I wonder what springs to your mind when you think of big family gatherings.  Do you love the idea of getting everyone in one place for a proper catch-up?  Or does the very idea, with all the noise and the bustle, fill you with anxiety?

In some regards a church away day is like a huge family get together.  You need to find a date that suits as many people as possible, book a venue that’s big enough, think about catering and activities for the kids, and then wait for the date to come round.

And like with a family gathering, some people will approach it with excitement and anticipation, and others with a certain amount of nervousness.  Will any of my friends be there? What if I’m expected to share personal things with strangers or to pray out loud?  What if my children don’t settle in their groups? What if no-one sits by me?

The anxiety may have an additional spiritual edge for some.  Will I have to wear a pretend smile all day, hiding my fears and pain?  What if people ask me how I’m doing - will they see through the standard ‘I’m fine’ response?  Everyone else seems so close to God and I feel miles away, maybe I shouldn’t go – maybe it would be easier to just say I’m busy.

You see the thing with church is that we are a group of people with all sorts of backgrounds, personalities and circumstances.  There are extroverts and introverts standing in the coffee queue together and when planning the day, a careful balance of activities is required to ensure that the outsiders are included, the quiet have time to reflect and the boisterous ones (adults and children alike) have enough action songs and running around time to keep them engaged.  And even with this level of planning, no-one can prepare for how people will be on the day.  Some will have had a terrible week, or may be feeling burdened with worry or problems.  These people come needing support and encouragement, so there needs to be space for that too.

At our away day on Saturday, I for one was grateful that there were two opportunities for quiet reflection during the teaching sessions.  I was in a particularly pensive mood that day and really appreciated the space and time to talk quietly to God.

However, in addition I also got to spend some extended time with my church family and I received so much encouragement throughout the day as a result.  There are many examples I could give, but here are just two: firstly, someone made gluten free cakes and someone else brought one over to me (after I’d moaned there was only fruit for me to eat in the morning break!) and secondly I overheard a snippet of a conversation, which brought much needed hope into a situation I’m aware of.

There were also a few moments of panic when we thought a friend’s child had gone missing and a whole group of us ran around the building in search of him.  There was relief all round when he was found.

You see, when a church is functioning as it should, it really is like family.  Just like with a family get together, a church away day is sure to bring with it organisational stresses, last minute panics and probably a few tears.  Wet weather planning is generally necessary (whatever the time of year) and there will always be leftover food and mess to tidy up.  However, the positives far outweigh any of the above.  I’m sure that everyone there on Saturday would agree that the time together, and the extended time to worship and learn about God, was hugely beneficial.  And as the photo shows, nothing quite beats a large group of people of all ages, singing a memory verse to music, with accompanying actions. Don’t you just love my Portswood family!

Heather B