It was good to be back at Shelby Crossings last Sunday, even if I wasn’t quite ready for prime time to preach just yet. (I will do that this week, Lord willing.) I did enjoy the worship and message, especially with limited responsibility, but I would have to say what blessed me the most was just being with my church family, and hearing all the kind expressions of love and encouragement.
I couldn’t help but think of an analogy I have often used, about how some people see “church” and how it affects what they do when they do attend. It has been my observation that many people view church as something you “go to,” at a certain time and place. Now I understand that it is helpful that our church gathers at a predictable place (532 George Roy Parkway) and time (9:00 and 10:30 each Sunday) but we have to resist the idea of thinking that the place and time equals the church. We don’t go to church, we are the church–all week long, wherever we are.
Likewise, how we view what we do when we do congregate together is crucial to how we do it. Some people see church as a performance on the stage that one observes from the crowd. As such, they consider themselves as merely members of an audience instead of part of a church body. Accordingly, when the service ends, you would reasonably expect them to quickly gather their belongings and head to their cars to go home. There is really no attachment to their fellow audience members.
This would be similar to how many of us would view going to a movie theater. There is a particular “show” that we have paid to see, and we watch it for our entertainment value. We really have no interest in interacting with the people around us; we are here to see a flick, and maybe eat a little popcorn along the way. Those of us who are especially extroverted might consider making a brief comment about the movie to someone coming out of the same theater on the way to the car, but that is still pretty unlikely. We aren’t there for the people; we are there for the show.
You could also use a concert or sporting event in that analogy. Those in attendance see themselves mostly as spectators (or fans), though the environment of a game where you are surrounded by fellow fans of the same team does allow for some social interaction. I specifically remember being so caught up in a moment at a UAB football game last season that I found myself high-fiving several people I did not know after an unlikely blocked field goal on the last play of the game preserved a Blazer homecoming win.
Still, for the most part, whether it is a movie, a concert, or a football game, we understand that we really don’t have that much of a connection with the people who share the role of audience member with us. But that is not how church was ever intended to be in the first place, and should never be now.
The environment of authentic church life as defined by Scripture is that of an extended family, not of an audience. In fact, there is no such thing as an “audience” in church. We are never mere spectators, we are always participants, and we are there as much for the horizontal interaction with our fellow “called out ones” –which is what ekklesia, the Greek word for church, means–as we are for the vertical relationship we have with God. Let’s face it: if we were just there to worship God, we could do that in our own prayer closet at home. If we were there only to hear from His word, we all have access to His truth and don’t need to come to a building to read it.
There’s something more than hearing or watching involved in church. And that something is genuine Christian fellowship–from another Greek word used often in the New Testament, koinonia, which comes from a word meaning “to share” or “to have in common.” That fellowship is defined by the interdependent “one another” commonality that we share with each other. (Acts 2:42-47) As the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians, we are members of one another. That’s fellowship.
I remember a former pastor of mine saying that “fellowship” is two fellows in the same ship. And what is that ship? It’s what we have in common, a shared relationship with the God who created us, through His Son Jesus Christ. That common bond is what makes us family, and when we come together as the called out ones to share fellowship together, we are essentially having a family reunion.
With that in mind, I can’t imagine someone going to a family gathering, finding a seat without acknowledging those around them, and never speaking to or welcoming fellow members of the family. Likewise, it would be hard to fathom someone attending such a reunion and then running to the door as soon as a final prayer or greeting was offered, without ever interacting with those in the same family. And yet, some people do just that many Sundays.
So, I guess the question is, how do you see church? As a performance, where you are a member of an audience? Or as a family gathering, where you come together to meet with those whom you share the same experience of having been gloriously saved by the gospel? Your understanding of what church is will determine how you act when you get there.
I am grateful to be a part of a church family of real people, living out real life together, gathering to worship a real God, and hearing real truth for our real world. And why would I ever want to miss gathering with a group of people like that every chance I get?