Yesterday Marlene and I joined Harrisburg Baptist Church in Tupelo. To say that we waited a long time would be true, given that we moved to Tupelo in October 2005 and started attending Harrisburg more or less on a regular basis sometime in 2006. 

In the last three years we have seen the other side of church life–the view from the pew, so to speak. And not just in Tupelo but in many ways we have seen it during our travels around the country. Visiting lots of churches doesn’t make you an expert in anything particular, but it does give you a new way of looking at things. People have occasionally asked if I mind sitting in the pew instead of preaching myself, and the answer is no. I travel and speak so much that when I’m home, I’m happy to listen to someone else. And it’s good for the soul in many ways to sit in the pew after so many years behind the pulpit. 

Once we moved to Tupelo God allowed me to become part of a men’s Bible study that meets on Thursday nights at Bert Duncan’s home. Last year I led the group through my book Credo whenever I was in town. This year I’ve been helping lead the men through What Jesus Demands of the World by John Piper. Because of that men’s group, we started attending the Ferris-Duncan Sunday School class, admittedly on an erratic basis–three weeks in a row and not again for maybe three months because of our schedule. Over time Marlene and I have made a number of good friends in the congregation.

Still, it was not an easy decision to make for many reasons. I have a new appreciation of how hard it is to find the right church. Mostly it’s hard to know what the “right church” is because it tends to be a moving target. We’ve all heard the line about “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll ruin it.” Meanwhile three years had come and gone since we were active members of a congregation. When I was a pastor, that was never a problem given that once I accepted a call, we were automatically put on the church rolls. In recent months not being a formal part of any congregation had weighed on my soul. I don’t like being a “floating” Christian. I would rather be anchored in a local church.

A few weeks ago Marlene and I both realized (more or less independently) that the time had come to make that commitment. So today we did.

Looking back, I realized that it’s the first time I’ve formally joined a church in over 40 years. At Harrisburg you join the church by walking the aisle and greeting the pastor at the end of the service. I didn’t realize how truly difficult that can be. Can’t explain it, but it’s not an easy thing to do. We sat on the third row so we wouldn’t have far to walk and still it was hard. And then it was easy. The pastor (who is a friend) greeted us warmly. While the people sang, we sat on the front pew and filled out a form. Since my writing is mostly illegible, I wrote my name and not much else. They’ll have to rely on Marlene’s info if they really want to take us in. Two young girls came forward on profession of faith. The pastor had them stand at the front and introduced them to the congregation. Then we stood up next to them while the pastor introduced us. As is the Harrisburg custom, we were welcomed with a unanimous “God bless you” and “We love you." 

The last time I walked an aisle in response to an invitation was back in 1969 when my brother Alan and I came forward for baptism at our home church in Alabama. When Pastor Forrest Sheffield introduced us, he saw Alan in the third row and called him up to stand next to me, just the same as we stood side by side in front of our home church 39 years ago. Life coming full circle, I guess.

After the closing song a long line of people came by to greet everyone who had come forward. Several of our friends gave us big hugs, everyone seemed genuinely glad, and one of the pastors on staff said, “We’re gonna have a good time now.” I think he’s right.

I’ve already said it was a decision that was a long time coming, but once made, we both felt good about it. We realize in a new way that joining a church means joining a group of believers you have come to love. In the deepest and truest sense you join the people, not a building or a name or a denomination. It’s good to have a place where you belong, to be more than just a part of the big universal church but to be part of one particular local church. We’re no longer “floating Christians.” Now we have a church home. That’s a happy thought and a reason to be grateful on Monday morning. 

You can reach the author at ray@keepbelieving.com. Click here to sign up for the free weekly email sermon.