One of my responsibilities in the first congregation I served after graduating from seminary was the oversight of a fellowship group of single young adults. Since I was a single young adult at the time it was a reasonable assumption that I would be a good fit for this job. The work of managing church programs in general was sort of a new beast to me and so I began to talk to members of the group about what they wanted from the group and why they would choose to be a part of it. Perhaps the most memorable conversation was with a man in the group who responded to my inquiry with: “The best kind of church singles group is the one you don’t have show up to.”
I wasn’t really sure what he meant by this remark. His frankness stunned me. It seemed flippant and off putting. But before I could ask a follow-up question, he began to explain what he meant. He said, “The best kind of church fellowship group is the one I can decide to go to or not go to at the last minute. That way I can keep my options open. It needs to be there and have a critical mass that keeps it going whether I am there or not. It needs to be there when I can or want to go, but I really don’t want the obligation of having to be a part of keeping it going.”
It was honest. Selfish and narrow perhaps, but nevertheless honest. And I appreciated the honesty. I appreciate it even more now as I think back on this conversation 35 years after it took place. Once I get past the off-putting selfishness of this remark, I hear in it something that I think is true for most of us when it comes to how we want to think about and participate in the life of the church. Bottom line is that we don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about how to keep the church going, we simply want it to be there for us. We know we need it and we want to be sure that someone will be there when we show up. When we feel that need to remind ourselves about what is important in life, when we want to re-root ourselves in the fertile soil of God’s love, when we know we need to pray about something and would appreciate the opportunity to ask others to pray with us, we appreciate the fact that the church is there and ready to meet these needs.
I guess another way to say all of this is that none of us really need “the church.” We need what happens there. We need to sit shoulder to shoulder with someone who is joining with us in the praise of God and who is willing to accept the job of helping to us to bear burdens that seem too big to bear alone.
The church is important to us as followers of Jesus in the same way a house is important to a family. A house is not what defines a family, nor is it the focus of a family’s concern. A house holds a family, gives it a place to be. It is the context of a family’s life together and is necessary only in so far as it provides a space for the work of being a family to take place. What makes a house a home is the family that dwells inside of it. The point is the family, not the house, and the house needs to be attended to only in so far as it is an instrument in the work of insuring the family’s health.
At the end of Hebrews 10:19-25, which is one of my favorite descriptions of the church, the writer admonishes us to “not neglect to meet together as is the habit of some.” In essence, he invites us to show up and be the church, the family of God, to one another. The work of a disciple of Jesus is not so much to support the church as it is to be the church. The goal is not to commit ourselves to keeping the church going or attending to its needs, but to give to and draw from one another what we need to sustain the journey of faith.
Like the young man I mentioned at the beginning, all of us want the church to be there whether we are there or not. We don’t want to have to think about it much, and that’s probably a good thing because it is not an end in itself. The church is not the point. The church points to the Point. The best thing about the church is that it is there and ready to contain the generative and nurturing work of forming and launching a family. But we do need to show up if we are to take advantage of and contribute to this work. That is, after all, the only way we can be certain that the church will be there when we feel the need of it.
Dave Rohrer, January 1, 2018