By Anneke Hoekstra | @al_hoekstra 

The first service I attended at NLF Avatar was the Independence Day service of 2013 - roughly one year and two weeks ago. I had been in India for three weeks, and I was trying to wrap my head around the first week of my new job, the mystery of the streets of Mumbai to a Westerner, and in general, life as an adult. I had just graduated from university, which meant I had left the safety, idealism and consistency of my college ministry and was ready for the real deal. I was ready to join a church all by myself, like the big girl I kept telling myself I was.

Growing up in the murky nebula that we’ll call “The Church,” I’ve got a bit of experience with the Sunday ritual of church-attending. My family attended church weekly (apart from when, in the winters, we’d spend our weekends in our other holy place: the mountains.) I’ve always loved church. When I was five, I taught myself how to read so I could sing along to hymns. In what I consider a blessing, It’s always been part of my life “routine.” At college, I found a church about 45 minutes away to which I would traipse two or three Sundays a month. The worship band was incredible, the pastor was passionate, and the congregation was fashionable. Senior year, two of my friends and I started meeting with a couple with three kids on a monthly basis in what the church called a “gospel community.” I am very grateful for the time I spent at this church and with these people.

This year at Avatar was different. It held a lot of firsts for me: my first time attending a congregation with people who are mostly not the same ethnicity as me, my first experience teaching Sunday School, my first “determine the relationship” meeting with a pastor and my new significant other, my first time consistently participating in singing on the worship band, my first trek during monsoon season, and several others. But most importantly, this year with Avatar was the first time that I - not my parents and by extension, me and my siblings - was really part of a church family. A close, crazy, occasionally challenging family, with all the quirks, frustrations and joys that any family has.

When I returned from the US after Christmas break and felt dreadfully homesick, it was a friend from Avatar who noticed how down and out I was and who prayed for me and then made me laugh all throughout lunch. Six months later, I came back from the US a day early just so I could reunite with the Avatar family sooner. When I want to learn more about Mumbai or Indian culture, I turn to my Avatar friends. When I need a reminder of the gospel and some mid-week laughs, I get to pray for, discuss the Bible with, and talk to the other members of the small group that meets in my neighborhood. These intimate relationships show me that church is so much more than a service to attend.

Community is a wonderful, beautiful thing, and I am so glad I’ve found one here in Mumbai. The story could end here, but I want to challenge you, Reader, and myself to think about the church family as something more than just a surrogate family we see only once a week. It’s more than a routine.

The current series at Avatar is covering the importance of the modern-day worship service and its multiple facets: worship, the sermon, testimony, offering, fellowship and community, and communion. This past Sunday, we learned about how the worship service ought to pour out into our daily lives. In the speaker’s words, “We are called to worship daily, to give of ourselves daily, to be in fellowship regularly, to pray unceasingly, and to stay in the word always.”

Something I began to understand more this past year was the key role the Sunday service plays in allowing us to experience these various elements on a daily basis. Yes, the ritual is important, but God has revealed Himself to be much bigger than a routine.  Without the support of others, our connection with God will not be as strong. Without exposing our hearts to God and repenting in light of His grace every Sunday, our fragile hearts will remain fragile and worse, cold. When we’re together, God engages with us. He delights in our weekly corporate activity.

The benefits of community are boundless. The freedom felt in making good music is incomparable. However, toward the end of the service on Sunday, the pastor warned against attending church with the wrong posture or intention. If I am only to come to see my friends, my heart posture isn’t right. If I am only to come to sing some pretty tunes, my heart posture isn’t right. If my heart is bent toward nothing but worshiping God, my heart is doing what it ought to. Honestly, I struggle to position my heart in complete adoration of God and God alone every time I walk into church. But attending Avatar over the past year, I’ve become increasingly aware of my intentions when I walk through those doors, help lead worship, or see the smiling faces of people I adore. These things matter, but I should primarily attend church to worship our Creator. If I am at a service at Avatar with this heart posture, I get to experience the astonishing beauty of the Gospel. And the more this happens, the more I desire it.

Thinking back to the Independence Day service of August 2013, I am overwhelmed with gladness that I found a group of people who can teach me how to posture my heart toward God with love, patience, and grace. Looking forward, I cannot wait to experience more of the joys and challenges of being part of this Christ-centered family.