My family and I went to church last weekend. We hadn’t been in over a year and decided to attend one we had never been to before. My 5-year-old daughter and I threw on our dresses, and my 7-year-old son and husband buttoned their dress shirts. We were looking quite dapper, and it felt good.

You see, my husband and I had put off attending church due to several excuses and reasons, but one of them was simply how we felt after going.

Every time we went, someone would stroll up to our family with a less than welcoming look and say, “We haven’t seen you in a while.”

It always felt like there was so much emphasis by the regular parishioners on why we hadn’t been attending and whether or not we’d return. For me, the purpose of attending church is to nourish my soul and grow closer to God. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I felt guilt and shame for my absence, piled on top of the pressure to return. Last week, however, something within me yearned to give it another go, and despite my nerves, I felt ready.

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As our family of four climbed out of our car in the parking lot, we saw a familiar family. The two parents and only daughter smiled and waved, making us feel welcome. As we entered the church, the little girl said almost bursting, “Can I take them upstairs to where the kids learn?”

Her father smiled and said, “Of course.”

She grabbed my kids’ hands, and together, the three of them dashed upstairs. That simple gesture by such a young girl made the biggest difference—not only to my children but to me, too.

My husband and I walked into the church where worship music played live on stage. In the pews were older gray-haired couples and worshippers of all different shapes and colors. Some of them swayed to the music with their hands waving in the air while others just stood humbly. No one swarmed us. And being new, that felt good. We could just settle in and be.

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After the service, a woman who used to work at my kids’ school approached me and gave me a hug. We small-talked about her new life in retirement and how the kids were doing. But that was it. She never overemphasized the fact this was the first time our family had been there.

She simply made us feel welcome by being friendly.

During the coffee hour, the youth leader approached me. “Your children did so well,” she said. “Your son raised his hand and answered questions while your daughter danced to the worship music.” She left it at that. She took the time to make us all feel welcome without all of the added pressure of “I hope to see them again soon.”

Upon leaving, people waved and thanked us for coming. No frills. No pressure. No one questioned what church we went to prior or our past religious experiences. No one even uttered, “We hope to see you again next Sunday.” Instead, the parishioners took the stress off and simply made us feel welcome . . . for that day, that hour, and within those moments.

I’ll admit, one of the reasons I’ve dodged going to church is because of the guilt and shame I feel when I go. Oftentimes, I feel like the parishioners put so much emphasis on either my absence or into the future hopes of me going, that I just feel too judged. I have felt like both a number and an object. So, I stay home.

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But what I felt this past Sunday in this brand-new church was open arms.

They accepted me in the present moments. No one pressured me to come back—they were simply glad I was there. I never once felt swarmed like I have before.

If I could offer advice to any regular churchgoer it would be to mimic the little girl who excitedly grabbed my children’s hands. Let your love of God be what’s welcoming people into your church. Grab their hand into the church just like she did but don’t guilt them into coming back or shame them for their absence. Because all you really have to do is open your hand and smile—and they just might come back.

P.S. We love the encouragement in Embraced: 100 Devotions to Know God’s Love Right Where You Are. Don’t have time to sit and read? Listen to it here, on Audible.

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Angela Anagnost-Repke

Angela-Anagnost Repke is a writer and writing instructor dedicated to raising two empathetic children. She hopes that her graduate degrees in English and counseling help her do just that. Since the pandemic, Angela and her family have been rejuvenated by nature and moved to northern Michigan to allow the waves of Lake Michigan to calm their spirits. She has been published in Good Housekeeping, Good Morning America, ABC News, Parents, Romper, and many more. She is currently at-work on her nonfiction parenting book, Wild Things by Nature: How an Unscientific Parent Can Give Nature to Their Wild Things. Follow Angela on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram