I walked into the auditorium, like I’ve done many times before. I found a seat near the front, but far enough from the stage for my introverted self to feel secure. I looked around and realized how I didn’t know anyone. My stomach did a little flip as it caught on to what my brain was processing.
I wondered if I should stay. I wanted to, but I also knew there were 15 other things I would rather do that would be more comfortable than this.
As I looked around the auditorium, my critique-y side started to emerge. I wonder who’s speaking? I wonder if his words will make me mad? I wonder who designed the set on stage? I wonder how many volunteers it takes to run such an event? I wonder if I’ll ever feel comfortable in this place. It’s been six months already, come on now. Another woman, about my age, walked in and sat across the aisle. What had motivated her to come? Did she feel as uncomfortable as I did? I looked around again. Good grief this place is huge. I heard the background music start playing through the sound system, and my stomach did that flip thing again.
The speaker walked out on the stage and welcomed the now growing crowd. He said, “I don’t know what has brought you here today, but know this, you don’t have to believe before you belong. We are just glad you’re here.”
Wait. What? You don’t have to believe before you belong?
I don’t really think I heard much after that. I’m sure if anyone had studied the expression on my face, they would have seen bewilderment. You see, I was sitting in church—the place I’ve always, always thought you had to have things a little bit figured out, and quite a bit in order, before darkening its doors on any given weekend.
Yet, there I sat. I’ve believed since I was a young child, but the belonging thing, well, I don’t know if I’ve thought much about that. I wanted to raise my hand, in that very moment, and ask for a do-over from 30 years ago. Every church I’ve ever attended I’ve jumped in headfirst. I’ve been driven by this idea that to be in God’s good graces I needed to get involved immediately, become known by the church leaders, serve whenever an opportunity presented itself, but now I wondered if I missed an important step along the way.
I don’t think I’ve really taken the time to just belong—at least not in recent years.
The pastor came on stage to deliver the message. He spoke about community and being part of something greater than yourself. He talked about how this church has a saying, “Life is better together.” He shared this scripture:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
I fell recently. Not literally, but figuratively. I fell hard. I fell because I was so consumed by all the work of the church that I lost my balance. I became overwhelmed, burned out, and eventually had to take time off. There were a close few who walked through this season with me. They held me up. It could have been a very lonely time had it not been for my tribe who allowed me to feel, to vent, to process, and to be broken.
As much as I learned from that season, I do wonder if the outcome would have been different had I taken the time to belong first. Instead I rushed in with this faulty belief system about God and church. I will never know what could have been, and there really are no do-overs for me, but I can certainly change some things going forward in this next season.
I’m thankful for the pastor who carefully crafted the greeting he gave that day that resonated so deeply with me. I don’t know his story, but I think he understands what it might feel like for someone checking out church for the first time, or the one who is bravely stepping back through the doors after a difficult season of ministry. I’m thankful for a church that promotes belonging as the first step. I’m thankful for this new community. I feel safe. I feel comfortable. And I’m going to sit and enjoy belonging for a while.