I grew up in California, but I attended college in Pennsylvania. I’ve always been an independent person, but this was a whole new level of separation. I was three thousand miles away. I was in a different time zone. The act of “going home” was incredibly complicated, including rides to airports, long and expensive flights, and jet lag. The saving grace was that flying home meant In-n-Out Burger. But this is not about my love of food (That story would never get approved anyway....).

We had a few short breaks over the school year, usually never more than four or five days. They were all too short to justify flying back to California, so I ended up spending breaks with my friends and their families. Thanksgiving ended up being one of those short breaks. Except with added weirdness because I couldn’t just invite myself over to people’s houses for Thanksgiving. That’s an intimate, family- centric holiday. But every year, a friend would extend an invite to what is arguably the best meal of the year (sorry to bring up food again). There was no real reason to welcome me into their family, I was just a “friend from college” with nowhere to go.

I was always a little embarrassed to be at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving. I was incredibly thankful for their generosity and hospitality, but it felt like I was intruding on traditions and comfort. Of course, that was not the case. My friends would generously invite me, knowing that they were helping me out. They would spend the car ride raving about the incredible home-cooked meal waiting for us. They would introduce me to their siblings and parents, who in turn introduced me to the hallways with embarrassing childhood photos. We’d drive around town, and they’d point out their old high school or another landmark of their lives. My friends would glow with pride as they showed off the different parts of their lives.

Everyone welcomed me without hesitation, and many even invited me to come back the following year. By my junior year of college, I had too many invitations at every break. There is no room to be timid when you have multiple families asking you to come over for Thanksgiving.

Invitation is a funny thing. Being invited to join something, like a family dinner, makes you feel important and loved, and I think we all know that. But it’s not just about being invited. Invitation is for the “inviter” as well. When we invite people into our families, our churches, or really anything, we begin to value that thing more.

At the heart of the Odenton campus is invitation. It’s what has grounded their culture and sustained them through two years of change and uncertainty. And while the “look” of church has changed a few times for the Odenton family, “method” of church has been the same.

When Odenton first launched, attendance grew steadily because families invited families to the gatherings. People were plugged into First and Next Step, and began serving at gatherings and joining missional communities. Students invited their friends to BASM.

When COVID stopped the world and Arundel High School was shut down, they gathered in whatever form they could think of while following county guidelines. Jason invited people to prayer and worship gatherings in his backyard so they could gather outdoors in groups of ten or less. Bryan Patrick started a Virtual Connect Group and invited people who were new and wanted to get connected in community.

Currently, Odenton meets on Sunday evenings at a different school, with a different set up. And despite yet another change to the “look” of church for Odenton, families continue to invite other families to gatherings. Growth measured in numbers has been slow, but growth measured by connection has been tremendous. And that’s because the Odenton family knows that there’s something more important and valuable than what church looks like. They haven’t spent the last two years inviting their neighbors to simply watch a giant screen or join another Zoom call. They were inviting people to gather together in worship and community so that we could grow in our relationships with Jesus.

I see in the Odenton family the same thing I saw in my friends in college. The more they invited neighbors and friends to come attend a gathering, the deeper they valued their Odenton family. And that kept them afloat through the unexpected and seemingly constant changes in form and size.

In early Spring last year, Jason and his team were searching for a temporary location to meet on Sunday morning on Easter Day. As the date approached and they couldn’t decide between two spaces, one person told Jason, “We don’t care when or where we meet, we will be there!”

Another morning, way back in the Fall of 2019, Jason walked over to the volunteer dropping off the trailer at Arundel High School at 5 a.m. Jason thanked the guy for getting up so early and driving over, and the volunteer lovingly responded, “I’m not doing this for you!”

Even from the very start of Odenton, the team of staff and volunteers had a clear mission. It wasn’t about “putting on” church. It wasn’t about regular check-ins during COVID. The mission was always to grow deeper in relationship with Jesus by gathering together and serving the communities and families of Odenton by inviting them in.