We Are the Church


jenny rose foster -we are the church3

My story of church began 35 years ago. My first experience took place in a small Nazarene chapel. This was my sanctuary from the day I was born until the day I graduated from high school. It was a small country building, painted white, with a steeple.

There were only a handful of kids and we sat in the “teen section” of the sanctuary. My friends and I mouthed the word: “Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon …” as the rest of the congregation bellowed out hymns of “Great is Thy faithfulness.”

We made doodles on the offering slips and passed notes to one another throughout the sermons, trying our best to contain our laughter. Sometimes, when it was communion Sunday, my friends and I saved our little plastic cups of grape juice and our dry wafers. We dismissed ourselves from the service to go to the “bathroom” and snuck to the Sunday school building, instead. There I led my crew in our own version of communion. We giggled as I began the guiding words of “Drink his blood … Eat his body.”

We certainly found interesting ways to entertain ourselves. But sometimes there was the magic that would stop me in my tracks. Something the preacher would say, or a song that would catch my heart. Like on Testimony Sundays when the pastor asked the congregation to testify. Person after person would stand and share stories of miraculous wonder. Stories of praise. Stories of thankfulness. Stories of salvation.

I felt that magic again and again. The stirring in the gut of my belly. Holy Spirit dancing in that space. Sermons from the sacred texts that had power to move mountains and move believers who believed it.

Our mothers never thought we listened, but when the altar call came and the organ music began to play, some of us would answer the invitation and kneel at the front.

There was custom and tradition and order, but there was also Holy Spirit fire that caused me to pause in wonder. The irresistible mystery of Jesus Christ called to the deepest parts of my soul. I didn’t actually need to be entertained to experience the Christ. I only had to notice and Holy Spirit was there tugging me into a lifetime of Jesus.

Church was so much a part of my life that even on the weekends when we stayed at our dad’s house for visitation, sometimes my sisters and I looked for Church. One Sunday we packed our Bibles and walked down the street to a small Church of Christ. We three girls made ourselves comfortable in the pews and then discovered these people only sang cappella. Despite the different atmosphere, there it was: the mystery of the Christ and Holy Spirit warm in my belly.

A few years later my mom found cigarettes and empty beer bottles in my room, so she put me in Christian School. Every Monday morning, we began the week with chapel. Students led the band, playing Christian contemporary worship songs. We swayed to the music and some of us held up our hands, if we felt charismatic. And there again, was Holy Spirit’s fiery song in my soul. A familiar song of love.

Same Spirit, different people. Same Jesus, different places. Same God, different denominations. But the important parts were there. I went to a lot of different churches in my life and everywhere I went, I could find a recognizable sense of home—a knowing that somehow we all belonged.

In high school, on the odd weekend, I began carpooling with a friend to a punk rock church in Portland called The Bridge. It took place in a concert venue called, The Meow Meow. We had to hike up a narrow metal stairway. The dark space glowed with colored lighting and loud music that beat within my bones. There were people who danced wildly; there were people who banged drums and waved banners. There were people with tattoos, dressed in black or bright vintage or clothing covered in studs. Goths and gutter punks and sheltered church kids like me, all mixed together just searching for something different.

Then there was my church in London at Westminster Chapel, where the prestigious arrived in suits and dresses and by the time the service was over people, were falling down in their seats with laughter and falling backwards while being prayed for. An entirely new concept for me. I was mesmerized and tried to fall too, but I didn’t, so I faked it to get the people to stop trying to pray over me.

After that service I would make my way to the tube and travel up to Soho where I found my friends at a church called “The Asylum,” held in a night club. The floor was sticky with booze from the previous evening. There was a permanent aroma of alcohol. It was a room full of misfits and metal heads and a pastor named Hazel. She pierced our souls with powerful preaching while the band full of long-haired rocker dudes played songs with the most beautiful sincerity.

Later, back home in Washington, my friends Jerry and Deric started a church called “Reganomics,” led by youth for youth. We had an art wall mural, we had concerts, and we had powerful prayer times in our prayer room, which was a storage closet. I preached a few times and helped lead worship. It was awesome while it lasted. Some kids gathered, who otherwise felt alienated from church. Sometimes they would just hang outside and smoke, but they were there. They were drawn there and they felt accepted.

There was also the churches in Hawaii and Alaska. There was the Catholic Church we visited when my husband’s family had funerals. And the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian and the Seventh Day Adventist. And in those places—Every. Single. Time—through the act of gathering together, I found that same familiar communion: when two or more are gathered in God’s Name, God is always there.

There is beauty in the gathering, but I got hurt along the way too. I have been burned by judgement, platforms and expectations. I have been told I was not baptized by the blood of the lamb. I have been told that as a woman, I could not preach, or lead, or do anything that had to do with teaching men, unless they were children under the age of 18. I have been told through a sermon that I was a blot and a blemish.

As I stepped away, as I removed myself from the equation of gathering together, I realized it was  impossible to run from that which I am. For, I am the church.

I am the Church and you are also.

We are the church, just as we are. The Church, The Body, The Bride … made in the image of an uncontainable God. Church is not defined by four walls, a pulpit and a stage. No, it is far bigger than we make it out to be, because it is you and I. Yet, God asks that we gather together to create it.

As I began searching for a church again, I found it in the most irregular places. I found church on the streets, at concerts, at my dining room table, and around a fire pit singing songs and tellings stories. I have found church in the forest and in the bustling city. I have found church everywhere.

After years of not attending organized church, I decided to return. It took me a while to find a place that felt safe enough. There is no perfect church, because there are no perfect people. And now I find myself on Sunday mornings, gathering in a school building in my hometown with a wild bunch of Jesus lovers.

I choose the church, and that means I choose the people. It wasn’t an easy choice, because people are messy. But I really believe the church needs us. The Bride needs the people who have been through it all. The Body needs the wanderers and the wild ones, the audacious and the unconventional, the misfits and the outcasts and the lost church kids who haven’t found their way back home again.

I will continue to practice being the church, finding church and going to church. I believe in the mystery that cannot be held in four walls. I believe in the saving grace and the beauty and the fire of Holy Spirit that resounds in our souls when we gather together.

From the traditional to the audaciously wild, from the orthodox to the unorthodox. From old-time hymns to crashing guitar riffs, the shouting of anthem words and drums pounding ancient rhythms. From a building with a steeple to a church in a night club. It has been a world of church encounters and every single time, through the act of gathering, I have felt the familiar wonder of the mystery of The Christ and the song of Holy Spirit: Yesterday, Today and Forever.

You are the same, Jesus. You are who you say you are.