I grew up in a community where the question, “Where do you go to church?”, was like asking someone their last name or asking them in what part of town they lived or worked. In my community — a charismatic, Black, Baptist faith community situated in “Bible Belt” North Carolina — churches punctuated every corner like stop signs. Church steeples, like trees, blended into the landscape, so numerous and seemingly natural that for the most part, I was oblivious to their erected significance.
The church building was central to our community. The church of my family’s origin is still considered our home church, serving as an anchor for the soul of the community. Our church was not simply a gathering space; it served as the center and compass for a community of folks fostering a common faith perspective. It was also a source of shelter, encouragement, and moral direction. Church was where I was equipped with the agency to restore and build the body — my individual body and the corporate body. My community of like-faith folks served as repair for the soul, rest for the weary, renewal for the mind, and comfort for the heart.
And also within this very nurturing environment, as a child, I internalized some limiting messaging about the church and her people. I inadvertently perceived church attendance to be the definitive determiner of a person’s value. For example, when I saw a person sitting in a pew each Sunday morning at 11 a.m., I considered her to be worthy of God’s love and attention. But if I didn’t see a person for several Sundays in a row, I assumed her life was in disarray and therefore out of God’s reach. (Yes, I spent a lot of time in church pews!) As children tend to do, I categorized and compartmentalized people to make sense of the world I was growing to understand.
Fortunately, when we are willing to grow and move — metaphorically or geographically — beyond our social nurseries, God is also there, on the other side of our limited personal and cultural experiences to encourage us to keep growing. With college, marriage, and motherhood came more growth as I moved and lived among communities and spaces where “What church do you attend?” was not considered a colloquial ice-breaker. As a matter of fact, I kept finding myself in spaces and communities where mentioning “church” stirred discomfort. Church was not synonymous with repair, rest, and renewal. Instead, church and church people were associated with shame-imposing, marginalization, and othering — yuck!
But guess who was there in my church-less, pew-less community? God!
And guess who else was there in my non-Christianese speaking community? People bearing God’s image! Conduits of God’s essence, worthy of God’s favor, love, and attention.
I learned to live God’s love language without relying on the familiarity of my childhood church culture. Living in community with people whose relationship with church was so different from mine, not only broadened my perspective of humanity but also enlarged my capacity to experience God beyond my childhood perception of Him. Essentially, I learned to free God from the theological confines I’d inherited, and once I released God from my little church box, I became more impassioned to love people radically as Jesus loves them.
One day, as our family was settling into a new unchurched community, a mom enthusiastically struck up a “Let’s get to know each other” conversation with me. All was well until she asked me a question that required me to mention “prayer.” I felt her tense up. She walled me off, and then slowly drifted away, increasing the physical distance between us. The overt rejection hurt. But I empathized with her apprehension and precaution. There was a time in my past that I would have deemed her a heathen, unworthy, and invaluable. But God generously graced us with more time and opportunities to get to know each other. And over time, as we worked together to benefit our community, the distance between us grew smaller allowing our love for one another to grow greater.
I think it is somewhat ironic that many of the people who are currently helping to manifest God’s promises in my life do not share my Jesus-centered beliefs. And as we work in community to fiercely love and advocate for the restoration of human rights, there is no expectation for me to suppress or hide my faith.
When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)
It turns out that my childhood reasoning about how and who God loves and values was, well, childish. I am grateful to have been encompassed by God’s love — both in and beyond the culture of church. I am grateful for the opportunity to exchange my childish view for God’s true love for people and to know that God’s love will always supersede my limited perspective.
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him.
Psalm 24:1 (NLT)
When we are willing to grow and move - metaphorically and geographically - God is also there, on the other side of our limited personal and cultural experiences. -Lucretia Berry (@brownicity): Click To Tweet