I learned an honest lesson about myself last year from a church I only attended once by accident.
That church taught me that I am a branch.
If you think that sounds weird and hippy-ish: correct.
But here’s the thing. Finding a church I felt connected to in adulthood in the bustling city of Manhattan proved a lot harder than when I was in college amid the cornfield nestled suburbs of Ohio.
My husband and I now belong to a wonderful church and are extremely grateful, but let me just tell you, it was tough to find.
There are lots of churches in New York, so that wasn’t the problem. To be honest, the problem was me. My relationship with the church has always been similar to my dating life. I romanticize everything. I can’t accept imperfection, and I certainly can’t love something the way it is, flaws and all. I need it to benefit me.
I am married now and still learning to let go of these things in my relationship, but I like to think I’ve come pretty far.
When I was in high school, my pastor always quoted Charles Spurgeon, saying: “The day we find the perfect church, it becomes imperfect the moment we join.”
He is right, but sometimes I wonder whether I’ve committed my life to proving him wrong.
Last year, I was lamenting to some friends about my quest to find the right church. There is a church here in NYC that I’ve heard several of my friends rave about. It is one of those contemporary, mega-churches. So already, I had my doubts, because a congregation of more than a couple of hundred was outside of my comfort zone.
I was curious after talking with my friends though, so I visited the website one afternoon. The church’s mantra is “Welcome home.”
In Manhattan, I would guess a lot of people crave community. You would never think that you could feel isolated surrounded by so many people and so much activity all the time, but Manhattan is big enough that it’s almost impossible to feel connected to anything at all. The thought that a place could feel like home in this city is so overwhelmingly comforting that there is no doubt in my mind why this place draws people in by the thousands. I decided to check it out.
I have to admit I had some preconceived notions about the church before attending because of things I heard, but I tried to stay as objective as possible the first time I visited. It was a chilly October morning when I turned the corner to the location where church was being held, but everyone was still gathered outside on the sidewalk talking, laughing and hugging. I thought it was a good sign that people seemed to enjoy each other’s company so much. One of the pastors was standing outside the doors greeting everyone.
I walked over to meet him, he clasped my hand inside both of his and beaming said, “Welcome to CHURCH!”
He was very excited about church, which I thought was another good sign.
The ushers inside all had vacant stares and complacently said, “Hi welcome to church” without attempting to direct me anywhere.
I dismissed this because it was the early service and navigated through the maze of red and black concrete on my own until I found where church was being held, which was in the main room of an old Manhattan nightclub.
Signs that said “Welcome home” were plastered on the walls. I have a tendency to sit in the back corner at these things when I don’t know anyone, and I’ll walk away with a biased opinion formulated from my half-experience of sitting in the back corner.
I decided that I was going to make an effort to engage this time so I could form a well-rounded opinion after getting the full experience, so I picked a seat front and center. It was highly nerve-wracking, but eventually, two girls filled in next to me.
I looked around. Everyone was in vintage clothing, and they all looked fabulous and grungy at the same time. A woman was walking around greeting everyone. She recognized I was new right away and came over to meet me.
“Glad you could come today,” she said with the same complacency as the ushers.
I turned around to shake her hand and began to introduce myself, but she walked away before I could tell her my name. This didn’t affect me nearly as much as it should have, because it happens all of the time in New York. People ask how you are but don’t have time to listen to the answer and don’t care anyway, so I just brushed it off.
The worship band walked onto the stage, and the two lead singers were this guy with a man bun (I knew there had to be a man bun around here somewhere) and a girl with long, brown hair. The worship songs were amazing. It was loud and intense, and everyone lifted their hands and closed their eyes.
We sang with only our voices a couple of times, and it gave me chills. One guy in the back was praying loudly the whole time that God would fill the place, and I believe He really did. Afterward, the sermon was amazing too. My eyes actually filled with tears several times.
Everyone seemed to genuinely want us to be there and feel loved (except for maybe the ushers who hadn’t had their coffee yet), so why did I feel slightly uncomfortable the whole time? Here’s why I thought it was:
The church meets in a nightclub. The whole idea is that “it’s not about the place in which we gather. It’s about the reason for which we gather.”
That is true. Church can be held outside, in a club, in a hotel, in a prison, in your house. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the reason we’re together as one – that’s church.
In fact, the pastor said during his sermon that “you won’t change the world by being in church on Sunday. You’ll change the world by being the church everyday.”
He wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t be in church on Sundays. He was just saying that if we don’t take the lessons we’re learning in church, let them transform us and let that transformation show through in our everyday lives, it’s kind of a waste of time.
I’ve always heard things like that said in reference to places that don’t have the means to meet inside an actual church building, whatever the circumstances. It’s a great blessing to have a physical building dedicated to God where you can meet to worship Him, but even if you don’t, you can still attend church. It counts wherever two or three are gathered in His name, and it doesn’t have to be reserved for just Sunday.
I guess it bothered me at first that this church meets in a club because I thought the overriding theme was that it’s trendy. I think sometimes Christianity tries to appeal to a large generation of millennials by purposely meeting in places that aren’t actually churches – that are instead nightclubs, lounges, bars, cafes, basements and gymnasiums – places that seem “hipper” than regular churches.
To those saying, “It’s not about the place in which we gather,” I would say yes – that’s exactly right. It’s not about the place in which we gather. It’s the reason for which we gather in that place. Is the reason because of Jesus, or is it because it’s trendy?
This church is also known for its celebrity attendees, its pop culture references and its tattooed pastor. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. There’s nothing wrong with celebrities attending church, there’s nothing wrong with using pop culture to make church relevant, and there’s nothing wrong with a pastor that has tattoos.
What I was struggling to figure out is whether the church was using those things to draw people in, or simply trusting God to just do what He does best: show up and love people.
Sometimes, I catch myself thinking this way – saying to God, “It’s not enough for you to just win people over because of who you are, like you’ve been doing since the beginning of time. We have to dress you up and make you popular and relevant so that people want to associate with you.”
But God isn’t concerned with being cool and relevant. He’s been uncool so many times that it probably phases him just as much as that lady dismissing me before I told her my name phased me.
He wants our hearts.
He doesn’t want us to say, “I like You because You’re cool and popular.”
He wants us to say, “I love You because You first loved me.”
I was ready to write this church off because of those observations.
But then I thought about it and realized why I was actually uncomfortable.
The things I picked out as imperfections are the same imperfections I see in myself. I thought about all of the churches I had given up attending and started to notice a pattern of running away when I realized that I was pointing one finger at them and three fingers back at myself.
The sermon that made me cry was actually very fitting.
The pastor was talking about John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.”
It’s saying that God is the vine, and we get our life and breath and being from him. The only way to do and be all that we are capable of is to remain in him.
The pastor said that so often, we try to be the vine and make God our branch. We try to be the center, to be in control and to manipulate God into doing stuff for us instead.
We think spending time with God is all about praying, “Do this for me, give that to me, bless me and serve me this way.”
But in order for our relationship with God to make sense, we need to understand that we are just branches. He already knows everything we need. Spending time with him isn’t about asking from him what he already knows we want; it’s simply about being with him, enjoying his presence and remaining connected to him.
The pastor, who is a former basketball coach, kept yelling, “You are a branch! You. Are. A. Branch!’
And we are. I think we need to stop trying to manipulate God into doing what we want, and instead, trust that God knows what we need.
We, myself included, need to stop thinking, “We have to make God cool and relevant and edgy in order for people to love and accept Him.”
I’ve caught myself doing this many times. I find myself thinking of ways to make God sound cool and Christianity sound fun in order to get people to understand, and most of all, to get people to accept me as a Christian. I mean, I can’t have people thinking that because I go to church, I’m uncool and no fun. So I have to bring the church’s reputation up to today’s standards.
As a church, we need to accept our position as a branch connected to God’s vine, and remain in him, so that he can dictate our steps. Through him, our church will be equipped to do the work he planned for us to do, long before we were even around to do it.
Finally, the criticisms I had for this place came to light during the sermon and made me understand what people mean when they say it isn’t about the place in which we gather.
The building I was standing in wasn’t the church, no matter how church-like or un-church-like it was.
The body of Christ is the church. I am already a part of it.
My quest to find the right church has led to so many dead ends because I’ve been looking for the wrong thing.
Rather than finding a non-existent perfect place of worship, I should be looking for a group of people committed to following Christ, picking themselves up and brushing themselves off when they frequently mess up, who recognize their need for His grace.
A group that I can relate to, commit myself to loving and serving through their imperfections and allow them to do the same for me.
I need a place that feels like my Father’s open arms I can run into no matter how badly I’ve messed up.
I need a place that feels like home.
And I don’t think that feeling comes from a place.
Much like that church, I’m not actually aiming to be perfect. I think I am doing some things right and some things wrong.
I’m aiming to be a branch.
If our goal is to know God, love God and help others do the same, we need to let go of this false image we try to create, accept our flaws and let our real God just be who he is, fill the imperfections and welcome us home.