A: Not if that's your only goal.
I want to post a bit more on the topic of community in church just to get my thoughts written down. The first thing I want to take on is the word "fellowship". In my last post I talked about not really understanding what that word really means. Actually, I was wrong. I think "fellowship" is one of the many (hundreds?) of code words that Christians use, and for most people the model that is exhibited by the church they attend is fellowship. It is what is meant by that word when they say it. When I asked if community in church was simply "Pot luck dinners and voters meetings? Charity drives and once-a-week gatherings?", the answer for most people is "Yes" and even more that is what they want it to be. Because unlike family or friends, you can close your life off to your "fellows" and simply treat them as a lightweight social club, interacting when you wish and ignoring them otherwise - they have nothing to do with your "real life", nor you theirs. The wonderful, transforming, communal excitement of the early church has warped into this bland mingling of bland people talking about bland things - a fraternal association without the benefit of drinking to help you like each other more.
A symptom that a church may have "scaled" beyond any simple sense of community is when it tries to build community through artificial programs aimed solely at that. For example, in our church we have "groups of eight". These are groups of four couples who then have dinner together once a month for a given period of time (four or five months - enough for a rotation through all the households) and then every six months or a year the groups re-form with new sets or permutation of couples. The idea is by these small groups sharing a monthly meal together outside of church that they would get to know each other more as people. This would be a great idea if it were organic - if four couples (or three, or two) met in church, liked each other, and chose to do it. But as an official, sanctioned program with a sponsoring board and notices in the bulletin it feels very much of the "now everybody get together and play nice" variety of forced interaction.
These kinds of programs smack of the corporate "team building" exercises many of you may have had to sit through. How effective are those, do you think? I can't think of a single one in my entire career where I walked out of it now friends with someone I wasn't when I went in. Because here's the deal - you go into the event, do the silly group exercises, laugh and have a good time, and then walk back out into the "real world" and that other guy is still a jerk on the job (or I am still the jerk - quite possible!). Perhaps these types of activities do work for some. I have a suspicion they work for extroverts, who, one will note, are exactly the people who don't need such things. But they don't work for me. In business I am just too jaded, cynical and observant to allow myself to think that an hour or two of some sort of "exercise" trumps the remaining 2,000 hours of a work year spent together and all that happens there. Now think about church, where most of us who are not paid church staff don't come close to spending 40 hours a week there. It is going to be doubly hard to build community then because not only is it being artificially constructed but the time allocated is much too small.
So, can there be community in church? Absolutely. But I don't think it comes from any attempt to build community. It comes from actually working on something together over a period of time, and it happens only to those people who are doing the work. In my prior post I talked about lifelong church members (of a specific congregation) vs. those who come into a church as an adult. The lifelong members have a true advantage simply because they've had that much more time. Time to grow up going to VBS or summer camps and mission trips together. Time to serve on boards together. Time to do charity work together. Time, time, time. Not programs. You can't just turn on the "Fellowship Faucet" and expect friendship and love to pour out. And even with all that time the "lifers" aren't going to be engaged with every single other person in the church. So how does a newcomer stand a chance?
Is there no place for programs? I think there still may be, but mostly aimed at making sure those invisible, unsexy members of the church, like shut-ins, are still visited and made to feel part of the community. And note - it isn't "community" that should be the focus then - it is the person. If your goal starting out is community you won't get it. If your goal is knowing, befriending and ultimately loving others, you may achieve some success there, but I don't see how it can ever be a real fellowship between all members, at least not in a medium-to-large church. If you want to experience that small churches are where it's at. Or maybe not. It comes down to it being plain hard to not just love each other as we are commanded, but to actually like each other, too. And that's especially hard at church where we don't expose our real selves anyway.
That's it for now. I am still rambling here, trying to process some of what I have been seeing and experiencing over the past few years. Comments welcome.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
A: Not if that's your only goal.