It was one of the loneliest times of my life. I was 16 and doing a gap year of voluntary work after finishing high school. I had been stationed in Slussfors, a tiny town in the north of Sweden, not far from the Arctic Circle. I arrived in this sleepy little community in the middle of winter when there were just a few hours of sunlight per day. It was bitterly cold and when I arrived I didn’t know a soul. I lived all alone in the basement of the church where I was serving as an assistant to the local pastor. I remember being absolutely starved for social connection and before long I had run up a huge phone bill from calling old school friends around the world just to hear a familiar voice.
My life felt as bleak as the snow-covered forests that surrounded me until one small gesture started to melt the ice. A family with four kids, three of who were close to my age, invited me home for lunch after church one Saturday. Their food was delicious. We talked non-stop. My new friends were snow-sports enthusiasts and were eager to help me upgrade my fairly basic skiing and snowboarding skills on the nearby slopes and, more terrifyingly, behind snowmobiles as they tore through the dense Nordic forests and across iced-over lakes. My friends and I totally clicked and before long I was spending almost every weekend with them. They then helped introduce me to just about everyone else in church.
I remember that, by the time I had to leave Slussfors, I was incredibly sad to say goodbye to my adopted family who, by then, had grown to include the whole church. I had gone from feeling completely alone—the ultimate outsider—to feeling connected and appreciated and part of something much bigger than myself. It was amazing!
That was 20 years ago. Although a lot has changed in the years since, the sense of community that I feel in church has remained the same. “Two are better than one,” says Ecclesiastes 4:9,10 because “if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.” There is something incredible about the warmth and support that can be found in a community of believers. Meeting with others who gather together in the presence of God has a way of bonding people like nothing else.
Church offers a constant that has stood the test of time. The church represents something so resilient that Jesus says not even the gates of Hades (hell) will overcome it (Matthew 16:18). When so much in this life is fickle and impermanent, church provides a sense of community that brings strength and togetherness when it feels like the walls of life are crashing down around us.
When church disappoints
Some of you are probably reading this and thinking, Hold on a second, Bjorn, you obviously haven’t seen my local church! Sadly, yes, I’m aware that my rosy reflections are not the full story.
Despite all the good, church can be messy. It can be painful. Church family members, just like biological family members, clash from time to time. If you go to church expecting perfection, chances are you will be sorely disappointed. The church is full of people every bit as quirky and flawed as we are ourselves. And some of life’s biggest disappointments come from our church family. Just like in any family, there are people in church who will get on your nerves. There are times when church family unity will be tested by divergent, strong views on topics ranging on everything from the interpretation of obscure biblical passages to what the shade of the new carpet should be for the church foyer. That’s just real life.
When these inevitable clashes occur it can be helpful to remember the well-known metaphor of the church being the body of Christ. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ,” says the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12. He goes on to say in verse 21, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”
Rather than acting on the temptation to exclude those who are not like us, those who frustrate us, Paul stresses in verse 27 that each believer is part of this body of Christ. Especially in times when it’s tough to act as one body, it’s especially important to stick with our church family. “Let us not give up meeting together” said the author of Hebrews (10:25). There’s immense wisdom in that. Living in community takes patience and stamina. But it’s worth it. In the end it creates something beautiful, something that the Bible compares to a beautiful bride, awaiting her husband (2 Corinthians 11:2).
A global reality
About six years ago my wife Jammie and I decided we wanted to see more of the world and do some volunteering. We quit our jobs, sold most of our stuff and bought round-the-world air tickets. I built a new career online and since we took off, Jammie and I have lived in 10 different countries. Our three-year-old daughter, who was born in Bangkok, Thailand, has lived in seven. As interesting and adventurous as it can feel to travel the world like this, it’s easy to feel alone unless you’re able to quickly find community wherever you are living. In view of this, we have developed routines to help us feel at home wherever we go.
One of the first things we do after landing in a country is find a local church. Despite huge cultural and language differences, going to church on any given weekend basically means near-instant rapport. We walk into churches full of complete strangers and come out with friends. There’s a reason for this. Ephesians 3:14,15 says that every family derives its name from God. Nowhere is this more true than with a church family. There’s unity despite diversity because we know Who binds us all together. We have the same Father. Jesus is Friend to all.
And yes, every once in a while, complete strangers welcome us home for a home-cooked meal and, just like in the Slussfors days, the loneliness vanishes, new friendship replaces it and we know that we are with family.
Bjorn Karlman is a freelance writer who travels the world as a “digital nomad”, living in 2–3 countries per year with his wife and toddler.