I visited Indiana Jones one day last weekend. Sat in the theater with 100 strangers and watched Harrison Ford portray this comic-book character in breathless adventure after hair-raising adventure. When we walked outside into the sunshine, we all felt we had spent time with the man, but none of us had any sense of time spent with one another. In a movie house, there is no fellowship. It’s about spectatorship.
In the 1940s, things were different. Often, before the main feature, an emcee would come out onto the stage and lead the crowd in singalongs, get people out of the audience for little contests with small prizes, and in general, connect members of the movie audience with one another. No more. We grew out of that, got too sophisticated for such antics, became too busy. Those of my generation and a little older look back to those days with fond nostalgia.
Churches are becoming more and more about spectatorship. Turn on your television and watch the mega-churches being preached to by their celebrity pastors. Five or ten thousand people pack into giant auditoriums. They sit and listen, they respond as the preacher asks, and they get up and leave. They are hampered by their sheer success from fellowshiping with each other. We cannot imagine the pastor announcing to eight thousand people, “John Jones’ class will be having a cookout in Dwight Munn’s backyard Friday night and you’re all invited.”
Meanwhile, the church a half mile down the street from the megachurch, the one that has sat on that block for the last fifty years and only recently watched as the ever-growing congregation-on-steroids bought up a hundred acres and moved in and began sucking all the members out of neighborhood churches, that more normal church watches and wonders what it has to do to keep its members and gain a few more, and makes all the wrong decisions.
The “normal” church–as opposed to the giant spectator congregation–begins to invest in screens and projectors and high-tech innovations. That must be what it takes to draw people in, they think, and they must be right.
But drawing crowds in may be missing the point.
If the fellowship is missing, something vital has gone out of the life of a church.
Now, before a dozen friends who belong to those mega-churches come after my head, let me state something that needs saying here. A few of the giant worship complexes get it right. They have figured out how to pull in vast crowds and how to maintain inter-membership love and fellowship. They are the exceptions.
There’s a line in the preaching of Jeremiah that haunts me. The false prophets, he said, have “healed slightly the brokenness of my people” and “my people love to have it so.” (Jer. 6:14 and 5:31)
The congregation likes it when the minister applies superficial healing to their ills. Perhaps it glosses over the severity of the problems. If the remedy for a broken marriage is “five suggestions” or “four principles,” then we must be better off than we thought.
In spectator church, the altar call is minimized. You don’t have time for it. Or you don’t have the room. Or you don’t have the people to handle the kind of gridlock such an invitation would produce at the front of the church. So, many such churches ask those interested in making decisions to fill out the application in their bulletin and drop into the offering plate.
The saddest part of spectator church is that when the crowd leaves the ampitheater which functions as their church building, what we have is thousands of strangers heading for the parking lot to go their separate ways, each feeling they’ve done what God requires and gone to church today. If anyone feels a pang of regret from the absence of contact with other members, they gloss it over with Sunday afternoon activities.
That’s the biggest corruption of Christian fellowship in my book–spectator church.
Here’s a second: cliques in the congregation that look a lot like true fellowship but fail in the biggest test of all.
In the last church I pastored, I received two letters in the same week which drove home the point we need to make here. The first came from a longtime member who had moved to Oklahoma. Her family had not joined a church there yet, she said, because they couldn’t find one with the loving spirit as ours. She missed our fellowship and decried its absence in so many of the congregations they had found in their new city.
I read that letter to the church the following Sunday. Many of the writers’ friends, the ones she was missing, sat in the congregation nodding their heads. They missed her, too. At the conclusion, I asked, “Is that the way you feel about this church? That we have a friendly church with great fellowship?” If anyone felt other than that we were the very definition of those qualities, I couldn’t tell.
Then I read the other letter.
“My family and I visited in your church last Sunday. Not a soul spoke to us. You have an unfriendly church and we’ll not be back.”
I looked at our stunned congregation and said, “The writer sat in these pews last Sunday. The letter arrived Wednesday. Folks, she’s talking about us. She found us to be an unfriendly church.”
Is it possible for a church to be both friendly and unfriendly? It is, if it’s a clique.
A clique is defined as a small group that tends to be exclusive. They love one another, take care of each other, and have fun together. They may work well together, feel one another’s pain and joys, and function like a single body. However, they are exclusive. They want no one else in their group.
I’ve seen Sunday School classes like that, and I’ll bet you have, too. They’ve been together for years with the same membership, taught by the same teacher, meeting in the same room. They even have their own language and inside jokes and stories. A newcomer who walks into their room on a Sunday morning is lost, trying to follow their tales of who did what with whom and attempting to figure out who each one is by his nickname or first name only. The visitor quickly realizes he is an intruder and does not make that mistake twice.
Churches can catch this disease, too. The members are friendly to everyone except the newcomer. The pastor is in on the game and makes the announcement that “a cookout will be held Friday night at Bob and Virginia’s house.” Too bad if you don’t know who Bob and Virgina are or where they live.
The authority on the fellowship of your church is the newcomer, the first-timer.
Scary thought, isn’t it.
Lee and Dottie Andrews were every pastors’ dream of loving members. Every Sunday they came to church with their antennae out, looking for newcomers. Invariably, when they found them, they introduced themself, chit-chatted a little with their new friends, then invited them to join them for lunch at the local cafeteria.
Many times, when my family would walk into that restaurant after worship, we would find Lee and Dottie sitting at a large table surrounded by half a dozen strangers. I would walk over to greet them and have Lee introduce me to each one. He would know their names and a little about each one, and then he would tell his guests about me. To hear him tell it, I was the world’s most wonderful pastor and a genuine friend. One of my life-goals was to live up to Lee’s hype on me.
Most of the people Lee and Dottie took to lunch ended up joining the church. When they retired and moved to Florida, we grieved for many reasons. I told the congregation about this practice of theirs on Sundays and urged others to step up and take their place. If anyone did, I couldn’t tell.
The simple fact is that people are hungry for fellowship. Most of the newcomers walking in the door of our churches on Sunday are looking for a meaningful contact with other humans who will love them and help them into the inner circle of love and fellowship.