GOD’S HEART FOR CROWDED DINNER TABLES
One of the main reasons multi-generationalism has increasingly become more difficult to find in our churches is because younger generations are leaving the church. Next week we will look at how the young benefit from relationships with older generations, but for now, let us seek to grasp an accurate understanding of what church is meant to be.
What is church? Seems like a simple enough question; but, in reality how we answer this question theologically and functionally can vary greatly. And I believe it is the most critical question every modern church needs to be asking itself today.
The sum result of how we have conducted church over the last several decades has been the mass exodus of younger generations. In fact, a recent Gallup Poll shows that church membership is at its lowest point since the Poll began to be taken in 1937. Less than half (47%) of Americans claim to belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. And that number is even less in younger generations. ( Read more about this here)
There may be a myriad of reasons as to why this change is occurring, but it is my hypothesis that our vergence away from God’s design and purpose for church should be at the top of the list.
God’s Original Design
Mankind has a history of messing up what God designs as good. That is pretty much what the whole Bible is about. God makes creation good (Genesis 1-2) and man mucks it up (Genesis 3 – to present day). And there is no reason to think that we are not falling into this same pattern when it comes to Church. God creates the church (Acts 1-2) and man mucks it up (Acts 3 – to present day). Not fully. Just like creation there is beauty to be experienced. But, let’s be honest, most of us can admit in looking over the history of Christianity that what we have come to know and experience as Church probably falls short of what God designed and desires (I think this is probably putting it lightly).
There is a sense in reading about the Acts 2 church that feels much like reading about life in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2, it just seems wonderful and stirs longing inside of us. But this is the church in its purest form, before man had the opportunity to taint it with personal and political agendas, before power hungry leaders used it to fuel their egos, before it formalized into religious ceremonial pomp and circumstance. And from this infantile gathering we can learn some profound truths about God’s intentions for the church. After Peter’s call to “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), three thousand people believe and are baptized, thus forming the first church. What follows is a description of how this first church lived and operated.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
So, the church devoted themselves to learning about and connecting with God (apostles’ teaching and prayer). That seems like a no brainer. If we ask people, “What does a church do?” Most people would answer, “They teach about and worship God.” But let this sink in. On the same level of devotion as the apostles’ teaching and prayer, they also devoted themselves to learning about and connecting to each other (breaking bread and fellowship). Church was not simply a place to come and learn about God. It was a people through whom learning about God occurred and with whom the love of God was shared. The two cannot be separated. You cannot truly know a God who exists in community (Father, Son, and Spirit) without living with a community who exists for God.
Look at the level of devotion the first church gave to one another:
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. (Acts 2:44-46)
Do you know what you call a collection of people? A Crowd. Do you know what you call a collection of connections and care? A Community. I’m worried that too often in our modern churches we celebrate crowds more than we do community. In fact, I’d say we’ve become more adept at building crowds than we have at building community. The first church was devoted to gospel-centered relationships. They met each other’s needs. They sacrificed and gave to each other. They ate meals together. And they “had everything in common.” This does not mean that they were all just alike. You cannot have three thousand people together who are alike. But they shared life together. They had community with glad and sincere hearts towards one another. Their fellowship was in the Temple courts and in their homes. God’s love was more than a subject of conversation or teaching, it was a reality that was experienced and shared.
As Christ freed them from their sinful focus on themselves, he enabled them to know and love their brothers and sisters. There is so much theological importance to this truth. The very first story after sin enters the world is a brother killing a brother (Genesis 4) and the very first story after the Holy Spirit enters man (Acts 2) is the creation of a new family (the church) where brothers and sisters are caring for and supporting each other. To reduce the importance of relationships within the Church is to reduce the manifest witness of the Church to the profound, life-altering love of Christ. God’s desire for church is for it to be a tangible representation of how repentance and baptism into Christ enables a new way to live and to love. Through how the church lovingly cares for each other, God desires to reveal Himself to the world (1 John 4:7-12).
The Great Pivot
This represents a profound shift in how we have come to approach church in modern times. We have tried to reduce sermons down into podcasts and TEDtalks. We have transformed worship into musical productions of entertainment and preference. And we have replaced Biblical community with a nod and a wave from and to the parking lot or coffee bar. I know that is a rough statement that is an over-exaggeration that probably doesn’t fit your context, but it might not be far off.
Is church more than a conference about God with breakout sessions? The Biblical witness would cry out, “Yes!!!!” Conferences with great speakers and great worship and interesting breakout sessions have their place. But they are not church. Church is more than a place to disseminate knowledge, it is a people through whom and in whom the love of Christ can be known and experienced and shared. This is why listening to sermons online, or worshipping with your favorite worship bands through Spotify or Pandora, can never fully replace church. Because church is a people to whom you belong, and it is vital to the Christian walk.
I fear we are in a pivotal time in church life. If we do not get this right and understand the vital nature of meaningful relationships as the heartbeat of church, then younger generations will continue to venture off. They are digital natives who have grown up in the information age. If Church is simply a place to get information about God, then can’t that be done more conveniently at home through a Google search? If a church is simply a place to hear a sermon and sing worship songs, then can’t better sermons and worship be found online? If Church is a place to peddle politics or to find entertainment that feels good, then can’t I find other forums that better fit my tastes elsewhere? But if church is a people where true Spiritual Community is practiced and God’s supernatural love and care is shared, then suddenly it becomes something that needs to be experienced to believe.
May we pivot away from the shallow relationships to and from church events that we have settled for and towards the devoted, Spirit-enabled, loving relationships that defined the original church. May our dinner tables be crowded and our hearts full. And may Christ bring himself glory in this great pivot because the faith of generations to come may depend upon it!!
Questions for Reflection
- What level of importance do you place on the relationships you have with the people at your church?
- How has the Pandemic affected your relationships at church?
- How can you better focus on rebuilding old or building new relationships at your church coming out of the Pandemic?
- What younger person(s) can you invite to have lunch with you after worship? (Find someone you may not know well and make some plans!)