our hearts also need connections with people who share the faith that’s so important to us.
Through Christ’s sacrifice, we “though many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5), regardless of how different we are or how little we know each other. This truth made it so much easier to connect with people through church each time we moved. And now we have new friends all across the country with whom we can reconnect any time we’re in their area.
4. Church lets you be part of something larger than yourself.
As humans, there’s something in us that wants to be part of something bigger — that wants to be part of a movement that matters. The worldwide church community gives us that chance as the millions of Christians in the world work together to bring more of God’s grace and goodness to this earth. We get to play an active role in what Jesus is doing in the world at this very moment.
While this is something we can do individually and not just on Sundays, a church home does provide an easy access point for serving since it is already connected with needs in the community as well as needs within its own building. And when the church meets, we have the chance to show God-sized hospitality — to welcome newcomers, hold the hand of the hurting, embrace the lost, and encourage the believers.
I was always so grateful when we found a new church home that allowed us to get involved in how they were serving their larger community. But the way we contributed looked different each time.
One church needed help assembling toy kitchens for the children’s rooms, another church needed help getting all the decorations ready for their summer children’s program, and yet another church needed help with childcare for a weekly moms’ group. Regardless of what kind of work I was doing, it changed my whole experience with that church. I felt a sense of ownership, like I was truly a part of it. I got to connect with other people who cared about the same causes that I do, and I gained a greater understanding of what went on behind the scenes to keep the church’s activities going.
Not all of a church’s ministries are in the limelight, and some of the jobs they need help with may seem insignificant. But they make a difference. The very fact that you’re volunteering to help makes a difference. We need all of us and each of our unique talents to be the kind of diverse, well-rounded and fully equipped church body that God wants us to be. It is only when we are all doing our own part that the “body [can] grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
Don’t give up meeting together
Church isn’t about us and our preferences. It’s not about which church has the exact kind of music we like, or all the ministries we’re used to, or is just the right size for our comfort zone. Instead, it’s where we can hear from God through biblical teaching, worship with other believers, take part in important sacraments such as communion and baptism, and contribute our skills and talents to bless others. Ultimately, it’s about God accomplishing His purposes on earth, for our good and for His glory.
If I were to wrap all these ideas into one big concept, I’d say that I finally fully understand how the church is not just a building or a meeting, but a group of believers. It’s about the people, all of us different in a thousand ways yet sharing two things in common — our sin natures and the forgiveness of Jesus who’s paid the price for them. He is the One who brings us all together, who transforms us from many different strangers into one global community.
At the end of all my travels, I can tell you this much for sure: It’s a beautifully inspiring thing when you experience God’s church being the community that God intended it to be — a community of imperfect people consistently becoming more like Jesus and pouring genuine love onto others, whether inside or outside the church. As Ephesians 1:22 puts it, we are meant to be the “fullness of God” in this world. That’s a tall order. It takes all of us working together, being the hands and feet of Jesus on earth.
Copyright 2021 Jessica Swanda. All rights reserved.