For many years on any given Sunday after church, I'd feel like Lisa Simpson, the daughter on the TV sitcom The Simpsons. As the Simpson family opens the door to their home after church, they breathe in deeply and declare Sunday afternoons the best time of the whole week. "It's the longest possible time before more church!" Lisa exclaims.
When I was younger, nothing beat the feeling of freedom as the organ postlude began because nothing was worse than the stifling boredom of my church experience. It was the same every week: get up, argue with my family about going to church, arrive late, doodle on the bulletin for an hour, stand up, sit down, and then shoot out the front door dodging anyone who wanted to "visit" after the service. I put nothing in; I got nothing out. I knew no one. I was very happily a church outsider.
So no one was more surprised than me when, despite years of empty church attendance, I finally had a relationship with God and couldn't get enough church! How did God change my stubborn mind? While he used several influential individuals and teachable moments to cause me to commit my life to him, he brought the real change through a women's small group that I fell into.
To get me into church, all it took was one friend. She was outgoing, interesting, and we liked the same music, so I said yes when she invited me to attend a Super Bowl party. It seemed like a non-threatening and commitment-free event. And while I didn't receive any burning messages from heaven that night, I did enjoy myself and decided to join my friend at her next small-group meeting. The next week I went back. And the week after and the week after. After a few months I couldn't imagine myself not attending. I realized that although I was a Christian in some sense of the word, I lacked a connection to the body of Christ and his community, which left me feeling lonely and defeated. I'd heard about the Acts 2 church—those early Christians who were a tight-knit community and who thrived on service to God through aggressive kindness—but I'd never experienced it. And even if it did sound scary, my heart longed for that kind of connection with other believers.
So I took the risk of doing life together with this small band of believers. And I found community. Here's what else I discovered.
1. Other people are often God's way of helping you recognize and pursue your gifts and passions. Soon after I started attending that small group, the leaders announced a missions trip to the Dominican Republic. I immediately wanted to go simply because I wanted to travel to as many countries as possible. Through my small group's discussion and prayer, however, the leaders helped me identify my delight in international cultures and passion for justice. What began as a pleasure trip turned into a life-altering encounter with God, and I committed my life fully to Christ once and for all in the Dominican Republic. And this wasn't a "mountain-top experience" either: I have since been to more than a dozen countries on missions and poverty-relief trips, several of them as staff. If it wasn't for the prayer and prodding of my small-group friends, who knows if I ever would have viewed missions beyond Christian tourism. They helped me discover why God really put that love of the nations in my personality.