In 2018, when traveling out of the country was still something people could safely do, I lived abroad in the Netherlands for a few months. While there, I attended a Dutch-speaking church with my host family every Sunday. I was blessed by the experience, a visible reminder that I was a part of “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Revelations 7:9). And yet, though I kept the fourth commandment outwardly, though I attended church faithfully every week, something was lacking in my spiritual life during those months.
It took only a few weeks to realize that though I understood enough Dutch to benefit from the sermons and the prayers, I didn’t speak enough of the language to communicate well with the other congregants. After the final “Amen,” I was soon the first to leave the building, preferring the bike ride home to having to stumble through conversations with limited vocabulary. Though I was externally a part of the church institute, I didn’t become a part of the church community for those months. Simply put, it was less embarrassing and more convenient to avoid doing so.
Though most Reformed young people are able to worship in a language they understand, I fear that to many of you this experience will sound familiar. Attending church every Sunday (virtually or in person), we are part of the church externally, even though internally, we choose to live “in community” only with close friends and family members—if at all. Our church communities are small, not stretching far beyond the small circle of friends we stand with every week, or the occasional hymn-sing where we only talk to people we already know.
These self-defined circles are hardly representative of the great cloud of witnesses described in Hebrews 12:1, or the “many members in one body” described in Romans 12:4. And if these beautiful descriptions can’t be used for our churches today, what are we missing?
When we choose to walk alone or with only a chosen few, we forget Romans 12:5, wherein Paul rejoiced that “we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” The hand belongs to the eye belongs to the ankle, just as the minister belongs to the congregation belongs to the consistory. You are brother and sister to the friend you’ve known from childhood just as much as you are to the toddler whose name you can’t remember, the shut-ins and the prisoners who virtually attend every service, and the widower who always has mints to pass out in the narthex.
True, choosing to participate in the church community means you risk forgetting the name of the person who greets you at the door. It means going out of your way to speak to someone who might not already know and forgive your weaknesses and shortcomings like your family does. But it also means you get to hear firsthand how God has blessed and pressed those around you. It means rejoicing with fellow believers at the highest peaks, and sharing burdens during the lowest valleys. It means serving and being served by a myriad of fellow believers, young and old, rich and poor, prophets and ministers and teachers and students alike. It means that when you miss a service, you feel the lack in your heart and your head, right where the Holy Spirit—which lives in perfect community with the Father and the Son—rests.
In the end, I didn’t ever build up the confidence to experience the community of my Dutch church like I should have. Returning to my home church in the States was a jarring reminder of what having a church home should mean to all of us. It was a reminder that being in community with like-minded believers is a great blessing, one that should not be taken for granted on your own spiritual walk.
Originally published March 2021, Vol 80 No 3