I grew up going to church. Nearly every Sunday, we would get dressed in our Sunday best. We would drive the couple blocks to the small white building. Sometimes we’d go downstairs as my parents and other members of the church choir got their blue robes out of the old closet and rehearsed the special music for the week. Sometimes we’d go directly up to the Sanctuary and sit in the front pew and busy ourselves with crayons and games of tic-tac-toe or dots.
Throughout the service, the light would break through the stained glass panels — rectangles pieced together to form large rectangle windows on both sides of the building. Primary colored blocks that complemented the red carpet. And the oak pews. That was church to me.
I loved that little white church. I loved the red carpet. And the stain-glass windows. I loved the traditional hymnals. And the choir robes. I loved the organist playing in duet with pianist. It was how we churched.
I went to college and attended groups of collegiates gathering together for Wednesday night worship. It was the first time I’d really started to experience church music performed by an acoustic band.
When we were first married and had relocated to a totally new city, we found a church. Another building. Bigger than the one I’d grown up in. But it had a similar feel. Large windows. Open sanctuary. Cross up front. It was a building that was built for church. It was, a church.
We then relocated again, to another new city. We found ourselves selecting a church that was similar to the others I’d been in. But this one had chairs in place of pews. And no stained glass windows as it had been built in a more recent era where, I suppose, stained glass had become more expensive. The carpet was more of a multi-purpose feel. And the chairs could be cleared out for events or gatherings. The music was a combination of some traditional music and some contemporary. And the church congregation was one that was a bit more established.
In the time that we were members at that church, we had our first two sons. And then we decided to seek out other possibilities for our family to grow in our faith.
We began church shopping. It can be overwhelming in a large community or city to even know where or how to start. So we talked about what we desired in our church experience.
We wanted to have a more contemporary service with the sacraments and traditions of a traditional denomination. We hoped to find many young families. And we wanted to find a church family that was similar to the one I grew up with. A family of people who celebrated their belief in Christ and also, who were there for one another in a Christian community.
And when all the shopping was said and done, we landed in a different denomination that either of us had grown up as, with a ton of young families, who did not have a building.
But how can you church without a building? I would have asked that question as a 10-year-old sitting in the oak pews on the red carpet peering out the stained glass windows. As a teen, I might have felt like people who met in a strip mall were some sort of knock-off church. As I grew up, I’m sure I thought that whatever I knew as my normal was the norm. But I’ve realized over time that lots of people do church in different ways.
For our congregation, the answer was, “we do church in a school.” Yes. A school gym. Never would I ever have thought I’d be content to attend church, Sunday after Sunday, in a Middle School gym. And yet, there was just something about it that kept us coming back.
That “something?” The people.
But also, the idea of church changed for me when we changed churches. A church, by pure definition, is certainly still a building. But the church, to me and to our family, became so much different to my heart. The church, our church experience, is really built in the faith that fills whatever building we all gather in each Sunday, even if it is “torn down and boxed up” right after we go in peace. The church has become the music that reverberates off the gym walls. The church are the people who prayed for us, brought meals, and helped with our two older boys as welcomed a three-pound baby into the world and into a NICU. The church are those who we gather with for dinners and Bible Studies and Small Groups and Holidays. The people who have prayed, holding my hand through chemotherapy. The pastor who sat in waiting rooms with us prior to surgeries. The church is what happens when people who share faith go out and spread it into the world.
I grew up in a little white church. With red carpet. And stained glass windows. I loved it so and it was the physical foundation that my faith was built in. But I also love my church-in-a-box because it is where my heart for Jesus is currently growing. And someday, depending on where life takes me, perhaps I will worship in the mountains, or by a lake, and I will, for the rest of my life remember that the church is not a building because as the song goes, “I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together.”
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