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On Faith: What is the church?

Over the past few years, I have come to question much of what I think "church" is. Maybe it's because you see things differently as a pastor, or maybe because I have an insatiable need to question things.

My experience of church growing up looked like this: We went to a fancy building with architecture that was more formal than functional; people were more dressed up and uncomfortable than anyone would dare admit; we all sang songs to which no one seemed to know the words; and it was a test of willpower from that point onward to stay awake until everyone got up to go home. If you were lucky, they served treats after, and the past hour (or more) of sitting was at least somewhat rewarded.

And even as a boy, my experience was of stale music sung by equally stale people who had no concern for the boy with his unwashed shirt aimless and lost in the whir of people going through their motions. I was shuttled along from one thing to another until I found myself outside the door with no real understanding of what had happened. I didn't meet anyone; and no one seemed to even realize I was there.

There was nothing about "church" that seemed to point to joy, or love, or of anything greater than this little Sunday masquerade. As you can imagine, I wanted nothing to do with it. I would rather stay home.

Years later, I tried "church" again. Obviously, something stuck or I wouldn't be writing this column. What I found wasn't just another room full of drab singers and a droning voice going on and on about the golden rule.

I met people who loved Jesus, who told stories about how their lives had been changed and who loved the people in their community. They shared their food, they opened up their homes and they spoke about how God had saved them not like they were repeating something they had memorized, but in a way that had the distinct aroma of heartfelt experience. They cared for me and they showed me a love I hadn't even found in my own home.

There was something different about these people.

What I began learning there, I have continued to learn in the years since: that "church" is not a building. It's not a service you attend when you're feeling guilty. It is a community of believers who are joined together by the love of God and are so changed by what God has done for them that they can't help but to pour that love back out in worship, in love for one another and in love for those around them.

There is no stranger in their midst, and there is no safer place to bare your soul. Here, you can find encouragement, support and family. It does not have doors or a dress code, and it does not exclude the needy or the sinful, but welcomes them with open arms.

The "church" I went to as a boy wasn't a church — it was a tomb. Thank God I found a home among believers who lived and breathed the love of God. I wouldn't be who I am today without them.

"On Faith" is a weekly column in the News-Chronicle written by area religious leaders.