Fight To Be a Church – some suggestions on how to do it

“Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.” (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2)

A few days ago I wrote that there is a serious disconnect in the way that most Reformed churches live, between the idea of the church as a living body and place of mutual care, and the reality of spread-out people who have difficulty sharing with and encouraging each other honestly as we struggle to be faithful to Christ. I talked about some of the consequences I see flowing from that and also identified what I think is the simple cause of much of our dysfunction: we don’t see each other very much – don’t get a lot of face time.

I want to suggest now some ways around this lack of face time. In a culture where living 20+ minutes’s drive from one another is normal for friends, family, and church members, how do we live? What will we decide to do? Now, I understand that people are busy – often really busy. And pursuing these things takes time; time you might not be willing to give up. But as with so many things (education, exercise, financial planning), investments now pay off dividends later. In fact, not just later but eternally : “Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come,” (1 Timothy 4:8). Here are some things to think about as we pursue being better Christian friends:

Pick up the phone. Did you know that your phone is capable of instant voice messaging? Not just newer models – the old ones too! For some of us talking on the phone with people who don’t live on the other side of the country feels like a throwback to high school. But I encourage you: try it. As you get used to it, you will find it really rewarding. Call people in your church – see how they’re doing! It is practically free and involves no drive time. Try doing this once a week for a month and see how it goes. Here’s the flipside: if someone from church calls you, pick up the phone if at all possible. But not while you’re driving: I don’t want to do your funeral sooner than I have to.

Just don’t allow distance to be a barrier. I won’t put too fine a point on this. If you live somewhere where you have to drive 20 minutes to get groceries, you should be willing to jump in the car and drive 20 minutes to see friends from church, all the time. Otherwise you are in danger of using distance like the rich in some cities use high walls – to keep people (even your fellow Christians) at a distance.

Quantity time is better than quality time. Not every visit with a friend has to be for intentional, well-planned “activities”. We’re friends, not kindergarten students. Time playing a game, mocking a movie on TV, sitting around and doing nothing but chatting together is priceless. A while back, parenting experts talked a lot about “quality time”. Since then, many have done a 180 and now emphasize “quantity time” instead. Both are important, but I think there should be a bias in favor of quantity. If you have lots of time together, good time together tends to happen.

“Fellowship” should be both leisure time and serious time. Kind of goes with the last point. Lots of unplanned time together with friends is good. But some of our time together should be planned and intentional. Giving our attention to the Word and prayer, to singing some psalms and seriously discussing the gospel makes our friendships fundamentally different from those around us. At the center of our relationships as Christians is the cross of Christ – it is common attention to the gospel that makes us a people, not just individuals. So: Bible studies and times of prayer!

Don’t be a New Englander: just drop in. When I was in seminary Esther and I had a good friend (a classmate of mine) who was a single guy from North Florida. He frequently did something that flummoxed both Esther (raised near Boston) and me (from upstate New York): he just showed up at the door. To visit. Without a purpose. He was a great guy, so we didn’t mind, but we were clearly confused by this behavior, till he patiently explained that in the South, this is not unusual. People just show up at each other’s houses, to say hi and visit for a bit.

Clearly, this is not the way people operate in New England. Back in Pawtucket, many people got rid of their sidewalks (they had the choice by city law) and didn’t have working front doorbells – if I know you, you’ll come to the side door, and if I don’t know you, I don’t want you coming here! Add to this a nationwide “play date” culture, where unstructured play time for kids is out and parents are too protective to let the youngsters wander around the neighborhood, in and out of the neighbors’ houses like they used to. What if we had a culture of just dropping in on each other, at least inside the church?  Given the distance we frequently deal with, you might not want to make special trips all the time (“Uh, sorry, it’s not a good time – my grandma just died and the kids all have a stomach flu.” “But we drove 25 minutes to see you!”). But if you’re in the neighborhood, is it crazy to drop in on each other?

Maybe a good path is as follows. First, be ready for people to drop in any ol’ time. Doesn’t mean the house is in perfect shape. Does mean that everyone has clothing on. Second, tell people that they should feel free to drop in any time. They might not be bold enough to just try it, but if you tell them to, they might. Third, be ready to say no when you really can’t visit. People are legitimately afraid of imposing. If half the time they show up, you say you can’t visit, they’ll know that you’re being honest the other half the time, when you say, “Come on in!” Going along with that, make your visits short unless your host insists. So much for “Dropping In 101”.

Go places where you feel uncomfortable. Just what it sounds like. If the South Side or Central Falls makes you uncomfortable, make a point of driving through them sometimes, and take opportunities to meet people or do business there. If Barrington seems like the other side of the moon to you, go get ice cream there. We serve the King of the earth, and we need to be ready to go wherever he calls us, and trust him to guard our lives and souls. Be honest about your “comfort zone” and make it bigger.

Don’t just help, ask for help. This is another tough one for New Englanders. This is a place where independence, achievement, merit are prized – where small towns stand on their own and refuse to admit the existence of bigger cities nearby (“Are you from Providence?” “No! I’m from Johnston.”) And while people here are incredibly loyal and would do anything to help a friend in need, they also dread asking others for help. It feels weak and lowly; it can be humbling! But do you understand that when you ask for help, you are telling the people you ask that they are important to you? That they are needed? The best times together are often the ones where we tackle a problem side by side – whether it’s your problem or mine.

Eat together. Self-explanatory. My church (at least) can cook and I am grateful whenever anyone feeds me and my family. Have people over on Sundays and weekdays. PB&J if necessary – just do it!

Pray for each other by name. Also self-explanatory. Make a little list of people in your church. If you’re in my church, it really is a little list. Pray for one or two households or individuals a day and you’ll cover the whole church in a few weeks. Doesn’t have to be long, but this is part of how we care for each other, and something we promise to do when someone joins the church. Furthermore, the act of praying for someone changes you: first, by bringing someone to mind that you might not otherwise be thinking about; second, by causing you to put a little effort into thinking about what happiness and a good life would look like for them. I’m telling you, you will change for the better.

Bible study should always touch on praise and repentance. I will get into this in another post – it’s that important. But briefly, Bible studies should not be mainly brain-enlarging exercises: the purpose (telos) of knowledge is obedience.

Finally, if all else fails, move. I hesitate to write this, but I have over the years seen a number of people buy a great house far from their churches and regret it. I am not bringing up the debate about what kind of community (city, suburb, countryside) is best to live in. I’m making the simple point that life far away from your church friends is a massive negative factor, whether you know it or not. It would be better to have a long commute but be close to people from church than vice versa. There is a strength and ability to mutually support one another that can’t be replaced by a great house with a great view. Be careful about where you buy, and hold on loosely to your property. Always be asking whether you are in the best place you can be to serve the Lord and love his people. I would add that this sensitivity to location is extra important for pastors. Churches where people seldom see each other are fragile; churches where people have everyday contact are much stronger.

In case you think I’m making all of this up, I’ll close with a quotation from the Form of Presbyterian Church Government, a 17th century document adopted by the Church of Scotland at the same time as the Westminster Confession:

The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings.

First, Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them; which moral tie is perpetual; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.

Secondly, The communion of saints must be so ordered, as may stand with the most convenient use of the ordinances, and discharge of moral duties, without respect of persons.

Thirdly, The pastor and people must so nearly cohabit together, as that they may mutually perform their duties each to other with most conveniency.

Fight To Be a Church

“And you shall seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace. You shall judge righteously, you shall not respect persons in reproving for transgressions.” (The Didache, Chapter 4)

These words from the anonymous 1st century Christian writer urged believers to see each other often, in order to receive encouragement and, when necessary, rebuke.

Why is it that our church relationships so often go only skin-deep? Christian churches can sometimes feel like the world’s weirdest AA gathering: everyone says they have a problem (sin), but no one actually wants to talk about it. Churches are often places where we talk about the reality of sin – a reality so nasty that the Son of God died to save us from it – but never get real about their own struggles with it.

There are reasons for this, of course. Some churches have the opposite problem: places where the over-sharer is king (or queen); where after-worship conversation, Sunday school, and Bible study are all dominated by soul-baring, and confession to the group actually becomes a stand-in for repentance before God. A lot of people find themselves in a church like that, get burned, and look for the door. It’s understandable that later they’re leery of any sharing of their weaknesses.

But there has to be a third way. The New Testament assumes it. “Confess your sins to one another,” James wrote. The Catholic church took this from the public penance of the early years of the church (closer in spirit to what we think of as church discipline) to the confessional booth of today. There is something right and powerful about sharing our struggles with sin with other believers. And this is just part of what we seem to be missing today. We are not “real” with one another, in an era when online relationships often replace real ones. We do little to encourage one another specifically, let alone speak honestly about matters of sin and weakness.

Now, there are lots of exceptions to this. Lots of people who call or visit the struggling. Further, there are churches where there is “community” that actually becomes toxic – a breeding ground of gossip and dissension. But those considerations don’t change the fact: there is a gap between the teaching of Scripture that the church is a living body, with all its parts working in harmony, and the actual practice of many (if not most) Reformed Christian churches right now.

The missing link between the doctrine we believe and the doctrine we practice is sometimes pretty simple: face time. We don’t see each other enough. As American Christians we mostly live pretty far from each other, and the simple fact is this: when seeing your friends take effort, you see them less. In my part of the USA, driving is effort. Traffic is bad, roads are narrow, distances are exaggerated. Even my stupid driveway is hard to get in and out of.

What’s the cost of seeing our church friends less? Here are a couple:

  1. Without lots of face time, “other” becomes “alien”. We live in different kinds of neighborhoods. Nothing at all wrong with that. But when we basically only see each other at church, the lives of people in other neighborhoods becomes less and less real to us. The idea of spending time there becomes scarier. This is true even for people who have in the past lived in neighborhoods very different from where they are now. And it is true for lower income people as well as higher income people. If you live in an inner city neighborhood, a wealthy suburb can feel like the other side of the moon. This feeling of difference makes us less flexible, less ready to go where our friends live, and less able to love their neighbors (who are, in fact, all of our neighbors). What sociologists call “sorting” (the tendency of people with similar class, income level, race, and political outlook to cluster in various communities) has a spiritual impact.
  2. Without lots of face time, we undermine the genuine diversity of Christ’s body. Okay, I know that’s a weird thing to say. But here’s the deal: the amazing diversity of the church is a good thing only because God has brought it into an even more amazing unity. Animals in zoos have diversity, but not unity. The remarkable thing about the body of Christ is that God has taken people from all backgrounds and all  races and languages and made them into one new people, one new tribe, one new nation. (Perhaps the greatest problem with the denominational system is that it tells lies about the unity of Christ’s church.) Worship is the moment where we perennially renew that relationship with one another, as well as with Christ. But if we don’t see each other much outside of worship, aren’t we guilty of formalism – trying to impress God and others with our worship, but lacking any real spirit behind it? Dinner together is important for family life. But what would you say about a family that silently ate a formal meal together once a week, and then didn’t see each other at all away from the table? If they love each other, they hide it well.
  3. Without lots of face time, the church becomes far less compelling. The friendliness on Sunday mornings, the good mercy work, decent preaching, and general non-weirdness take us a long way. But if, after weeks or months attending, people discover that our relationships don’t go deeper than that, they may lose interest. They discover that we are driven largely by the same things everyone else is: professional advancement, our children’s success, leisure activities and hobbies. In business terms, our culture is our strategy. If our culture is one of undemanding acquaintance, rather than strong friendship, we lose people who (rightly) want real friendship – and gain people who mostly just want a place to worship and learn. Which brings me to the next point:
  4. Without lots of face time, the world becomes more real than the gospel. In the biblical concept, “the world” means the range of sinful choices available to us. It varies from place to place and from age to age, but it still boils down to “the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride in possessions”. It becomes harder and harder to see critically the values of people at our workplaces and in our neighborhoods and extended families – to examine them against the values taught by Jesus Christ. If we are talking about work and neighborhood and family pressures with fellow Christians, they will see things we don’t; alarm bells will go off for them that we might not be aware of. All of us need other people to see what we’re not seeing. That is a massive part of being the church. “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct [counsel] one another.” (Romans 15:14). 
  5. And this is big: Without lots of face time, rebuke becomes confrontation. If I see people multiple times a week, at church and at my house and riding together places and at the coffee shop, I am talking with them all the time. That creates comfort, and it builds “personal capital”. So when they see the need to call me to account for something, it is not necessarily painful – for them or for me. I can take it; it’s just a small part of time together that includes fun, small talk, encouragement, and silence. But if I see someone once a week or less, rebuke becomes a big deal. A very local pattern of life is assumed everywhere the Bible talks about the church (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20!). Lots of face time is essential if we are to help each other flee from sin. The alternative is that weird AA meeting where we all acknowledge being sinners but no one owns up to any sin.

The Bible talks all the time about the vital importance of our life as a body of believers. But we don’t live as if that is true. This is a particular problem, I would add, for professional men, who often work at a distance from home and who face pressure to spend very long hours producing. But this is not insurmountable. In a few days I’ll talk about some of the ways we can fight back against the alienating, fragmenting forces we all deal with.