What Fellowship Really Is

16 April 2019

“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
-Hebrews 10:26-27

Consider one another. Think about what we’re being called to do here: look at the other believers you’re close to, and ask yourself the question, “How do I help move this person to be more loving, to do more good things?” And you let those people ask the same question about you, and act on their answers.

In 3DM, a “Huddle” is a small group of 5-8 people that meets for teaching, mutual encouragement, and support. One of the criticisms I see of huddles is that participants are vulnerable to inappropriate influence by the group leader, and that “groupthink” is a real danger. Uh, yeah. Any close relationship is vulnerable to inappropriate influence, and any group is in danger of groupthink. If you think that’s dangerous, try not having close relationships, small groups, or leadership. See how that works out.

Warning people away from a huddle because of the dangers of groupthink is like like warning people away from math class because they will encounter math problems. The danger is real, but quitting school is not the answer. The answer is to solve the problems, learn from the experience, and over time grow into the sort of person who can solve those problems easily. You take the math class because you want to get better at solving math problems. You join a huddle to get better at fellowship.

You will never listen to a sermon or Bible study lesson without the danger of false teaching. You will never be part of a meaningful group without the danger of groupthink. You will never have a close relationship without the danger of undue influence. You will never drive your car to church without the danger of a traffic accident. You will never eat the Lord’s Table (or anything else) without the danger of food poisoning–but consider the dangers of not eating.

You can no more avoid teaching or close relationships than you can avoid eating. You may not simply show up at church, swap small talk over coffee for a couple minutes before the service, and check off the “fellowship” box on your to-do list. You must study your fellow believers in order to stir up love and good works. The risks associated with obedience are risks we are required to run.

Do you gotta do it in a 3DM huddle? Of course not. Do it your way.

So here’s my question: who are you studying, and who is studying you?

Your answer should be a list of names. If your answer to either question is “nobody,” then something is wrong, and for you, joining a huddle would be a step in the right direction. A huddle is one way to obey the command. It’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way. But it beats the pants off disobedience, ya know?

I like the way a huddle fellowships better than the way most churches just don’t. So should you. It’s a handy means of obedience, and helps you form the habit of meaningful fellowship. (Same goes for LTGs, well-run small groups, etc.–we should cherish every form obedience takes.)

Let’s go back to those two questions: who are you studying, to stir up love and good works? Who is studying you? The names on my list are mostly not people I’m in huddle with. I make close fellowship a priority in my lifestyle. There are three families where if I don’t show up at their home unannounced a couple times a week, I get phone calls. If I don’t talk about anything consequential when I do show up, I get a raft of pointed questions. What about you? If you isolate yourself, who will call you? If you quit sharing your heart, who will ask pointed questions? If the answer is ‘nobody,’ you’re already isolated. Please, in the name of Christ, fix that.

Having made the case for close fellowship, I also want to acknowledge that human beings can screw anything up, so of course there are real dangers and temptations that come with it. Any cohesive group has the danger of groupthink. The answer to that is more fellowship, not less. Whatever you’re talking about in group, have significant conversations on those topics with people outside the group. In a multitude of counselors, there is safety.

As the group coheres, there’s a danger of the leader exercising undue influence. Same answer: get fellowship elsewhere too, so that you’ll notice if something weird is going on. For leaders, the answer here is humility. The purpose of the group is not to develop your followers as followers of you. The purpose is to develop your followers as followers of Jesus. Some of them might start very dependent on you–as Jesus’ followers started very dependent on Him–but your job is to grow them into co-laborers, as He did, as Paul grew Timothy and Titus, as Barnabas grew John Mark, and so on.

Which brings me back to an important feature of the huddles I’ve been part of: they stop. You graduate. The relationships you formed in huddle continue, but they come out of the greenhouse that is the huddle and into the wild and woolly garden that is the life of the church, which is the way it should be.

Maybe you end up leading your own huddle; I’ve done it a few times. Maybe you use other relational vehicles; I’ve done that too. But if the huddle has done its job, you have formed the habit of close fellowship with your fellow believers, and you’ll never go back to thinking that two minutes of small talk at the coffee pot is what “fellowship” really is.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

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Practicing Unity

27 November 2018

This post is part of the November Synchroblog on church and national unity. See the bottom of this post for a link list of other participating blogs.

The prompt for this month’s Synchroblog framed the quest for unity in terms of politics.

Well, the elections are over … but not really.

As I write this, counting is still going on in various states, and lawyers are setting up battle lines. Newly elected officials are heating up the rhetoric, and protesters are starting to lash out.

What is the role of the church in all of this?

It goes on to ask some bigger questions.

How can we work toward unity in the Body of Christ?…Does unity mean uniformity? If not, then how can we get along? And beyond unity in the church, how can we show the world the path toward peace and unity?

At the policy level, those are some tough questions. At the level of national policy especially.

To address those questions at the policy level, the level of presidents and congressmen and archbishops and general secretaries and such folk…jeepers. You would need a strategy that would unite the vast majority of all Christendom. As things stand now, any council with sufficient authority would never agree on a strategy.

But what makes us think we have to solve the problem from the top down? Top-down solutions are convenient, because they mean that most of us don’t have to do anything until the higher-ups get their act together. That shows no sign of happening anytime soon…so we don’t have to do anything, and it’s all conveniently somebody else’s fault.

That convenience ought to make us suspicious. Jesus rarely leads us by the convenient path. So what if He’s calling us to solve the problem from the bottom up?I think He is, and I think any straightforward reading of John 17 and Ephesians 4 confirms it.

What would that look like? Well, let me tell you what it looks like in my life right now. I’m not using myself as an example to say, “hey, look at me, I’ve got this thing knocked” — not a bit of it. I have a lot to learn. But I’ve also come a long way. What I have now? The man I was 15 years ago didn’t believe any of this was even possible. But it is.

I’m part of an interdenominational pastors’ prayer group in Englewood, Colorado. We meet once a month, and the pattern of the meetings is simple. We’ll go around the circle and check in with each other, and then we pray for each other. The check-in consists of three questions:

  1. How’s your ministry doing?
  2. How’s your family doing?
  3. How’s your walk with God doing?

That’s it. Brevity is valued — the goal is to answer all three questions in 3-5 minutes per participant. (Of course, we’re all pastors, so we don’t always make it under the 5-minute mark, but we try.) In a normal meeting, we’ll pray for each other, celebrating victories and blessings, and lifting up needs. When something unusually difficult is happening, we may abandon. The format entirely. There have been meetings where we put a chair in the center of the circle, sat our wounded brother in it, laid hands on him and just prayed for him for half an hour.

Nondenominational, Southern Baptist, Anglican, United Methodist, Assemblies of God, Messianic, Dutch Reformed…all of these are regularly represented, and over the 8 years I’ve been part of this group, we’ve also had Missouri Synod Lutheran, Grace Covenant, Vineyard, independent Baptist, a Navy chaplain, and many others. We don’t need a denominational commission to sign off on this; we just do it. We do it because Jesus told us to love one another. We do it trusting the Scriptures, which tell us that the Spirit makes the unity (not us!); our job is just to steward it (Eph. 4:1-6). And it works.

I’m also part of a ministry to the homeless of our city called Giving Heart. Come into Giving Heart when it’s open, and you’ll meet volunteers from all kinds of different churches — any of the ones above, and then some. You’ll also meet people who don’t go to church; some of them don’t even identify as Christian. They just want to help their city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, and this is where it’s happening.

Giving Heart began 7 years ago with the realization that most apartment-dwellers are sorely lacking in community life. It started as a privately held community center serving a big multi-housing complex. The goal was to provide a third space where people could meet–host dinners, movie nights, parties on the holidays, and so on. It worked to an extent…but the open door turned out to be a magnet for the local homeless population. When we didn’t turn them away, more came. We didn’t have a lot to offer back then, but someone gave us a big popcorn machine. So if we were open, you could come by, get a bottle of water and some popcorn, and take a load off for a few minutes. Many did. A bottle of water led to conversation, which led to sharing life together.

Over time, the apartment ministry dwindled and the homeless ministry grew. Today, Giving Heart has grown into an access point to medical care, job training, transitional housing, counseling services, resource navigation assistance, and much more. Along the way, my business partner Joe Anderson was able to lead the pastors’ prayer group into a partnership with the city that birthed Change the Trend Network. Change the Trend is a partnership of city government, police, healthcare providers, Giving Heart and other ministries like them. Together, the network’s member agencies provide a road map out of homelessness, and the wrap-around services that getting out of homelessness requires.

Again, none of this came from a fancy council of archbishops, general secretaries, and so on, nor is it sustained by such people. It was birthed by local Christians working together to help the people right in front of us, because that’s what Christians do.

When we do what Christians do together, we minister healing to the sick and freedom to the captives. We proclaim the good news of Jesus to the poor and broken. We seek the Kingdom of God, and God is pleased to give it to us. As we do this together, the unity of the Body is a daily practical reality.

You notice I haven’t said anything about the elections. You know what? The people I rub shoulders with…some of them voted Trump, and proud of it. Some of them are “I’m with Her” folk. Some of them only voted for Hillary because Bernie wasn’t an option. Some of them held their nose and voted R or D; others held their principles and voted third party.

We’re just not that susceptible to the Facebook-meme level of political discourse, where you either voted like I did or you’re literally the devil. We already know better. We laugh together, cry together, pray together, work together to care for the people we all love. We have that basis of positive experience; we already know that our fellow workers who voted for those people are–however inexplicably–really decent human beings, definitely among the good guys.

So when the time comes to have hard conversations about politics, we have the relational and spiritual capital to handle it without demonizing the people who voted differently. We have a reason to actually listen to other points of view, because we already trust each other.

And the brutal truth is, we will not get to a solution any other way. If we can’t love the people right in front of us–the faces we see at home, at work, at church, on the street–then we will not become the sort of people who can handle bigger conversations and bigger issues. Conversely, if we will simply do what Jesus said — love our neighbors — we will find that the Spirit has already given us unity, and we will become the kind of people who steward it well.

Then when the time comes for the archbishops and general secretaries to do their thing, they won’t be trying to manufacture unity out of whole cloth. They will be seeking to steward  the unity their people already have. And that’s the way it should be.

***

Here is the list of other writers and authors who contributed to this month’s Synchroblog. Go read them all to see what others think about church unity.


Household Codes

18 August 2018

I’ve been blessed to share a number of different living arrangements. Like most, I started as a child in a household. During college, I was in a dorm, then shared an apartment with three other guys, and started grad school with a similar arrangement. Later in grad school, I moved into a small apartment attached to a single-family home. I spent several months before I got married renting a bedroom from a couple with grown children. Since marrying Kimberly 15 years ago, it’s just been the two of us. (In case anybody’s wondering, I like the last one best.)

As I’ve put down roots in my community, I have also become an “associate member” of three other households. I don’t spend the night there, but I come and go without knocking and frequently take part in the family life. Two of these households have kids, and recently I’ve been reflecting on what it takes to be a good member of those households–places that are filled with children, but they’re not my children.

As a starting point, here’s a quick comparison and contrast between the roles of child in a family home, a member of a unigenerational household (like a house of grad students, for example) and an adult member of a multi-generational household.

Household Codes Chart

Unigenerational households and multigenerational households operate very differently. Unigenerational households tend to be fairly democratic; multigenerational households can’t be. The tiny barbarians lack the skills and impulse control to function in the world apart from adult support. As a result, there’s a much higher degree of planning and coordination, and a great deal less spontaneity than in a unigenerational household: all the adults can’t leave the house at the same time, food has to be prepared at specific times and in specific ways, the house needs to be quieter at nap times, and so on.

Childcare responsibilities are not equally shared among adult members of a household, for reasons that start with basic biology: women get pregnant, and men can’t breastfeed. Taking one thing with another, responsibilities that involve leaving the house for extended periods of time will fall disproportionately to the father, and responsibilities that can be done at home with children underfoot will fall disproportionately to the mother. (Technology mitigates, but does not eliminate, these effects.) But the sharing extends beyond just the parents. While the parents have primary responsibility for the children, and other adults correspondingly less responsibility (at least in our culture), there are spill-over effects on the other adults who live in the household.

The parents’ greater responsibility means they get—and deserve—a relatively greater precedence; there is a real hierarchy here. Other adult members of the household are expected to plan their use of common resources (cooking, laundry, and bathing facilities, for example) around the needs of the parents and children. This would be grossly unfair in a unigenerational household, but where the welfare of children is at stake, it makes perfect sense. Two quick examples here:

  • When the children are brushing their teeth and making their last trip to the bathroom before bedtime, no adult has equal claim on the toilet. Getting the kids to bed on time is important, and disruptions in the routine tend to balloon out of control quickly. So the routine is maintained, and the adults can hold it.
  • When the small children are down for a nap and that’s the mother’s one opportunity that day to get a shower, nobody’s claim trumps hers. The other adults can shower earlier or later; she can’t.

Which brings us to the subject of how to be a good “associate member” of a household with children. Every household is different, so the particulars will vary a bit, but here are some general principles to work from:

  • Know your strengths. Botching a messy diaper change makes more work for everyone. Know what you bring to the table, and what you’re better off letting someone else take care of.
  • Generate surplus. Food, time and effort, emotional labor, childcare–there are a lot of areas where you can contribute. Bachelors can afford to just break even (not that there’s any future in that, even for them), but adults who live with children cannot; kids are a net drain on the community resources for years, and the adults around them have to make up for that. If you want to live like a bachelor, move in with bachelors. If you’re going to live with a family, live up to the company you’re keeping.
  • Be good with the kids. That will mean different things in different households; make a point of learning what it means to the particular children and parents you’re dealing with.
  • Plan your use of shared resources around the needs of the children and the parents. You have less responsibility and more flexibility; use it.
  • Learn how to provide emotional support to the people around you, including the short barbarians. It might be a pat on the head, a listening ear, help with a frustrating toy, babysitting while Mom gets a shower, or bringing home a bottle of wine for the parents. Pay attention to what they need, and as you’re able, be intentional about adding value to their lives.
  • Short of debilitating injury, don’t put all your needs on the parents. Parents already have their hands full, and the children’s needs will always trump yours. Build your network and find other people to rely on. If you fall down the stairs and shatter your femur, of course the parents will do their best to help you, but even then, the children have to be cared for. Of course friends look after each other’s needs, but friends also understand one another’s obligations; no good friend thinks their own needs trump the children’s.
  • Know when to disappear. You are part of the household at some level, but you are not part of the family, and that matters. There are times the family needs their space, and at those times, the most valuable thing you can do is back off.

Parents, feel free to weigh in here. What am I missing?


Practical Unity

9 March 2018

I want to speak a little on practical unity.

You reap what you sow. If you sow constant conflict about ever-finer distinctions, you reap that. If you sow into the little common ground you have, you reap more common ground — some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred-fold.

I haven’t given up on doctrinal precision. I still talk theology with people, and I still seek to come to one mind with my brothers and sisters as we can — which is our Christian duty (Phil. 2:1-4). But I find that tangibly loving each other while we work together is the context within which those conversations happen productively.

“I’ll work with you if we can come to agreement on doctrine” is an approach that has not profited those who have been occupied with it. Scripture teaches us to notice that. (Hebrews 13:9)

I find it fascinating how often theological conservatives respond to my pro-untiy sentiment by tossing out a scenario like “What if a liberal lesbian Methodist minister who thinks Jesus is just a good moral teacher wants to work with you?”

It’s a good question, and it’s come up every now and again. The answer is that it depends on what we’re doing. Volunteering for the Chamber of Commerce golf tournament? No problem. Lobbying the city to get off our backs and let us feed homeless folks at the park? Sure. Introduce people to Jesus together? Of course not — we’re not talking about the same person. She’s talking about a Ghandi-type figure, and I’m talking about the Lord of the Universe in flesh.

But this isn’t an issue that crops up often, and I find it fascinating how often conservatives will use this supposed “nightmare scenario” (which isn’t that hard to deal with, actually—it’s just an awkward conversation) to avoid driving 4 blocks to establish a relationship with the historically orthodox church right down the street. They won’t take the low-hanging fruit, for fear that if we start picking, there might be a rotten apple in the upper branches. So there might, and we’ll handle that when we get to it.

But in day to day reality, there’s plenty of people who know and love the same Jesus we do — they baptize babies (or not), believe in real presence at the Lord’s Table (or not), expect a pretrib rapture (or not), celebrate Lent (or don’t celebrate Christmas, as the case may be), think too highly of Calvin, whatever. But they are our brothers and sisters, and we know it. We refuse to meet them, learn their names, start tangibly loving them…why?