For the last four and a half years, we've been attending the E-Free Church of Bozeman. When we moved here we shopped around some before we finally settled on E-Free. We started with the First Baptist Church where a friend of ours worked. Given the Baptist reputation (at least everyplace I've lived) I assumed it would be a conservative, safe place to start our search. We were sort of startled to find that a) they had a woman pastor, and b) the service was basically empty for the first part because the congregation doesn't like to sing and showed up after that part of the service was over. So, um... no. Then we visited a church that was WAAAAY out in the boonies and, while it was fine, it took forever to get there on long windy roads, so we didn't see that as a pleasant winter option. We tried the church that was within walking distance of our house, too. We liked it. The people were very friendly and they were a fairly young congregation. Lots of young couples. Just like us. Unfortunately, the pastor was about our age, too, and had never been to seminary. Call me old fashioned, but that wasn't something we were particularly comfortable with. We knew someone who attended E-Free, so we visited there and decided to give it a try.
Now, both Leif and I have always attended small churches. Congregations around 150-200 people. You know everyone and there is a familial aspect to it. KBC was like that, and so was BRBC. E-Free has hundreds of members. They have multiple Sunday morning services just to accommodate the number of attendees. But we decided to give it a try.
We tried for a couple months. After two months I started to freak out a little. We still didn't know anyone. It was like we were all alone in a room full of people. One thing we did like, though, was the preaching. Pastor Chris took a verse-by-verse exegetical approach to the scriptures and we both appreciate that. But after two months of great preaching and no fellowship, I felt like I needed more. So we kept looking.
We tried the Baptist church in Belgrade. I don't remember exactly what it was that we didn't like about it. It might have been the preaching, or it might have been that there weren't any young couples there. I don't remember. But I do remember that we decided to go back to E-Free and try to get connected somehow. The preaching was good; it was the fellowship that was lacking.
So we went back to E-Free and got plugged into a young married couples group. We met once a week and were led by an older couple with many years of marriage and life experience behind them. Glenn and Lyla were like surrogate parents to our group. It was in that group that we first met Todd and Andrea, Jose and Shannon, and Daniel and Eva. These are the people that we have remained friends with. We met as a group for about 2 years. Then Glenn and Lyla took up another ministry in the church and our little group stopped meeting.
It was around that time, though, that E-Free started having a Saturday night service. It was a much smaller service than the Sunday morning ones, and it was followed by a fellowship dinner each week. We got the benefit of Chris' teaching combined with the smaller congregation and opportunity to meet and talk with people over dinner each week. It was great. And it lasted until this summer. Then the Saturday night services stopped.
One of the reasons we liked the Saturday services, too, was that they fit very nicely with Ellie's schedule. Our options for a Sunday morning service were 8:30 or 11:00. 8:30 was still pretty early for Ellie to be up and ready (since until recently she liked to sleep in until about then) and the 11:00 service was always so packed full that it was almost impossible to find a parking space or chair. Added to that was the fact that the church got unbearably hot for Leif in the summer with the packed 11:00 service. But, most Sundays we were able to get ourselves up and going in time for the 8:30 service, even if we got there late. After a while, though, it became a little more hit-and-miss, and by the holidays it took concerted effort to make it to church each week.
You see, we'd lost our fellowship again. We were no longer meeting with our small group, and we were no longer fellowshipping with people over dinner each week. We still appreciated Pastor Chris' sound teaching, but this fall he announced his upcoming retirement.
A couple years ago, shortly after we started attending the Saturday service, E-Free did a church plant in Belgrade. I remember several families leaving to attend that church, including our friends Jose and Shannon. The church seemed to grow steadily, and two years later they have rented out the third floor of a building in our subdivision. It has been converted into a sanctuary and classrooms and they have about 150 people who meet there each week. We decided that we would give it a try after the holidays.
That brings us to last Sunday. We visited New Hope Bible Church and found it full of families with young children. We saw the Morales and the Vidmars there, and lots of people introduced themselves to us. In fact, I think more people talked to us there last Sunday than talk to us on any given Sunday at the church we have been attending for the last four years. Ellie stayed with us through the first part of the service (and danced along with the music) and then went to the nursery. It was the first place I've visited that I felt I could be a part of in a long time.
The downside is that the pastor there is no Chris Blackmore. I remember not being terribly impressed with him when he first arrived and preached at E-Free one Sunday. His sermons are more topical in nature and they don't have the structure behind them that I appreciate. They weren't heretical, or even fluffy-fluffy, but they were a little more emotional than I care for. I prefer sermons that speak of the God I know and love and less about me and what I may or may not be going through right now.
And that is what brings me to this question: What's in a church, anyway? Is it a place of teaching, or is it a body of believers? Obviously, both aspects should be present. But which do I consider more important? Which to I base my decision on? I need both solid teaching and good fellowship. But right now I feel that I need the fellowship more than the deep sermon. After all, if all I needed was an exegetical walk through the scriptures, I wouldn't be searching outside of E-Free. But without the fellowship I feel no connection. I feel no family there. The friends we've made at E-Free we will keep. Our get-togethers are no longer church related anyway. And though a good teacher is to be desired, his teaching does no good if I don't even make it to the service to hear it.
I have not completely made up my mind on whether to return to E-Free or continue to attend New Hope. But I am leaning toward New Hope. I have already signed up for a women's Bible study this quarter. I did that through Shannon before we even visited the church. I realized this summer that I need Christian women to fellowship with. I tried a study through E-Free this fall, but it felt forced. And after the 10 weeks were over, I didn't know anyone any better than I did when I started. In fact, I missed the last 3 weeks an no one even noticed. Or if they did, they didn't comment. So I'm going to try this group. I know God intends for His people to fellowship together. And I know that He will provide all I need. I know that He is faithful, but am I? Therein lies my struggle, I think.