One evening about two months ago I was having coffee (tea, actually) with a couple of Christian brothers. Between us we represent several churches of different evangelical demoninations, all generally Reformed in flavour. We are on reasonably common ground in our basic expectations of congregational life and relationships, bearing in mind that our impressions still admittedly represent a tiny microcosm of anecdotal evidence. A draft of this post came from that meeting, but remained a draft. Then, recently I heard a related exhortation in church, and subsequently started the current topic thread. The article now fits. The Lord works even in the smallest things…
At the coffee shop meeting a discussion developed around the apparent (and unfortunate) superficiality of portions of congregational life and interaction. It was interesting that this was apparently not unique to any congregation, nor was it an anomaly related to any particular church event. It was felt, irrespective of where one now or had previously worshiped, that there was a noticable void in real personal relationships within the congregational fellowship. There was simply no depth, and it was often quite unsatisfying. This is competely at odds with what is universally preached, in term of openness and encouragement within the family of believers. There was a perception of a common church game-face (much like the classic work game-face) that avoided most openness, thereby removing the possibility of real encouragement, often when it was most needed. Since real needs were frequently not shared as a result, they remained unknown and could not be addressed within the church family context.
Having said this, were we concluding that there is no encouragement available in the face of dire circumstance? Quite the opposite actually, but that is an extraordinary situation. In the face of dire circumstance, the game-face is frequently stripped away of necessity, and actual support is requested, available and extended. But the special nature of that sort of circumstance belies the normal reality, and does not address the real issues of acceptance, fear of rejection or dissapproval, and lack of genuine fellowship, in everyday congregational life.
In considering the normal culture of the church lobby, fellowship hall, or meeting, and though there are certainly exceptions, what was experienced was definitely not what those in the discussion found to be a positive or biblical environment for the development of the Saints. It must also be noted that pleasant and enjoyable were not included in this list of missing attributes, for on a purely social level these qualities are often present and quite enjoyable. What seemed more desirable and biblical (looking back on our often limited view of the early church, and on what we know of the Lord’s comments on fellowship) was a more open environment, devoid of the necessities of social appearance which most use to live in the world. Overall it would appear that we, as the church, are often assembling but at the same time neither meeting nor coming together. This was deemed dissappointing at best, potentially destructive to the Saints and the church at worst.
In desiring an improved situation, could it be said that one is proposing some sort of utopia, devoid of any reality. No, but admittedly the word ‘easy’ is not part of the equation. Surely, however, an expectation of interpersonal encouragement and relationship based upon safely sharing our real lives (warts and all) and assist each other in working through them, is not impossibly unrealistic.
Viewed through the lense of the disappointment and basic dissillusionment articulated in the discussion, what would appear to be occuring in many congregations is a subtle but steady increase in the influence of the world within the bounds of the fellowship of believers. As long as we view each other from the point of view of worldly values, then our view within the fellowship of believers will be increasingly juandiced. In that senario many will perceive a need of personal protection (the game-face). Part of the key issue here is those wordly values that are used to evaluate others. If these normal secular paradigms are carried unchallenged into church relationships, then it will follow that the reactions and behaviour of believers will follow suit and be worldy.
Could it be that this need or lack is specific to some sub-group or groups within the demographics of the typical congregation? This is very likely. Those that at any point in time form the mainstream of a congregation, or for whom congregational life (by design or situation) forms a minor role in satisfying their personal needs, are unlikely to notice this issue since it does not touch their normal pattern of living. Those for whom the assambly of believers potentially forms a significant part of their emotional lives, however, are more likely to be marginalized if they do fit perfectly, and likely must seek supportive relationships either in the para-church if available, or outside the Body. This is unfortunate and undesirable.
While we live in this life, waiting for the Lord one day at a time, this problem will always be a struggle by virtue of our broken world. However, possibly an awareness that it is a struggle, an awareness of the effects of the world within the congregation, and discussion with an open desire for something else, can help. Recalling the previous post on expectations subtely communicated to believers, there is a close link between that problem and this phenomenon. The solution in that case will go a long way to alleviating the situation under discussion here.
It is hoped that by shining a light on these closely linked symptoms and focusing back on the Word and the Lord, there can in some way be a small beginning to working together as a true people apart, even now.