After growing up in Louisiana, I had the privilege of being able to travel the world and live abroad for a few years before going to college in the beautiful state of Maine. As soon as I got there, I started looking for friends. As any Southerner knows, this means I started looking for a church. I asked my coworkers and classmates, but not a single person could even make a recommendation! I was flabbergasted. Later, I met a preacher’s son who broke things down for me in a way that was meant to be funny but was much truer than he probably intended. He said, “Where you’re from, everybody goes to church. Up here, everybody used to go to church.”
I have moved a few times since then, and the older I get, the more I meet people who used to go to church. I even became one myself. After talking to a lot of people about this, I have observed that there are a lot of people who love Jesus but have been hurt by church people in a way that has turned them off from church itself. When asked, many people will probably tell you that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but the experience of going to church has become so painful that they prefer to walk alone. For a long time, I tried this too.
The Bible is pretty clear about what church is intended for and why we need it. I memorized Hebrews 10: 24-25 in Awanas as a child: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” I knew I should have been going to church, but I had myself pretty well convinced that it was just a break. Then a break turned into a year, and a year turned into several. It was not until my entire life began to fall apart that I realized how badly I needed a church family to spur me on and encourage me through this rough phase of life. When I finally went back to church, it was at the gentle invitation from a friend. I went to be polite. That morning we sang a song from my childhood: “I Surrender All.” I cried like a lost child who finally found her way home—and I never even realized I had been homesick.
Finding my way back home was painful and difficult. My story doesn’t stop at church with my friend that morning–in fact, that church was just the beginning. It quickly became uncomfortable. I was a young, divorced single mother, struggling financially and working my way through graduate school. I struggled to relate to the other women in the small church, and while they were all very kind to me, they seemed more focused on introducing me to Jesus than walking with me in my faith. In fact, that was my experience at several churches. I wanted to say, “No really, I’m saved! I was baptized and everything!”
My prayer started out, “God please help me find a church home,” but then it became, “God, why did you make me so weird?” It took me a long time to feel comfortable in church, and it took me even longer to understand that God did not make a mistake when He made me. My testimony and the perspective that God has given me are not an accident. Working at Mt. Bethel has strongly reinforced this for me. While I have healed greatly in the years since those difficult days, I have found more healing at Mt. Bethel than I even knew I needed. I have met all sorts of people in all stages of life here–empty nesters, single moms, divorcees, newlyweds, people with green hair, people with tattoos, and people who look like they’d never accept someone with green hair or tattoos. All of them love Jesus and wholeheartedly extend that love to all kinds of people.
I think it’s probably fair to say that right here in our East Cobb community, there are a lot of people who used to go to church. We have neighbors who are homesick and don’t even know it. We have neighbors who have been hurt by church and are trying to walk alone. We have neighbors who are afraid of church and terrified of being judged by “church people.” And all it might take to help them find their way home is a gentle invitation, or for someone to tell them what makes Mt. Bethel truly different. As the Senior Writer for Mt. Bethel UMC, I get to tell the story of who we are to people who may or may not know who He is. What I see from behind the scenes at Mt. Bethel is authentic, genuine love–and that has become my favorite story to write.