On New Years day 2007 I packed my life into a car and drove from my parents house in the north west of England to London. When I got to the other end and began to unpack, it wasn't long before my new housemate suggested a visit to an excellent local curry house as a way to celebrate the move and get to grips with my new neighbourhood.
He was right of course – there's nothing like a good meal to start settling in. But then after a week of unpacking boxes and getting used to my new job, he made another suggestion. He'd been going along to a church nearby that had plenty of people in their early twenties like us.
It was another excellent suggestion and its benefits lasted far longer than the curry.
Less than a year later, I was part of a small Bible study group, I played in the band, sang in a choir, and helped run the social events for 20s and 30s. As my involvement carried on, we hosted Christmas parties at our flat, I helped run the youth group, played for the cricket team, went on a trip to India and eventually became a member of the church council. In other words, this church became an integral part of my life.
Several days a week I was involved in church activities. I made loads of new friends, was invited along to events and very quickly felt at home in an area where I hadn't previously had any family ties.
Obviously church isn't just a social club and the most important thing about any church community is its willingness to worship God and to serve its neighbours. Whether I felt 'at home' didn't prove the truth of the claims of the gospel. However, I came to realise that while we were primarily gathered for the aim of worshipping God, the social structure and quickly-formed friendships gave me something that many of my non-churchgoing friends didn't have.
London is a vast city. Thousands of people move here in their early to mid twenties every year, often from smaller towns and cities across the country. They join immigrants from around the world and native Londoners in a city that can be thrilling, but also isolating.
Over the next few years I began to notice that while I was becoming more rooted in the community where I lived, and enjoyed bumping into people from church on the street, my friends who didn't go to church simply didn't have this same sense of community.
They often moved from one area of London to another without any roots or links. They might choose to live there because it offered slightly cheaper accommodation, or was a good place to commute to work, or had a good nightlife.
Until they had children, these friends didn't involve themselves in their local community at all. They were essentially consumers, rather than citizens. Some of them didn't see any kind of problem with this; they were young, and having a great time in one of the world's great cities. But occasionally, I noticed others were less keen on the rootless lifestyle. Some moved away. Others opened up that they were envious of people who were more rooted in a church community.
Last week I wrote about the 'surprise factor' that churches now have. Because so few British people are regular churchgoers, most have no idea of the warm welcome that's awaiting them. That means just by being ourselves and doing church in a warm, welcoming and hospitable way, we'll be a huge surprise to those who aren't familiar with us and who have a stereotype of the Church as cold, boring and out of touch.
We know that people don't join institutions as much as they used to. Trade unions, political parties and all kinds of community associations don't have the levels of membership they did a few generations ago. There are a number of complex reasons for this, but I'd argue that one simple factor is the lack of warm welcome and sense of community.
There are two lessons we can learn from this. One is a lesson for the Church as a whole, the second for each of us.
Firstly, the Church has a mandate to be salt and light. While this means worshipping God and proclaiming the good news, it also means we are meant to bring peace and harmony to our society. In other words, by creating the kind of tight community bond I experienced amid the vastness of a big city, the Church should, and does, offer vital social glue. The Social Integration Commission released research which shows churches are the best places in the country at bringing together people of different backgrounds. We should be proud of this – and redouble our efforts.
But there's also a job for each and every one of us to do locally and sometimes it's a tricky one... to be a sensitive welcomer! Even if you're not the person 'on duty', make it your practice every Sunday (and any other time you're with church family) to include people on the edge, people who are newer and people who look uncomfortable. Some are very happy to sit at the back, quietly, but many others are waiting for a warm welcome. It doesn't take much to make the difference between someone coming back and never darkening the door again. A smile and a "hello" goes a long way!