When I was three, we lived so close to the church my parents started that we could walk there. When the first building was being built, we'd walk over every evening to watch the construction. We had little hard hats, my brother and I, and we'd check every day what had been done, what new beams or walls, what new electrical or plumbing.
I know that my church's name is shorthand for all manner of things—seeker movement, megachurch, modern evangelicalism, whatever. But those words don't tell you who she is.
She's my sister. She's less than a year older than me. In Chicago, we call that Irish twins. She was my playground, my safest place, my home more than the house I grew up in. I've worked there, cried there, stood in weddings there, attended funerals there. I fell in love there, working alongside the man who became my husband.
People ask what it's like to be a pastor's kid. I don't know the difference. What's it like to be anyone else's kid?
What I know is that the church is my family every bit as much as my aunts and uncles are. What I know is that the very best parts of who I am today were nurtured along by that incredible community—by Sunday school teachers and junior high small group leaders and mentors and friends who walk with me still.
I know it's a thing. I know people write about it, rage against it, have strong opinions about it. But I'm not talking about all that. I'm talking about who she is.
If I could reach through the computer and take you by the hand, I'd walk you through the hallways and tell you stories of confession and redemption. I'd show you where I learned to read God's Word, where I learned to listen for his Spirit, where I gave my life to him and to his purposes here on earth.
I'd show you where I got a concussion in junior high, and where I was standing when a boy reached to hold my hand for the first time. I'd show you where I was baptized, where I was when I watched the Twin Towers fall on September 11th, where I sat trembling just before I preached there for the first time, scared out of my mind.
I'd introduce you to Casey, who I met in 6th grade, who is one of my dearest friends to this day. I'd sit you down to talk with Dr Bilezekian, my dad's mentor, a man who's been like a grandfather to me. I'd introduce you to men and women who've been volunteering there for more than 30 years, holding babies or packing up groceries in the care center or sweeping up, long after the services are over.
My church isn't perfect. Sisters, of course, know each other's faults better than anyone else. But being a sister also means you get a front row seat to the good, the beautiful, the fiercely loving and thoroughly grace-soaked best parts of it all. The view from here is breathtaking.
For a long time, I didn't write much about my church. I needed to talk and write about other things, to make a way and a voice for myself that wasn't only defined by the pastor's daughter part of my life.
But this church of mine, this sister—it's not only the church of my childhood. It's the place where I pray, sing, confess, take communion now. It's the community that shapes me, walks with me, instructs me, holds me now.
I'm not little anymore, and neither is she. But she's still my sister.
You learn all sorts of things growing up the way I did. And one of them is this: the labels never suffice. The articles and blogs and books and outside opinions never will capture the real thing. They'll reduce it to policy, numbers, data.
They fail to capture what a church actually is: real live actual humans, showing up day after day, year after year, building something durable and lovely over time, together, with prayer and forgiveness and love.
They forget that it isn't an institution. It's a family. She's my sister.
Shauna Niequist is the author of Bread and Wine, Cold Tangerines, and Bittersweet. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, Aaron, and their sons Henry and Mac, and blogs at www.ShaunaNiequist.com.