The third of three Chapel Hill Saturday Night messages.
We tried to launch in January 2007. It didn’t work. Random what-ifs still crop up about it in my mind and heart.
I’m tempted to blame being on MySpace, tho.
…and this got us through three trial services. Once again, to everybody who helped: thanks so much.
Keep tabs on what we’re doing through the Chapel Hill Saturday Night myspace page – we are going to shoot to launch the service formally in mid-January.
I’m amazed at how well this came together, for how late I started typing up – there were a TON of thoughts and words spinning around my head, honestly…
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I think that one of the most frustrating things for me, growing up in the church, was the feeling of being alone.
And it’s not that I was actively ignored in my church, as a youth. It’s not that I wasn’t surrounded by kind, generous and loving people. I think the fact that I didn’t actually live in the town that I went to church in did make things more awkward. In part because of that, in part because I was just a terribly different kid from the youth in my UMYF group, I never really felt like I knew anybody there, that I had any true friends that I could lean on.
And socially, loneliness is epidemic in this culture – moreso than ever before. I have referenced in my own blog writing, and Bryan has mentioned from the pulpit here, a study from June of this year from groups at Duke and the University of Arizona that appeared in the American Sociological Review. The study dealt with how connected people are with friends. Their stunning conclusion: The average American has only two confidants outside of their family who they can talk to about serious matters. Over the past twenty years, the number of people who have no confidant whatsoever has grown from 10% – already incredibly high for a civilized country – to an absolutely staggering 25%. We live in a land surrounded by painfully lonely people.
It goes without saying that this is a severe problem, and Something Ought To Be Done. And that I feel this passionately.
But – and here we get right back to my hypocrisy – what do I do with my own life? I fill my life with so many THINGS, so many TASKS and DUTIES, that the time to simply be with others and to enjoy company of others gets drowned out. Even this little exercise, in which I have this so-called awesome vision to provide a place for people to come and to be together, can very quickly turn into an excuse to be Doing Stuff instead of genuinely fighting loneliness.
And, of course, the sole end isn’t fighting loneliness. The hope is that we’re pointing people to Jesus and pointing people to the transformed life that we know that Jesus Christ provides.
I have to confess something: The scripture I’m pointing to here – Acts 2:42-47 – is a bit of a softball for me. It’s one of the scriptures I’ve studied most in my life, and when I first came across it in graduate school it revealed so much to me about what was right in the times in my life that I was most actively growing in my faith, and what was wrong in the times in my life when I was foundering and failing. It truly was a transformative passage in my life.
The story surrounding the scripture is this: The event that in Christendom we call the Pentecost has just happened. You want to talk about transformative events, this is it. The Holy Spirit comes on the small group of believers who have clung together after Jesus has died, been resurrected, appeared to the disciples, and has left the disciples waiting for his return. These believers find that they’re able to speak in different languages, and they pour out of the room they’re praying in speaking in these languages, and as people in Jerusalem who hear them speaking in REAL DIFFERENT LANGUAGES recognize, people gather around in shock and stunned amazement. Peter preaches. He convinces. He gives what we’d call an altar call. Three thousand respond. They’re all baptized. Basically, that day, the “church” – the whole body of believers in Jesus Christ – grows by about 2000%.
That’s radical growth for ANY church.
Now, that’s a whole lot of people to come in the door and to want to have something to do with Jesus. There had to be plenty of people there who, just before, had nothing whatsoever in common, and now suddenly have everything in common and are thrust together. And whatever they did, it obviously worked, because here we are today heirs to the legacy that they started more than two thousand years ago. So what they did is worth studying.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, puts what happened next this way. Starting with verse 42 of Acts 2:
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
Honestly, this is a really radical vision for what a church should look like. It’s a vision built for another time, when people did live closer together, when we felt less trapped by our property and our things, when people didn’t have to hop in the car every morning to go to work or school. It’s not a vision that we’re going to be able to turn and meet tomorrow. Nonetheless, there are priorities here that we can set for ourselves.Now, I’m going to be an obnoxious teacher here and pull out three take-home lessons. They’re hopefully very straightforward.
We need to have a discipline of worship. I believe the Sunday morning worship service is laden with baggage for people of my generation. It’s hard to get up on the Sabbath morning. The music style turns them off immediately. The sermon is too long. We could go on. But the reason it has sustained – and the reason something of that sort needs to sustain – is because it provides a central meeting place, and a central point of organization for the church. When I have avoided the church in my life and pretended that I can worship God on my own, in my life, that’s been where I’ve seen spiritual deadness set in. And if the service is taken with the right spirit – how can I see God and touch God in this time I’m here? – then even the most high-church, ancient-music worship service can be relevant and renewing.
We need to be dedicated and determined to worship God together. But simply having a discipline of worship doesn’t do the job.
We need to share life together beyond the worship service. So many Christians have their “friends” in the church that they only see on Sunday mornings (or even on Saturday nights). They’re warm and engaging at the one time during the week, and then they don’t have another thought of one another in the intervening week. Or, alternately, they exchange shallow e-mails or swap phone calls on church business during the week. There’s nothing shared in their lives together beyond that.
We’ve always heard it said that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” That might be why I’ve always found it so compelling that the NIV says in verse 46 “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Sharing meals together is a clear entryway into shared lives. Why else have we historically considered the family meal such an important time in our culture? And why not take the next step, and share meals together as a church family?
And it’s not just time spent together over food, but time spent talking and sharing who we are, and as we get to know one another better, being able to share with one another where we are weak and where we are strong. It takes a serious amount of work to take our conversation from a surface level to real depth and accountability to one another. But that work pays off.
We need to share our possessions. There is a great deal of teaching in the church about the tithe, to the point of legalism in some places – you’re obviously not a good believer if you aren’t giving your 10 percent. And in all that teaching, a larger point is lost – it is considered important, in the Judeo-Christian ethic, to give a substantial sum of your possessions to something bigger than yourself. If there are others in the community who have need, they can pull from those monies. And all that community money put together can do bigger things than if we just tried to do good works with our money on our own.
It is sacrifice to look at the money that we’ve earned, that we’ve worked hard for, and then say “others need this more.” But that’s part of our calling.
The first believers didn’t see their numbers grow just because of the amazing teaching of the apostles or because of the wonderful worship singing and playing. We won’t see our numbers grow for those reasons either. We will grow because there will be something in the life we share together that smacks people upside the head and says “This is different. This is new. This lifestyle works.” The NIV translates verse 47 notably – the believers were “praising God and enjoying the favor of all of the people.” Can we put together a church community that is not only transformative, but is respected – both among those who believe and those who don’t?
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