They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.Acts 2:42 NASB 2020
Have you ever heard someone complain about a church saying, “That church is nothing but a social club!” It’s meant to be a derogatory comment, of course. It seems to me that there are more armchair quarterbacks in church than there are watching the game on Sunday after the service is over! It’s always easy to see what the quarterback should have done from the safety of the cheap seats. The same is true with a lot of the criticism aimed at the church.
The older I get, the more I see how wrong-headed we’ve been about so many things regarding the Church and the Kingdom of God. If the worst thing anyone ever says about any church I pastor is that we were a social club, I’ll be ecstatic! What is that criticism meant to imply anyway? That the church down the street is too sociable? Is that a bad thing? I know that the criticism is meant to imply that rather than getting down to the business of the Kingdom: preaching the Word, evangelizing the lost, and making disciples, there’s just a lot of socializing going on. However, I would contend that “socializing” is exactly how we can better integrate the Word of God into our lives, make disciples, and even evangelize. The more sociable we are and the more opportunities we allow for genuine connection, the greater impact we’ll have on people’s lives. The world we live in today is hungry for authentic connection and relationship – more so now than ever before, and a church that does not know how to address this need will be at a serious disadvantage.
We can be very intense sometimes. Our intentions may be sincere, but they are also often misguided. After all, which is more inviting, having a comfortable stimulating conversation over a cup of coffee with someone who seems to be genuinely interested in you, or having someone you don’t know preach at you in a church which you’ve never attended before? If you’re an outsider – and the people we’re trying to reach with the gospel are just that – then the answer to that question should be a no-brainer. As one of my favorite communicators has said, “Before church is a place people go, it’s a person that they meet.” So, chances are, if they find us warm, welcoming, stimulating, and (perhaps most importantly these days) normal, there is a good chance they’ll want to come to our church and meet more people like us. However, if we’re extremely intense and confrontational in our approach, we’ll likely push people away and reaffirm their conviction that they want nothing to do with those “church” people. We have to earn the right to speak into people’s lives. How do we do that? It’s not hard. We just have to get to know them, build trust, and demonstrate genuine interest in their lives. What better environment in which to do that than a social one?
I grew up in a church that had fellowships, potlucks, and we invited people over to the house after service. We had meals together, went fishing together, and did life together. That’s church! It’s a family – not a seminar or conference. There is a place for those things, but hopefully even then we allow for times of fellowship and personal interaction. If Jesus was anything, He was personal and accessible – not distant and aloof like so many of the religious leaders of His day. If you want to be like Jesus, maybe a good question to ask yourself is, “How accessible and relatable am I?” For my part, I want a church full of people that are warm, welcoming, hospitable, and social!
When I pastored my first church, we had our Thursday night prayer meetings in people’s homes. We did this out of necessity, because we rented a facility for our Sunday services and didn’t want the extra expense of renting it for a prayer service when there were plenty of church members willing to take turns opening up their homes each week. We asked them to provide coffee and tea and maybe some cookies or other snack foods to facilitate a hospitable atmosphere. I know that cookies are not necessary for prayer, and there are times when food can be a distraction from the business at hand, but in this case, it showed me something that I’m better able to appreciate now than I was then. Often times, it took a while to get everyone ready for prayer because the conversations had begun the moment everyone arrived. After prayer, we had the coffee and fellowship, which everyone clearly enjoyed. These prayer meetings were always very well attended. That is, until we got a facility that enabled us to move them to the church building. After that, the attendance dropped off, and it wasn’t because we weren’t serving cookies. It was because the fellowship component was replaced by a more sterile environment which was frankly inferior to the warmer, more hospitable environment of the home. You can call it a lack of commitment to the business of payer if you want, but regardless of what you call it, we didn’t have as many people coming out for prayer. I know some pastors might take the approach of reproving the congregation for their lack of commitment, but I think a smarter, more people-friendly solution would be to just move the meetings back into the homes where the environment was more conducive to fellowship and connection. In short, we need to quit treating people’s need for social connection as a detriment and recognize it as a legitimate human need that the Church is called upon to meet. The early church did not neglect this need, and neither should we. They broke bread from house to house (an indication of fellowship), and functioned as a community in every sense of the word (see also Acts 2:46).
When I pastored in Vermont, our services would often run close to two hours. We had a time of fellowship after each morning service. Again, coffee and cookies (or some kind of refreshment) was offered. Even after a long service, people for the most part did not run off to their lunch appointments. Many stayed for as long as an hour and talked about their week, their work, the happenings of the world, or about whatever else might come up in their conversations. It was valuable fellowship time that caused our church family to become close and connected by bonds of friendship that their time in the actual service did not provide in the same way. This is not to say that times of fellowship replace our time in corporate worship and the Word of God. What it does mean is that both of these components play a vital role in a well-balanced walk with God. In fact, both are indispensable. I’ve known people that were very “spiritual” but so backward socially they were completely unable to connect with others in any meaningful way. That is a liability we can ill afford in this time when authentic connection is what so many are craving. If anyone should be able to provide that, it should be those of us in the church whom God has called to be in the “people business.”
After a time in the traveling ministry, one of my friends went back to a church in which he had once served to help them again. They had gone through some difficult times and attendance was down. Not only that, but it was clear that the morale of the church was also suffering. My friend realized that they did not need another prayer meeting. Instead, he organized a men’s fellowship. Men began to meet, experience community, and reconnect. Before long, it was one of the most popular regular events in the church. It served to revitalize the church and was an enormous success. My friend made a comment to me that I think, while seeming self-evident on the surface, is very profound and too often overlooked. He said to me, “Randy, in our circles, we’re always wanting to minister to people’s spirits, but we’re more than a spirit. We also have a soul, which includes our mind and emotions, which need to be ministered to as well.” One of the principal ways to do that is through fellowship. Never underestimate the value of good food, good fellowship, and good fun in a sanctified environment where the conversation is both stimulating and edifying!
You may remember the story of Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He challenged the false prophets to a showdown. They would both prepare a sacrifice, call upon their respective god or God, and let the one who answered by fire to consume the sacrifice be declared the winner. The prophets of Baal went first and took all day, calling on their god to no avail. As I’m sure you remember, Elijah prayed a brief prayer to the God of Israel and the fire fell and consumed the sacrifice he had prepared. He even added a layer of difficulty by pouring water all over the sacrifice. After that mighty display of God’s power, Elijah had the prophets of Baal and the prophets of the groves rounded up and to death, effectively knocking out the entire Psychic Network in a single moment! However, even after such a great victory, the prophet went through a time of great despondency afterward when Jezebel put a price on his head. He ran for his very life, finally falling exhausted beneath a broom tree in the middle of the wilderness (see 1 Kings 19).
His depression was so great, he even prayed that he might die. This great man of faith, who single-handedly helped to bring the nation back to God through an unprecedented display of divine power, is throwing a pity party in the wilderness! I think we can probably identify with that part of the story. We’ve all become despondent at times when our experience did not match our expectations – even though we did everything that was asked of us. What is interesting to me is how God ministered to him in that moment. We see it in the following verses.
Then he lay down and fell asleep under a broom tree; but behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, “Arise, eat!” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a round loaf of bread baked on hot coals, and a pitcher of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. But the angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him, and said, “Arise, eat; because the journey is too long for you.” So he arose and ate and drank, and he journeyed in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. (1 Kings 19:5-8 NASB 2020)
The angel of the Lord is often a reference to a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus; something known as a Christophany. So, the Lord essentially came and said, “Elijah, you need a meal and a nap!” Really spiritual stuff, I know, but it’s what the man of God needed. This should serve as a lesson to all of us that often times what is needed is not another Bible lesson or prayer meeting. Sometimes, what is most needed is a little food and fellowship or some other natural need met in kindness and compassion.
My greatest memories of my church growing up have much more to do with relationships and fellowship than with sermons. Again, that’s not to minimize the importance of God’s Word, but my greatest times of growth in the Word came through my connections with likeminded, passionate saints who loved to talk about the things of God. Those conversations were indispensable to my growth and maturity. In addition to providing me with valuable knowledge, they also supplied the sense of belonging which my soul needed as much as anything else.
One of my favorite verses says, “God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy. (Psalm 68:6a NLT). The lonely need a home. The disenfranchised need a sense of belonging. Everyone needs a family. That is what the local church is to be. Jesus said the world would know that we were His disciples by the love we demonstrated to each other (see John 13:34-35). It seems unlikely that we’ll be effective in demonstrating that love if we seldom spend time with one another. So, the question we need to ask ourselves is, “Do we have time for people?” Are they a priority for us? Do we seek to make the lonely welcome? It is very likely that in our current cultural moment, the strongest witness we might be able to provide for Christ is a welcome mat, a warm plate of food, and good conversation what engages the stranger. Similarly, the thing you may need the most in your moment of test is a listening ear and friendly voice that will express words of understanding and empathy.
I am a Bible teacher and a minister of over thirty-five years of experience, so I am not taking anything away from our times of corporate worship. My point is that we’ve been doing that at the expense of the other. We are conference rich but connection poor, abounding in seminars but desperately lonely. We need a social club. We need a little more fellowship to balance us out and humanize us once again. For some, this means becoming more vulnerable and opening ourselves up again. This can be much more frightening than attending a megachurch in which we can get lost and keep people at a distance, which, by the way, will do nothing for true spiritual growth. A healthy believer is a connected believer, and a welcoming, warm, and hospitable church is more valuable than one whose sterile attention to doctrine leaves the seeker in the cold. We need Jesus wrapped in skin: touching, caring, and, yes, even feeding the lonely. The demand is there, but the supply is still deficient. For my part, I think the producers of the television show, Cheers, had it right. We all want a place where everybody knows your name.