If you have ever gone on any kind of Christian retreat or stayed at a Christian camp, I believe that is a bit what community looks like....... though more than that. When I think about church community, I envision Christians being more involved with each other, really caring about each other, taking care of each other, and being around each other outside of the church walls.
I go to church Sunday morning and Sunday evening. I usually speak to a few people and carry on some conversation, usually with the same people. (We do tend to have our cliques.) I don't go to church on Wednesday evenings for reasons I won't share here, so most of the 52 weeks of the year, I only see my fellow church attendees on Sundays. There is no deep conversation, no sharing, no personal time.
I have a problem with that. We need fellowship, not just a few brief conversations in passing while at church for worship services. As a single guy, I may feel that void more than married people, and have less chances of filling that void; though I am sure married people may feel the same way.
They have a 4- day conference in North Carolina in June, and I was fortunate enough to go to it the last two years. What an amazing time.
Imagine you have a secret you want no one to know about. You hide it for years, afraid people will find out and condemn and ostracize you. Now imagine being at a conference center surrounded by people who have the same secret/struggle, or are family members of someone who has it. It is amazing and freeing.
I found the times of worship helpful and encouraging, the speakers, and the workshops; they all were worth going and it was profitable to my soul and Christian walk to be part of that. I don't want to minimize those blessings and what they did for me. Those things are not the most memorable parts of the conference for me though.
If you have never had a major struggle such as mine, then you cannot imagine sitting down at a table of 8-9 other guys who have the same struggle. You can't imagine what it is like to be able to freely discuss your struggles and your story, to hear their struggles and story, and have no fear of being condemned, judged, or ostracized. To look around at the tables full of people just like you: messed up people, broken people, imperfect people, people with no masks.
Every afternoon before supper, there were different groups you could go to. The one group was for men only and met on the large porch of one of the conference buildings. There were usually at least 30 or so guys sitting in a circle. My friend Matthew, director of Big Fish Ministry in Florida, was in charge, and he would keep things going, ask guys by name to share if there was a lag and no one volunteered...something I found out the first evening; having made the mistake of sitting by Matthew, Men openly shared their struggles, their past. Some had lived the gay lifestyle, some were married and cheated on their spouse with another man. One man had started the transgender process and then became a Christian,
There were times we'd gather around and pray for a man after he brokenly confessed how discouraged and how he was hurting. Hugs were freely given and words of encouragement. This was community like I had never experienced. This was sharing, caring, and loving on a level I had never had among Christian brothers.
I've stood by while people joked about gay people. I've heard the hateful comments, even from Christians. I had a friend lean up to me in church after a speaker mentioned the issue and tell me that "they should just hang all those homos." I sat in a Sunday school class on that subject while a couple of men spoke up about "those perverts" and how they'd never let them around their kids, how they'd rather have a murderer around their kids.
I've sat in the pew for years needing love and encouragement, deathly afraid people would find out my secret. I was lonely, scared, hurting, confused, and working overtime to appear "normal" to everyone. I'd hear people's prayer requests and knew I could never stand up and request prayer for THAT. I stopped going to the altar because too many preachers said you had to pray out loud, don't hang over the altar like a sack of feed, don't pray into your arm... pray out loud..... I knew what would happen if I did that, so I'd pray at home where no one could hear me.
But at this conference, I was none of that. Masks were left off campus. New friends were made, friends who could relate to what I deal with, friends who weren't afraid they'd catch something. I had no fears of praying about my struggles and someone hearing. I didn't want to leave. I didn't want to go back to wearing a mask, having superficial conversations with Christian brothers and sisters who I only see at church on Sundays.
I want more. I need more. I got a taste of true community that I never had at any church or campground. People had time for each other, people were honest and open and caring with no need for masks....... though mine has pretty much been ripped off out of weariness of wearing it. Thanks to Facebook, I can keep up with a lot of the men and women I met there, and by way of a Facebook group can share, ask for prayer, and pray for them.
We can't all live together in a setting like we did at these conferences; but we can be more than we are. We can be better than we are. We need to be more than ships passing in the church vestibule on Sundays. We need to care more about our Christian brothers, pray more for them, listen - really listen - to them, interact and be with them more than Sundays.
From what the New Testament says of the early church, I believe I am safe to say we are far from what they were like. They had community. They were known by their love for each other. They had all things in common. The early church was built on people saved from homosexuality, adultery, idolatry.... a lot of people saved from the not-so-nice sins. I doubt there were masks. I imagine it was the norm to meet and openly talk about one's issues and struggles. It was normal to know each others' pasts. They saw each other more often than just Sundays. Church and God were such a big part of their life, that everything else took second place.
We are too busy, too self-centered. With all of our modern technology and devices to save us time, we have no time to truly care about and be involved in each other's lives. The early church had souls saved daily and grew at an astonishing rate of speed. Maybe that is why: community and a true family of God.
My church needs that, and it isn't the only one. I don't know what the answer is, but I can hope and pray that we can change.