It was one of the loneliest times of my life. I was 16, and I’d taken a year off after high school to do voluntary work in Slussfors, a tiny town in the northern part of Sweden, not far from the arctic circle. I arrived in this sleepy little community in the middle of winter when there were only a few hours of sunlight per day. The weather was bitterly cold, and I didn’t know a soul. I lived all alone in the basement of the church where I served as an assistant to the local pastor. I remember being absolutely starved for social connection, to the point that before long I’d 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 whom were close to my age, invited me home for lunch after church one Sabbath. Their food was delicious, and we talked nonstop. 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 also introduced me to just about everyone else in the 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 then, the sense of community that I feel in a 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 can.
The 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) can overcome it (Matthew 16:18). Where so much in this life is fickle and impermanent, the 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 it can bring into our lives, a 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 a church expecting perfection, chances are you will be sorely disappointed. The church is full of people every bit as quirky and flawed as we ourselves are. And some of life’s biggest disappointments can come from our church family.
Just like in any family, there are people in the church who will get on your nerves. There are times when church family unity will be tested by divergent, strong views on topics about everything, ranging from the interpretation of obscure biblical passages to what the shade of the new carpet should be for the church lobby. That’s just real life.
The church as a body
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 one of us is part of this body of Christ. Especially in times when it’s tough to act as one body, it’s important to stick with our church family. “Let us not give up meeting together,” said the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:25, NiRV*). There’s immense wisdom in that. Living in a 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 flight tickets. I built a new career online, and since we took off, Jammie and I have lived in ten 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’re living. In view of this, we’ve developed routines to help us feel at home wherever we are.
One of the first things we do after arriving in a new country is to find a local church. Despite huge cultural and language differences, going to a 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 truer 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 a Friend to all.
And, yes, every once in a while, complete strangers welcome us to 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 a family.
* Bible Verses marked NiRV are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL READER’S VERSION®. Copyright © 1996, 1998, 2014, Biblica. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of Biblica.
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.