The current spot I’m in in my Christian walk is not an easy one. Granted, I am the “professional outsider,” the guy who doesn’t fit in, a person who openly questions the system(s) of operation in the American church. And to a greater or lesser extend, I’ve always been this way. So on one level, I’m kind of used to being on the outside of the usual happenings.
Yet on another level, I’m not really comfy with it at all. I accept that it seems to be where God has called me for the moment; I’m not arguing with Him over it. But I recognize God’s will as stated in Hebrews 10:25 to “not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” isn’t just for others’ benefit but also our own. I do my best to pursue that “assembling” outside of the usual institutionalized Sunday service, but it’s a lot of work, and I’m not running into a lot of folks (in Stockton, at least) to assemble with. So, to be candid, I’ve been feeling a bit lonely.
Now, some of you are undoubtedly saying, “well, there’s an easy solution! Get back in church, son!” (The people who offer this advice tend to use “church” to refer specifically to the Sunday meetings I’m not currently a part of, rather than to the body of Christ which I’ve never left.) “You’re out of fellowship — no wonder you’re lonely! Get yourself back in that pew and your problem is solved!” (They also tend to use a lot of exclamation points.)
It seems like sound advice, except for one thing. The fellowship I’m supposedly “out of” by not being in a Sunday service is rarely found in a Sunday service.
First of all, what is “fellowship”? Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (the final arbiter of definitions at Chez Anselmo) defines it as, among other things:
- COMPANIONSHIP, COMPANY.
- community of interest, activity, feeling or experience.
- a company of equals or friends.
- the quality or state of being comradely.
At the heart of all those definitions is the idea of friendship, of relating to one another, of “sharing life” as Christians called it back in the ’90s (and maybe still do). Definitely it brings forth a mental picture of people spending time together, talking and listening, revealing hurts and giving encouragement. It calls to mind Paul’s admonition to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). It calls to mind the concept behind Christ calling us “His body” (body, singular, not bodies, plural) and His prayer in John 17 that “they would be one, even as I and the Father are one.” It’s about relationship, in short.
The reality of the Sunday service in a typical American church congregation — and remember, I’ve visited sixteen different congregations since 2009 began, and at least that many in the years prior — has nothing to do with the definitions above. I am not exaggerating for effect; when I say nothing, I mean NOTHING.
Walk it through. You arrive at the building, and you’re greeted by someone who says hi (maybe), shakes your hand (possibly), hands you a bulletin (likely), and then turns away to the next person, even if there is no “next person” behind you (almost always). You go into the main meeting room, sit down in a seat, and almost everyone ignores you — not just the people who don’t know you, either. Most of those who don’t ignore you give you only a few seconds of their time — hi-how-are-you-handshake-walk-away — what I have referred to in the past as “church-friendly.” Then the music starts, usually so loud that you can’t interact with anyone around you (and it’s considered rude if you try to anyway). This is followed by announcements of congregational events, more music, and then a long speech by the pastor, none of which allow for any relationship more in-depth than staring at the back of someone’s head. Some congregations will squeeze in a few minutes’ “greeting time,” but from what I have seen, this tends to be spent entirely with “church-friendly,” depthless interaction. And then at the end of the service, almost everyone flees (who can blame them?) or is busy putting things away or cleaning things up, giving no time to relate even once all the “business” is done.
So where is the fellowship? Where is the companionship, the sense of community, the shared interest, the company of friends, the state of being comradely? Answer: not there. During my Congregational Journey earlier this year, most of my experiences were what I described in the previous paragraph. Often in the cases where I visited a place a second time, after making an effort to get to know some people, I was still greeted with “church-friendliness” or ignored completely. In one case, I got to have conversations with several people before the start of the service … but when the “greeting time” came in mid-service, they treated me as if we’d never met! And when I left that morning, not one person seemed to notice.
I could have been depressed, angry or suicidal, and no one would have recognized it. (In fact, a couple of times, I was depressed, and no one recognized it.) I could’ve been struggling with an addiction or a crisis in my life and in need of assistance, and nobody showed any concern. I could have been an unsaved person, a lost soul that Jesus died to redeem, desperately seeking a God who loves me and cares for me — but I wouldn’t have found that love or compassion in any of those people supposedly serving Him. They were too busy doing … well, something other than caring about that stranger in their midst. And so a stranger he remained. Because most of the time, there was little opportunity to begin a relationship with him, and what time there was to do so was squandered.
This is an eminently fixable problem, if people were willing to take the time to fix it. But the first step to fixing it is the hardest: you have to actually care about other people. If you don’t, no program in the world will make up for that. If you do, it’ll be easy to follow through, and there are numerous ways of doing it. But you have to give a darn.
You may be saying, “But Ray, how dare you say I don’t care about people?!?” Well, maybe you do — but if you do, you’re the exception. Most congregations, according to polls done by Barna and other organizations, consider themselves to be friendly … but that doesn’t mean it’s so. If someone comes into your midst, and you ignore them for whatever reason, or give them only a quick hello and a handshake, you clearly don’t care about them. If you never ask the person sitting next to you in that Sunday meeting how they’re doing, and listen to their answer (verbal and otherwise), you clearly don’t care about them. If someone is in a real pickle in their life and you aren’t offering them assistance, or (if you have no assistance to offer them) talking to God on their behalf, you clearly don’t care about them. No matter what your words say, your actions speak louder.
And you know what? If those people aren’t doing the same for you, guess what? They clearly don’t care about you, either.
You know, I am not the most sociable guy in the world. I’m socially inept, and it’s taken me decades of effort just to work my way up to “inept” from “disastrous.” It’s very difficult for me to be comfortable around people I don’t know well. But I can do this! It doesn’t take any skill, any particular personality type, anything except making the choice to love someone else. I can do it, you can do it, anybody can. But will we? Will we take the time and make the effort to get to know the people who are around us every Sunday? (Not to mention the other six days of the week — the folks outside that building with the cross on it are also people that Jesus loves and died for.) And when someone else makes the effort, will we allow them to get to know us?
It’s going to be hard for a lot of us. I’ve already admitted that it’s hard for me. But it is absolutely necessary if we are to really be Christ’s representatives on earth. After all, Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). But in more cases than not, we aren’t showing that love to our fellow believers. We’re keeping each other at a distance. And so the world doesn’t know that we belong to Him — because we don’t act like it.
So there’s no point in going to a meeting every Sunday, when I’m going to be just as lonely there as I will if I just stay home. I’m no more “out of fellowship” than the people who are spending their whole Sunday mornings at First Whatever Assembly Tabernacle are.
(More on this tomorrow …)