I never imagined that within a year my concept of the church would be torn down and rebuilt.
We moved from Los Angeles to San Jose in the summer of 2019. This was not our first move. My husband and I had moved across six cities and two continents in our twelve-year marriage. So, I knew the drill. Unpack boxes and furnish the new house. Introduce myself to neighbors. Find the nearest Trader Joe’s and nail salon. And, look for a church.
Everywhere my husband and I pitched our tent, finding a church made it to the top of our to-do list. Simon and I were born and raised in Indian Christian homes where church-going was emphasized as a spiritual discipline. We viewed the church as an extended family.
As children and young adults, we were involved in our church not just as Sunday service congregants but also as helpers, volunteers, and ministry leaders. As a married couple with a young son, we found community and fellowship through churches that served as anchors for our nomadic family.
Confident that our time-tested process of exploring churches would lead to the right church again this time, we began the journey. Prayer served as both our map and compass.
We used the Internet to make a list of churches within a 10-mile radius of our house and whose statement of faith was aligned with ours. We conducted a thorough search of church websites, like detectives profiling the personality and culture of the congregation. Churches recommended by friends were also investigated and put on a preferred list.
Armed with information and prayer and united in our quest for a church, our family visited the churches on our list, one by one, Sunday after Sunday.
What did we look for in a church?
Lively worship, the uncompromising teaching of God’s Word, and a welcoming community were our basic criteria. We hoped to be part of a congregation that consisted of young families like ours. Since Silicon Valley is a diverse community, we strongly felt that churches in the area must reflect that diversity not just in the congregation but also in the leadership.
The Search Began
The first church we attended was probably one of the biggest churches in the Bay Area. We felt disconnected and lost. Though the worship was technically perfect and the sermon was on point, the service felt orchestrated and impersonal. Simon and I expanded our criteria to include the size of the church. We preferred a small or medium-sized church.
The next church we visited checked all the boxes on our list. My husband loved the sermon so much that he Googled tidbits from the message to learn more on the topic. To his shock, he discovered that the pastor’s entire talk was plagiarized from a book.
Another church our family checked out was small and cozy. But like the huge church, we had visited a few weeks earlier, we did not feel welcome or even noticed. Over the next few weeks, we hopped from church to church, not able to find the perfect fit.
The methodical process we adopted to find the right church family made me wonder if I was turning church-hunting into a science. I felt bad for “judging” churches.
Why couldn’t there be a system where there was only one church per block and everyone in the neighborhood went to the same church? What if there was just one church within a fifty-mile radius of our home? Would we then analyze and scrutinize worship and sermon styles?
Part of me did not want to go through this process of shortlisting and selecting churches. I wished for an easier and lazier way out. When I got unenthusiastic or frustrated, I reminded myself that praying and planning meant that I took church seriously.
I prayed about my concerns, sincerely asking God to check the motives of my heart and clarify my understanding of His Church.
Why did I want a church in the first place? Was it a tradition, a religion, a spiritual discipline, or a crutch?
The Lessons Learned
Though I grew impatient about not settling down in a church, I began to appreciate and value the things that I took for granted about churches. I counted it a blessing to be able to look at churches from the outside and sample diverse faith communities.
I was impressed by the volunteers who faithfully served at every church we visited. From the parking lot volunteers, camera crew, and ushers, to the children’s staff, café baristas, book shop attendants, and the sign language interpreters, God used people with different talents and abilities for His kingdom.
Week after week, thousands, and maybe millions of people around the world work selflessly and tirelessly to make Sunday worship possible in churches. Most volunteers do this out of love for God and a humble desire to serve Him and His people.
Church-hopping gave me a chance to sample different worship styles. Some churches went all out loud with their worship time while others had a more subdued and quiet style of expression. The diversity in singers and songs gave me a glimpse of what was to come on the other side of eternity.
I experienced great joy and freedom in pouring myself out to God in worship. Anonymity, strangely, liberated me in worship. I did not care what anyone thought about how I looked or how badly I sang.
I also caught myself judging people for insignificant things. Things that did not matter to God. Why was the guitarist in the worship team wearing shorts? How could this girl scroll through her Facebook feed while the pastor was talking?
The Search Ended
After three months of unsuccessful church hunting, we decided to break our own rules and check out a church that was not only bigger but also farther away from home. Hesitant, we made the 17-mile, 25-minute drive to the church one Sunday morning.
Instantly, I felt at ease in the multi-ethnic congregation.
The genuine smiles on people’s faces and the unrushed pace of the service made me feel at home. The service seemed to last longer than most churches but I didn’t mind.
My husband and I enjoyed the service from start to finish. The worship drew me into God’s presence. I could not stop the tears of joy that trickled down my cheeks. The pastor’s words pierced our hearts. After the service ended, we were surrounded by families eager to chat with us and get to know us. When we walked out the church doors that day, we looked at each other and smiled. This was it.
Ecstatic that God led us to this church, we did not mind the long commute to church Sunday mornings. The pastor of our church was a well-known author and gifted speaker whose sermons kept us glued to our seats.
We had never before made so many new friends within a few weeks of joining a church. Our family was invited by another family to join them in a monthly Bible study. I got plugged into the weekly women’s Bible study group. My husband and I signed up to volunteer with high school kids.
Just as we were settling into our new church, our pastor announced from the pulpit one Sunday that he was resigning his position as lead pastor. The news broke my heart. My husband and I had come to respect and like this man of God who had befriended our family within the first few weeks of us joining the church. We looked forward to his inspiring and no-nonsense preaching every week.
We were still relatively new to the church. With the leader gone, the associate pastor took over the administration and preaching. The thought of finding another church crossed our minds.
Yet again, we took a hard look at the reasons why we chose to belong to that church. The pull we felt toward our new family was not because of our lead pastor’s powerful preaching. So, we chose to stay and pray for our leadership during this difficult time. If God had led us to this church, He had a purpose.
The Church Understood
A month later, all of a sudden, the coronavirus invaded our world. Schools, workplaces, and houses of worship were forced shut.
We had to learn through a pandemic that the Church was anything but a physical building. We are the Church—a body of people who love and follow Jesus Christ.
The building is inconsequential. So is the clothing of the worship team, the tattoos on the pastor’s arm, the carpet in the sanctuary, the world-class audio-video system, or the fancy children’s playroom.
The Church is a group of messy, flawed people who are redeemed by Jesus, living under the grace of God. A holy people set apart for God (1 Peter 2: 9-10 ESV). We share the same spiritual ancestry and DNA (“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Galatians 3: 29 ESV). Though our family is dispersed around the world, we are united through one baptism and one Spirit (Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV).
Not being able to gather in person neither erases our identity as children of God nor undermines our mission on earth.
We are called to be the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14 ESV). We are commissioned to be God’s hands and feet to a world in desperate need of help and hope.
Church is more than a Sunday tradition. I don’t have to wait for Sunday mornings to go to church, to be in church, or to serve in church. Sunday church services are a visible demonstration of our unity as God’s family.
I’ve realized that viewing church only as a Sunday service grossly limits the definition and scope of the Church and misinterprets God’s essential purpose for His people.
The Church Defined
When two or more believers are gathered in God’s name (Matthew 18:20 ESV) and find beauty in the mundane or explore the Bible for treasures, we are being the Church.
When we have conversations with our children about the discovery of a new animal species and marvel at God’s creation, we are the Church.
When we volunteer our time to help people in need during the pandemic or simply talk over the phone with a friend who’s struggling with loneliness, we are the Church.
When we share in the sorrow of a family who’s grieving the loss of a loved one by simply offering to sit with them in silence, we are the Church.
When we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in China and lament the torture of Christians in Iraq, we are the Church.
It’s been over a year since our family relocated from Southern to Northern California. I thought we were going to find a church and settle down. But God expanded my understanding of His Church.
As a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6: 19 ESV), I carry God’s presence with me wherever I go. And so does every disciple of Christ. I’m part of the invisible, eternal, and supernatural Church of Jesus Christ.
And we, the Church, can worship God, listen and teach the Bible, and serve our communities wherever and whenever God leads without being confined to the walls of a church building or our homes or even the borders of countries and continents.
Mabel Ninan was born and raised in Hyderabad, India, until she moved to America as a newlywed in 2008. Her immigrant journey overlapped with her spiritual one, completely altering her relationship with God. Her first nonfiction book, Far from Home, which reflects on that journey, will be released by Harambee Press of Iron Stream Media in summer 2022.
Her articles have been published in CBN.com, The Upper Room and (in)courage.mea. Mabel is a contributor to Guideposts’, All God’s Creatures 2022: Daily Devotions for Animal Lovers. She is currently pursuing M.A. in Theological Studies from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A lover of tea, books, and dancing, she lives in Silicon Valley, California, with her husband, nine-year-old son, and a Maltese pup.