It seems I have been reading a lot recently–and not even because of any intention on my part–about the Church. Some of what I have read is good, some of it not so good. All of it has served to generate at least five blog posts-worth of thoughts, ideas and comments in my head. I have scribbled myself a 24-word note outlining what I hope to address in those five posts, so hopefully I will be able to stick with it and crank out all five by the end of next week at the latest.
This first one will on the topic of belonging to a church. Everyone who has accepted Christ belongs to the Church–the universal body of Christ. But what is it about belonging to a local body of believers? Why does that matter–or does it matter?
On January 29, christianitytoday.com posted an interview between Laura Turner and Erin Lane. Lane is a divinity school graduate, pastor’s wife and a program director at the Center for Courage & Renewal. She is also the author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (IVP, 2014).
When asked why the concept of belonging is so important to the church, Lane said, “We have so many options for connecting with one another and all this pressure to make the most of them. But it’s often the case that the institutions that used to broker these connections—institutions like the church—are losing their influence.” While the church struggles sometimes in handling it, Lane says that one of the major premises of her book (which I have not read), is that “we need to recover some basic practices that remind us of our interdependence.”
That is a crucial point right there–that we are interdependent. That certainly is not what our culture likes to portray, and the idea of needing each other–of needing anyone–is not an overly popular idea. The reality, though, is that God created us for relationships. (Even a relative introvert like myself, who can be perfectly content spending a day alone or driving a thousand miles with someone else in the car without saying a word needs other people!) Try as some of us might, there is simply no denying that need. We may be able to exist without other people, and we may even do it happily for a while, but the long run we would not thrive.
Commenting on this search for belonging, Lane says, “There’s a huge desire to experience belonging in an embodied way. We search for shared interests, like exercise groups—Crossfit, yoga, and Pure Barre. A great deal of belonging is created over food culture and being connoisseurs of things like coffee or beer—for me, it’s cupcakes.” There is nothing wrong with any of that, of course. Lane continues, though: “I worry, though, about whether we’re doing enough to interact with people who don’t inhabit our particular lifestyle enclaves. I don’t see many examples of rich involvement in public spaces that are open to strangers and friends alike. … I think we’re losing some of those rich public spaces where anyone can show up, regardless of fitness or food preferences or economic status and ability to work.” This is what, in Lane’s opinion, makes the church unique. People from all walks of life, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, with diverse hobbies and interests, can come together at church because of their love for God, His Truth and His Church. Nancy Ortberg, in her book Looking for God, describes sitting between two individuals in a church service whose paths would otherwise never cross. One was a high powered attorney and the other a lowly grocery store bagger. If their paths did cross it would have been brief and inconsequential. At church, however, they were on the same playing field; the ground, after all, is level at the foot of the cross.
Lane explains that there are very little things that can be done to encourage and promote a sense of belonging–even as simple as wearing name tags. At a relatively small church where most people know each other than may not be necessary, but it does provide some leveling and it does invite personal interaction. I can remember watching sermons by Michael Youssef at Church of the Apostles in Atlanta and seeing everyone in the (large) congregation wearing name tags. That actually never appealed to me, but that may be because (1) I don’t really like sticking things on my clothes anyway, and (2) sometimes I kinda like being anonymous. As Lane says, though, “There’s something powerful about hearing your name and seeing other people’s names….” I have to agree. I actually make a point to use people’s names often, whether simply saying hello in the hallway or when sending an e-mail. I don’t always do it, but I think I do more often than not. I notice when someone uses my name–and when they don’t. In fact, I remember once being asked, about a church I began attending when I moved to a new town, “what did you like about our church?” I do not know if I had really thought about it before I was asked, but the greeter at the door introduced himself on that first visit and also asked my name. When I went back the next week, he remembered my name–and used it. That struck me.
Lane offers other insights about the importance of church and belonging, including the need to let people be themselves, let people speak freely and a lack of earnestness. Her insights are good. I want to read her book. The bottom line, though, is that we need each other. When we are together with other believers at church we are encouraged. We are challenged. We are sharpened. We may even be convicted. The Bible tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. In other words, we are supposed to go to church! Not because it’s a rule, and not because we will get any bonus points or extra rewards, but because we need each other.
I do not remember where I read or heard this illustration, but it has stuck with me and may be one of the best illustrations of the importance of belonging: charcoal. Yes, charcoal. As in the squarish-looking hunks of black stuff that we bar-b-que enthusiasts squirt with lighter fluid and then set aflame. When they are together, pieces of charcoal generate considerable heat–enough to cook hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, fish, whatever. (They look pretty too, with their orange-y glow). Next time you’re around a pile of burning charcoal, though, see what happens if you remove one piece and set it off somewhere by itself. Actually, I suspect you know exactly what will happen. That’s what is likely to happen to us, too, if we stay away from church.