Somewhere a church is just waiting to welcome you.
Mike and Michelle Mennard
It's a scary thing to move from one town to another. It's even scarier to move from one state to another. And it's scarier still to move from the mild summer-home climate of northern California to eastern Nebraska.
That's exactly what we did in the summer of 2002.
Our friends thought our hold on sanity had slipped. We're not entirely convinced they were wrong, but we rationalized to ourselves that sanity is overrated and Midwest weather is really just California weather with severe mood swings.
We opted to move without knowing a single individual in Nebraska. This unnerved us a bit, but we figured we were sociable enough to make friends quickly. This, we can attest, was a tad overly optimistic on our part.
Not that the people weren't cordial and we didn't try. It just takes time to get acquainted, to get familiar, and then to get comfortable with someone. You can't just jump into a relationship and expect it to feel as though you've known each other for 16 years.
Other challenges came as a surprise as well. We had no idea how tough it is to find a new dentist, choose a new mechanic, and completely reprogram the car's radio dial.
Alas, not knowing anyone in town also left us with a difficult but crucial decision to make: What church would we attend?
Back in California most of our best friends had belonged to our church, and the church had been the center of our social universe. It seemed imperative that we find another church lest our social universe implode like a massive black hole.
Hence, we started to "church shop."
Neither of us had ever "shopped" for a church before because there had always been few options wherever we had lived. In the past, we simply attended the church that was closest to our front porch. Suddenly, faced with the booming metropolis of Lincoln with its whopping population of 230,000 (it might as well have been New York City or Tokyo compared to the isolated mountains we?d lived on), we actually had options. So we approached our church shopping spree the way one might look for a plumber: we opened the yellow pages.
Being Seventh-day Adventists, we looked for the nearest Adventist church. To our astonishment, there were seven churches, all a mere skip and a jump away (that is, if our Ford Explorer could skip or jump without blowing the transmission). The yellow pages offered no information other than addresses and phone numbers. For once we wished churches advertised their strengths like car dealerships advertise their finance plans: "Come to our church! Our sermons are a tad long, our piano's out of tune, but we have the best potlucks this side of the Missouri!"
We picked our first visit the way many conduct personal Bible studies: we closed our eyes and landed one finger on the phone book.
The first church we visited was large-very large. It had many of the things that appealed to us, things that most people rarely acknowledge as vital: easy parking, comfortable pews, and, most important, tidy restrooms. (Sure, none of these is spiritual in nature, but successful evangelism, we believe, could benefit from a toilet brush and ample Comet.)
We left the church with little doubt that we had spent time with God. Good things were happening there, and our 3-year-old son, Ramsey, loved his Sabbath school. It was not difficult to imagine ourselves at home there. Still, we decided to return to the yellow pages and make sure of our choice.
A fortunate finger led us to a slightly smaller church that had clearly been in town for a while. It had that quaint "old church" smell, moldy but nostalgic, like the smell of Grandma's living room. The pews, no doubt, were older than Grandma and significantly less comfortable than her plastic-covered couches.
Still, the bathrooms were clean, which scored more points with us than the comfort of the pews.
Again, we left that church filled with the Spirit. The fellowship was terrific, and the potluck was even better. (The creative uses of mushroom soup never cease to astound us!) Little Ramsey found friends his age, which meant more to us than clean toilets. Nonetheless, we wondered whether we had found a "home" yet.
Once more, a blind but well-placed finger led us to another church, this time significantly smaller than the previous two. Still unfamiliar with our new hometown, we got lost on the way, and by the time we found the modest building (kind of a lunch box with a steeple), the service had already begun. We weren't too bothered by this, though, because it was easier to sneak in unnoticed this way.
Making a scene
We walked into the small foyer and were welcomed warmly. A grinning host offered us not only a bulletin but also a free travel mug with the church's name on it. Who can pass up a free gift? Apparently, not us. Then we quietly, nervously opened the door into the sanctuary and looked for a seat in the back.
The church presented a slightly more contemporary service than the previous ones we had visited, and the platform had four singers, a guitar player, a keyboard player, and-gasp!-drums. A little surprised, we sat down and began to study our bulletins. Mostly we searched for names we might recognize and for a glimpse into the true personality of the church. Evidently, we studied too hard, because neither of us saw Ramsey slip out of the pew.
Suddenly aware that he was gone, we looked in all the predictable places one might find a 3-year-old. Under our pew? No. Under someone else?s pew? No. In the aisle? No.
A sense of absolute terror gripped us. It was a terror not unlike the feeling of losing your child in a crowded Wal-Mart. (Yes, we do know that feeling!) Then that terror was immediately unseated by another terror-less frightening, but far more humiliating.
Ramsey, it seems, had been enjoying the music. So much so, in fact, that he had slid out of our pew, run down the aisle, and walked onstage-somehow managing to grab a tambourine along the way. Once there, at the center of the stage where the lights were brightest and the view of him was clearest, he began to dance and wield his tambourine. (Thankfully, he kept a good beat.)
It's easy to say that a 3-year-old dancing in church is "cute," maybe even pious. After all, David danced before the Lord, and he did so naked. Ramsey was-thank God!-fully clothed! But it's doubtful that David ever moved his hips as violently as Ramsey was doing. What's more, David's parents weren't visiting a church for the first time, hoping desperately to make friends and good first impressions.
Together we ran down the aisle to stop the exhibition. Ramsey never stopped his dancing, even as we ran toward him. But at some point he saw us and realized that we weren't approving of his moves, so he did the only rational thing-he ran. As fast as he could, he ran to the side aisle before either of us could nab him. He ran like a rabbit chased by dogs, and neither of us relished the idea of being a dog in the middle of church.
But eventually, the dogs did catch the rabbit. Ramsey and his mom had a good talk in the bathroom, which, by the way, was impeccably clean. After the service we slinked into the parking lot to our car, hoping that no one would see us-ever again! However, before we could back out of our parking space-a decent one at that!-a young woman ran toward us and tapped on our window. She said, "You forgot your travel mug!"
"Uh, thank you." We held our heads down, hoping she might not recognize us as the parents with the child intent on reviving disco.
"Please, please, please come again." (Her three "pleases" caught our attention.) "You have no idea how glad we are that you visited us. We hope you come back. You would fit right in here."
Her friendly words made an enormous impression on us. Her kindliness overmatched our humiliation, and as we stared again at the yellow pages, we swallowed our pride, closed the book, and agreed to try that church again. (Although we considered putting Ramsey on a doggy leash!)
When we walked into the foyer, people immediately surrounded us. Some reached out to shake Ramsey's hand, and a few reached for ours. One person said, "I just have to shake your hands. Your son is the best interpretive dancer our church has ever had."
Another added, "Yes, the only interpretive dancer."
Still another said, "But if you're going to have only one, why not have the best."
We made that church our home. It didn't have the slickest service, the biggest budget, or the fanciest building. It didn't even have comfortable pews. But we knew that we were accepted as we were-two nervous newcomers and a very capable dancer.
Two and half years later (and about two months ago) we came early Sabbath morning to church-a place where we definitely feel at home-and saw a young woman with a very rowdy 3-year-old son. We had come to rehearse for the worship service, since we both sing in the praise team.
As we practiced our familiar choruses, we noted how the woman looked tired and frazzled. She timidly sat on the back row to listen to our amateur but sincere singing. Suddenly her son took off down the aisle and up to the stage. Predictably, he started to dance. (Granted, not as well as Ramsey, but we're biased!)
The mother's face took on a familiar mix of horror, humiliation, and exhaustion. We looked at her son, dancing his heart out beside us. And so we did what we thought was best?we danced along with him, though not as well.
The woman stopped, stared at us, then started to laugh. Our piano player, who also has young kids, said, "Welcome to our church. As you see, I think you'll fit in well here."
Mike and Michelle Mennard teach in the Humanities Division at Union College. Mike is the author of two books, Shall We Gather at the Potluck and Can't Keep My Soul From Dancing. Mike and Michelle are convinced that their son, Ramsey, now 5, is both brilliant and a great dancer.
Eight Really, Really Good Benefits of Church
Here are our top eight reasons for attending church.
1. We get God's presence.
In Exodus 33:14-16 Moses asked God a good question: "If we don't have Your presence, what's the point?" There are many places where you can find fellowship, but God resides with His followers. (See also Matthew 18:20.) Even Jesus, who was mighty close to God, attended church every Sabbath (see Luke 4:16).
2. We get refreshed.
Proverbs 11:25 says, "He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." This promise, of course, requires a little give, not merely take.
3. We unite with like believers.
The Bible tells us that God loves His people to be united. In his letter to the Christian church in Rome, Paul wrote, "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Jesus Christ, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 15:6).
4. We can sing to each other.
Believe it or not, many of our songs and hymns are meant to be sung to each other. That?s why Paul says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16).
5. We can sing to God.
Singing to God can be done alone, but God seems to like congregational singing, too. So did the psalmist, who writes, "I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples" (Psalm 108:3).
6. We can become like Him.
Simply put, we become like the company we keep. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8:18, "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness." That's a major perk!
7. We get ready for Jesus to come.
God is preparing His people for exciting things. Luke 1:17 describes it as making "ready a people prepared for the Lord." While we do not receive salvation from church, God uses the church to prepare us for His coming.
8. Church is fun.
The psalmist writes, "I was glad when they said unto me Let us go into the house of the Lord" (Psalm 122:1, KJV) Going to church is pleasant, even fun. How can it be anything else, considering benefits one through seven?