Growing up as the daughter of a bi-vocational minister offered very few experiences in my early life that did not involve the overlapping of church and family activities. This intersection is actually one of the things I cherish the most about the way I was raised.
Living in New York City for the past seven years has, not surprisingly, provided a slightly different experience from those early years in Texas and Tennessee. In addition to the increased cost of living, public transportation, and lack of central air conditioning, church life in NYC has also been quite an adjustment when compared to the culture in which my faith had its beginnings.
New Yorkers are often perceived as being rude and loud. While loud is an attribute I can certainly vouch for, I’ve learned that what is often perceived as rude is more aptly labeled “efficient.” When you are at the counter ready to check out, please be sure to have your payment method ready. When you are walking slowly down a street, please stay to the right so you don’t block the path. New Yorkers place a high value on efficiency.
Efficiency in conversation is an attribute of NYC and the greater Northeast as well. Discussions are more honest and to the point in a place where every minute is such a commodity. This transparency spills over into church life in a manner that enables you to get to know the members of your community on a deep level and, often, very quickly.
Starting at a young age, I was a part of countless small groups, Bible studies, discipleship groups, accountability groups, etc., where we easily spent the first four to six weeks doing a good bit of small talking, before diving into the real meat of what was happening in our lives. It seemed there was always a certain perception that I was trying to meet within a culture where my Christian faith was supposed to look a particular way.
Fast forward to one of the first discipleship meetings I had after moving to NYC: upon being connected by our pastor, I sat across from a girl I had never met. We exchanged pleasantries and then she proceeded to lay out every area of her life in which she wanted to change, needed accountability, and realized her need of repentance. After just one hour, I knew precisely how to pray and walk alongside her, armed with the raw details of her personal life. Her honesty taught me a significant lesson on how a more transparent culture can have such a dramatic affect in the area of discipleship. In fact, I often point to this transparency as the best part of church life in the Northeast. This openness serves as a strong foundation for the deep and rich community that Christians are privileged to be a part of.
New York City is filled with a lot of very lonely people . . . which seems odd, considering you have millions of people crammed together on a tiny island. But it’s true. While church is a huge aid to a New Yorker’s social life, I have learned that community––true community––does not exist solely so that I can have my “friendship needs” met. Quite the contrary, in fact. The kind of community we are called to live out as believers often feels uncomfortable.
Growing up in the South, it seemed universally understood that church was part of the cadence of culture and life: it was the place where my friends were, and it was the social hub for my middle and high school self. Of course, this isn’t altogether a negative thing, as Christian community is to be enjoyed. But after seven years of living in a lonely city, my understanding of the beauty of God’s design for the church as a family has grown exponentially.
The significance of community became clear to me shortly after moving to NYC, as the prayer requests and needs I was hearing from friends touched on very real and tangible parts of life in a way I had not previously experienced. It might be a small group member needing money to pay rent or medical bills, or friends without (blood) family members needing support, or a couch to sleep on. I don’t think I understood what sacrificial community looked like until I moved to a place that has actually driven me to make personal sacrifices.
When money is tight, giving to meet the needs of those around me becomes more than just a line item in my budget. Having grown up in a part of the country where life was just, well, easier, also made community seem easier. But sacrificing and giving, and sometimes just sitting in the discomfort of real life with others, has provided a perspective on the richness of Christian community that I would not trade for all the ease in the world.
The church is a gift of grace. I am so thankful that my experiences in the South taught me the value of Christian community, even as my experiences in the North have taught me how to love this community more sacrificially. While expectations and understandings and rhythms of church can look and feel vastly different depending on where I live, I have learned valuable lessons from each. Further, I have witnessed the wisdom of God in designing a family that transcends cultural norms. This design reflects God’s creativity and lovingkindness, aspects of His nature that we can reflect within our churches, no matter what side of the country we find ourselves on.