“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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).
- 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.