I’ve been thinking about church a lot lately. Not my current congregation and not church in general. Rather, I’ve been thinking about the Fairlawn Church of Christ in Muncie, Indiana. I attended there from sometime around 1974 until August of 1986, and it will always be a special place for me.
For many I think, church represents sort of sterile, holy place…maybe a little cold and dark. For others, church is just a place to go once in a while to keep your spiritual credit in good standing. Perhaps church is synonymous with dogma, ritual, and inhibition.
I see it differently.
For me, church is about relationships.
My first experience at Fairlawn was as a child attending Vacation Bible School with my neighbor. Later, that same neighbor asked the minister to visit my mother in the hospital; then the two of them conspired to have the youth minister reach out to me. Soon, I was riding a JOY Bus to church each Sunday. At first, I agreed to go so I could get the side benefits of going with the youth group to places like Kings Island, Cincinnati Reds games, and summer camp, but later on as I built some friendships, that began to change.
In essence, I went from being an unchurched child to a Christian man at the Fairlawn Church of Christ. The majority of my teenage friends were there. My first real girlfriend was there. I met my wife there. I learned to overcome my insecurities there. I learned sincere faith there.
But, for some reason, sometime in the late 1980’s, I let my relationships with my Fairlawn family wane. I didn’t plan it. I just didn’t make it a priority anymore. I had moved away to another city, and I had a family and career to consider. I was busy in another church in another city and I just made no effort toward maintaining those bonds.
Years went by with no contact. A whole decade passed with practically zero interactions.
Did the bonds of relationship fall away? Did they forget the young goofy kid who used to walk their halls?
In February of 2000, after over ten years of neglecting my former church family, my dad died. We were planning to hold the funeral in Muncie, and we had no place to gather after the funeral for a meal. Hotels are too impersonal. My sister’s house was too small. I thought it over and decided to approach Fairlawn to see if they would allow us to use their building. I was prepared to pay a fee. I was just hoping that someone would be willing to come by and let us in.
On February 8th, 2000, I walked into the office of Paul Cunningham…a man I had known from my many years at Fairlawn…I had been friends with a couple of his sons in the youth group. He was the administrator at the time. We hadn’t spoken in a long, long time.
I’m going to paraphrase the conversation:
“Paul, my dad has passed away.”
“I’m sorry, Mike. How can I help?”
“Well, we have the funeral planned, but we don’t have any place to hold the reception,” I explained.
“When is the funeral?” he asked.
He turned back to his desk and opened a drawer. He reached inside and pulled something out. It wasn’t a datebook. It wasn’t a rental contract.
He handed it to me….a key…a key to the building.
I had not been a member of that congregation since August of 1986, and I hadn’t even visited them for church in over ten years. Yet, there he was holding out a key to the building.
“You’re giving me a key to the building?” I asked with some disbelief.
“Of course,” he replied. “You’re one of us.”
I can’t think about that meeting with Paul without feeling the tears well up in my eyes. It moved me. It gave me new insight into what it really means to be in the family of God and the body of Christ.
You see…church, when it’s done right…is really about relationships.
And, by the way, I didn’t really need the key because on the day of the funeral, when we arrived at the building…Paul had arranged for several women to be there to serve the food to my family…and they had made the food too. They really took care of us that day....because I was still one of them.
Let me just say that if you live near Muncie, Indiana and you’re looking for a church family, you can’t do better than the people that call Fairlawn their home.
Link to the Fairlawn Church of Christ