I have the same memories as many evangelicals who grew up in church at the same time I did: felt-board Bible stories, Sunday school donuts, praise chorus lyrics on overhead projectors.
Even before I was old enough to do much besides doodle during sermons, church was a fixture in my life. I was sometimes bored and sometimes enjoyed myself, but going to church wasn’t a choice—it was just what everyone did.
As I got a bit older, I realized that not everyone went to church, but I gathered that being someone who did was a moral imperative. It meant I was taking my faith seriously, being a good person and making God happy (or avoiding God’s anger). By the time I was old enough to join the youth group, other factors reinforced my involvement: church was where my friends were, where the cute boys were and where much of my social life took place.
Heading off to college meant that my parents no longer took me to church, and my social life was no longer headquartered there, but I still saw my attendance as a basic requirement of following Jesus. Where else could I grow in my faith and find spiritual community?
Over the next few years, however, something strange happened. I followed Jesus right out of church and into the streets, communing with homeless people over slices of pizza and hearing sermons in the words of the people who lived in the shelter on skid row where I served breakfast on Sunday mornings. Jesus showed up in all sorts of unlikely, unofficial places.
I continued to journey alongside other Christians, but I no longer understood the importance of attending church. It occurred to me that perhaps what was more important than how often I showed up for a Sunday service was how often I showed up for people who were in need: quietly listening, crying with them, sharing my food and time and space and joining my voice with theirs to demand justice.
The more I learned about poverty and systemic injustice, the more frustrated I became with churches whose weekly programming is disconnected from the world beyond their sanctuaries. I was tired of prayer without action; simplistic spiritual formulas without any mention of the Gospel Jesus preached: good news for the poor, freedom for the captives, sight for the blind. I lost hope that most of the Church would ever get its act together enough to closely resemble Jesus.
But then another strange thing happened. I kept following Jesus, and eventually, He led me right back into church. I was surprised. There were plenty of people there working toward justice, but I realized that church was not a place to go because everyone had their act together and was doing things right.
It was more like a refuge where all sorts of people could gather to remind each other of the story we were all in—the one about how God loves us, and is renewing our world and our souls in spite of all the damage that’s been done. It was more like a school for conversion where we were all stumbling through basic lessons on how to love.
We sang about this love and this mission to be part of it; we sang about our brokenness and our hope. We looked each other in the eye. We confessed our sins. We shared bread and juice and remembered that we are all tied together in this dysfunctional family that God has cobbled together.
It wasn’t perfect—sometimes I felt frustrated, bored or hurt—but it was good, and God was in it. Yes, church people could be apathetic, judgmental and selfish, but so could I. And just like everyone else, I needed to be welcomed and loved anyway.
Then one day, an older church lady put my husband and me in charge of finding people to serve communion each week. We were still “the new couple,” so I’m pretty sure she was just trying to rope us into consistent, punctual attendance—and her plan has absolutely worked.
Now that we’ve shouldered even just this tiny bit of responsibility, we recognize how many people have to show up consistently to create the prayerful, welcoming, worshipful space we experience each week. If everyone involved in leading music, running sound, teaching kids’ classes and preaching sermons only showed up on the days when they didn’t feel stressed, busy, tired, bored, sad, frustrated or enticed outside by beach weather, we wouldn’t have much of a church at all.
So I’ve slowly learned that going to church can be about something other than moral requirement, fear of punishment, social connection, getting spiritually fed, or even looking for likeminded people with whom to pursue justice in the world. Going to church can be about holding this space in which to experience the grace of God together, learn together, fail and forgive and stumble forward together.
I’ve benefitted from the sacrificial commitment and consistency of countless people who have welcomed me into community over the years, and now I recognize the invitation for me to do the same thing for others: to hold that space even on days when I don’t seem to personally benefit from it. When the songs don’t do anything for me, when I don’t want to talk with people about the difficult week I’ve had, or when I’d rather sleep in instead—it is then that I am invited to go to church anyway.
Not because God or anyone else is judging me by my attendance, but because it is a chance for me to be church to the people who are sharing this journey with me. It is an opportunity to hold space for others to encounter God, and to open space in myself to encounter, even when I least expect it, God in the midst of the people who are my church.
A version of this article appeared in September 2015.
Trudy Smith originally hails from Texas, but now lives with her Canadian husband in Vancouver, B.C. She blogs about faith, justice and culture at TrudyDSmith.com, and is currently working on a memoir of the years she spent living and working in a slum in India.