Old Roman Catholic Church of St. Michael the Archangel at Sunset in Drazovce, Slovakia. (Source: Dollar Photo Club)

Old Roman Catholic Church of St. Michael the Archangel at Sunset in Drazovce, Slovakia. (Source: Dollar Photo Club)

I grew up going to church every Sunday — which makes sense, considering my parents’ job was starting new churches. But then I went to college, and I’d go months without stepping foot across the threshold of a church building or taking part in a service.

Whenever I went back, I felt a stirring in my heart and swore I wouldn’t forsake it again. But then my ride would get sick, or go to Paris, or I would become overwhelmed by schoolwork and I would stop again.

Things were no different when I first moved to New York in the fall. I went regularly to a 7:30 p.m. service at a church called Hillsong and sat with the other girls in my small group — a group of people dedicated to meeting regularly outside service. But then my classmates wanted to go to dinner together, or I would spend all day in bed and not feel like leaving the house at 6:30, or — OK, really, that last one’s the biggest issue. I got lazy. It’s shameful but true. I put my own comfort above my relationship with God and fellow Christians.

And things were fine. I had friends from NYU. We hung out all the time, and I thought I was forging true bonds that would last forever.

Until the day I went to the hospital. I had just decided to start going back to small group events and church, and then I was locked away for a week. I texted a few of my friends from school and then, on a whim, I texted my small group leader.

Hi! I was planning on coming to Connect Group tomorrow, but I ended up being admitted to the hospital tonight. I’m really sorry I won’t make it 🙁

I popped into their lives in a whirl in August and said I’d be around, and then I disappeared. But they didn’t. They stuck with me.

Notice how I tried to keep it cool. Yeah, man, I’m in the hospital. Nothing major, just got severely depressed and wanted to die. #Nbd, am I right?

But she didn’t let me play it cool and shrug it off. First she called me, and when I didn’t respond because I was in the middle of a discussion with a doctor, she texted. So I told her what happened and she said she would come visit me the next day.

She ended up having to hang out in the hospital for several hours because she got there right in the middle of dinnertime, when we weren’t allowed visitors. And then we sat and talked for an hour.

And two days later, my other small group leader showed up.

I don’t think I’ve ever told them just how important that was to me, the fact that they came to visit me. I mean, they barely knew me. I popped into their lives in a whirl in August and said I’d be around, and then I disappeared. But they didn’t. They stuck with me.

That’s when things shifted in my mind, and I realized how important church is. Not just because of the spiritual feeding and the fellowship that happens on Sunday — that’s been written about a ton by people way smarter than me so I won’t bore you with my thoughts on the matter — but because of the lifelong relationships you forge through it.

I made another friend at Hillsong that I also abandoned during my church drought. I think I bailed on her no less than twice during the space of a month. But when I came crawling back, she welcomed me with open arms.

She invited me to a Halloween party where I met a handful of other people who, despite knowing nothing more than my name and face, treated me like family.

In fact, that’s the way everyone at church treats me — not just Hillsong church, but the church I grew up in in Italy and the one my parents call home in South Carolina. It took a hospitalization and radical love from the people of Hillsong NYC for me to realize that church is where I find the unconditional love, the open arms, the lifelong friends.

Yes, I have other friends that aren’t from church that are incredible people. Most of them supported me and loved me and I literally couldn’t survive without them. But with my church friends, I also share something that is hard to describe. We have something in common that’s at the core of who we are: our faith, our religion, our relationship with Jesus, however you choose to call it. We share a bond that transcends our humanity. I can tell them about struggles I’m going through in an honest way and they can understand deeply when not even my counselor does.

We share a bond that transcends our humanity. … That’s why church is so important.

That’s why church is so important. Not just because worshipping through song with a large group of people is one of the most joyous things in the world; not just because scripture is eye-opening; and not just because there’s something special about going through all of that in the same room as people who share your beliefs; but also because of the after-hours relationships you make.

I don’t know that I would survive New York without the girls in my small group or the people I’ve met volunteering at church. I need them to encourage me and pray for me and get me on a basic level.

The years I spent in undergrad skipping church, I really missed out on all that. And I’d hate to see anyone else miss out on it as well.

Find a church. Even if you’re not a Christian, I promise you, you’ll find people there that will love you in a radical way you’ve never experienced. And it just might change (or save) your life.

Karis is a grad student at NYU in New York City. Her writing has appeared online with Seventeen as well as Good Housekeeping. She blogs at karisrogerson.com.