It is one of the most joyful and lonely feelings I’ve ever had. I was one person in the sea of hundreds and though we were all focused on Jesus we were strangers lost in our own thoughts and personal salvation. The music begins, and all the voices raise, along with the hands. At once you are transported to the first rock concert you attended and your heart swells with the sound.
When I first attended North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia I was overwhelmed. If you have not attended a megachurch you may have never felt that sense of awe that seizes you the moment all of the lights, voices, and music blend into a cacophony of stimulation. I loved being present in this exciting mass of attendance, but my remote feeling didn’t go away until we joined a small group.
Our small group became more like our church than the church itself. That is not a criticism but is exactly what our Pastor, Andy Stanley, encourages us to focus on; circles rather than rows. We met once a week and when I was too tired to go my husband was always ready and vice-versa. This helped with the needling that came from a discouraged spirit or spiritual warfare, whichever was more prevalent on that night.
A few months later our world shifted in a series of blows; one of my daughters had a breakdown that put her in the hospital, my younger sister died, our business took a financial hit and then it became more apparent that our son was not able to fight the addiction he had been battling for almost 5 years.
When our son lay in the hospital, our pastor’s duties of running thousands precluded a personal visit to the hospital. The leader of our group and his wife, however, sat for hours with us. Group members brought us food and visited the waiting room holding our hands and praying with us. When he passed away a few days later they were the ones who stood closest to us those next few months, let us talk about what happened until we were sure there was nothing more we could have done.
Our small group stayed together for a little over 3 years. In that period a few couples left and a few joined and still, it was wonderful giving and learning from each of them. We would never forget that first experience with a small group, but now we could welcome in others who felt isolated by the awe-inspiring size of the church. We could do our part to build the bridge between mass devotion and personal worship, help others feel less unnoticed.
The last time our group got together was right before 2017 ended. Many said they would be busy, moving to another group, or not sure of their plans so we ended the group with promises of getting together for one last meeting, but it never happened. The holidays came, someone had surgery, someone else had family emergencies and in general, life happened.
My husband was the one who had surgery. In March, after seeing him look bored because going out was not a real option, I reached out to the group by email. It was an open invitation for game night, no plans, no real agenda, just a night together. We invited fourteen but planned for three or four because we knew everyone was so busy now. Twelve showed up and every one of those was from the small group that split up before the holidays!
We had a wonderful hyggelig evening and learned something. We had mistakenly thought that everyone decided to go separate ways because the group had reached its logical end. What we found that evening was that we missed being together. We missed the spiritual part of the group true, but more than that we missed the solidarity; the harmony of being with others we had walked through the fire and swam the oceans with. We missed being truly known.
Many say that attendance in a church is not necessary for personal salvation. I agree with this. However, being with others, being a part of something together, is a good recipe for having deeper relationships with others and I know this is something I want. Church is not a place and it never was intended to be. Church was envisioned as a community of souls who lean together into the moment, celebrate the small wins, comfort each other in the big losses and reach out to welcome in others lost from the comfort of being known. Being known and being loved because you are known (rather than despite it), is what God had in mind for all of us. It’s the way He loves us.
Romans 12:9-16 Love must be sincere. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.