This is the preface from my new book, Belong: Loving Your Church by Reflecting Christ to One Another.
In the summer of 2017 I walked through the doors of Immanuel Church in Nashville for the first time. I was a few months removed from a painful divorce and a few months into searching for a new church home. Both experiences had left me exhausted spiritually and emotionally discouraged, uncertain of my future, and uncomfortable in church.
I grew up in the church—quite literally, as I’m a pastor’s kid. I had been part of churches for my entire life, sometimes feeling joyfully at home, sometimes feeling like I was in the middle of a family feud on steroids, and other times feeling like the outsider. I was intimately familiar with the best and worst the church had to offer, and I knew I needed to be part of one.
But I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to be.
I sat in the furthest back corner of the service that day and did my best to meet nobody (my usual strategy when visiting churches, even now). When the service began, a pastor stood up and welcomed the congregation warmly. Probably phony, I thought. Then he proceeded to say these words:
To all who are weary and need rest;
To all who mourn and long for comfort;
To all who fail and need strength;
To all who sin and need a savior;
This church opens wide her doors and her heart with a welcome from Jesus Christ.
Beautiful words, comforting words, welcoming words, words I desperately wanted to believe… but words I instinctively rejected. I didn’t think the pastor was lying, per se. I just thought it was aspirational nonsense. In my experience churches usually declare what they want to be, not what they are. They advertise their mission and vision, but are less clear on their present state. If only a church actually welcomed people like that, I might find a home, I thought. I had enough self-awareness to know that I was particularly cynical about churches, so rather than walk away with an eye roll and a snarky tweet, I decided to let the church prove itself to me either as a place of welcome or as a place of hypocrisy.
What I found in the two years following that first cynical Sunday was a place of belonging. It was a place of safety for the weary and broken. Honesty was upheld as a value, speaking the truth about our lives and our spiritual state and our needs. People were treated with the God-given dignity they deserved, even as they were honest about ugliness in their lives. And it all worked because it was done in humility before God and in dependence on Jesus.
The pastors and leaders exemplified this, but it was the members who embodied honesty, safety, honor, and humility week in and week out to me, so that God could work in my life. It was in conversations over drinks, in living rooms on Sunday afternoons, and in weeknight Bible study and prayer with other men that my heart was thawed and my eyes were opened to what church could be. I had found a church home, a place of belonging to the family of God. Out of this belonging God healed and restored me, gave me strength, tempered my cynicism, and eventually called me to full-time pastoral ministry.
So it is, that in what to me is the unlikeliest turn of events, I have the privilege of serving as a pastor at Immanuel now. When I stand in front of the congregation on Sunday mornings and welcome people, I think of where I was in 2017. Each time I open my mouth to say those words, “To all who are weary and need rest…” I pray that the people in that room will find belonging in that welcome from Jesus.
That’s who this book is for—the person figuring out what it means to belong to a church and whether it is worth it. You may love the church and desire to commit more deeply and serve better. You may be skeptical and reluctant because of past experiences, but you believe God wants you in His church. You may be wounded and cautious, fearful even, because of damage inflicted on you through the church. You may be a brand-new believer, unsure what to think about church. Or you may be uprooted, having relocated from a place of familiarity to be dropped in a new town and new church where you hope to find a home.
My hope is that this book shows what it looks like to belong in church, really and truly, and what it looks like to help others to do the same.
My book, Belong: Loving Your Church by Reflecting Life to One Another, is now available from The Good Book Company. It is part of the Love Your Church Series along with volumes from Tony Merida and Jen Oshman. Free discussion guides and video teaching is available with each book as well to help your church or small group.