I had this kind of powerful and emotional moment the other day. And it really came out of nowhere. It was completely unexpected.
My house church, which meets together in my home every Monday evening, had just finished a thirteen-week study on the letter of 1st Corinthians (or One Corinthian, as some may say). And as we talked through the last question, which asked which part of the study had challenged us the most, we realized that we had been doing the study significantly longer than 13 weeks. In fact, we had been doing the study for so long that we needed to flip through the study book to remember some of the content and highlights.
But in a somewhat comical twist, we actually became more curious as to when we started the study than what had challenged us the most in the study.
And it didn’t take long for someone to locate the date when we asked the first question in the first lesson.
We started the study in October 2015… and it is now February 2017.
I’m no mathematician, but that’s close to 70 weeks!
We were blown away and had a really good laugh about it.
But it’s probably no surprise to you that I have a way of taking any spontaneous occasion of hilarity and making it a serious, poignant moment. I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek because I always try to make things profoundly spiritual. I sound like a real blast, don’t I?
But anyway, before I get to what I said to my friends that night, let me give you a little background.
I have led and been a part of a dozen or so house churches/small groups over the last twenty years. I have even headed up Small Group Ministries in churches for close to a decade, writing curriculum, training group leaders, and helping people find groups in which to connect. I have done it all with small groups.
But if there is any mistake I have made in the past, and believe me there are way too many to count, it is that I treated the small, intimate gatherings of the church as a theoretical model to be implemented, or a mechanical process to control and make predictable and uniform, rather than seeing it as a vibrant, life-giving entity where lives and relationships ought to be nurtured and guided through life’s ups and downs together, while it grows together and gets stronger.
But even through my honest attempts and mistakes, I have always believed that the best place to grow in one’s faith and then live it out is in the context of the smaller, more intimate church gathering.
In fact, I still believe that today.
The truth is that it is all to easy to attend a church service week-in and week-out, while remaining undetected below the radar, without ever having to invest in deeper-than-the-surface relationships or the complexities of other people’s lives.
The truth is that it is all too easy to slip in and out of a church service, while only having to shake a few awkward hands during the greeting time, without ever having another pour out their heart and soul to you, without ever having to walk through life’s messiness together, without ever having to lean on others when life seems too overwhelming.
The truth is that it is all too easy to check church off your list of to-do items, while remaining a nameless, faceless body in attendance, without ever having to carry another person’s burdens, without ever having to pray over their utter brokenness, or without ever having to give someone words of encouragement, blessing, healing, and life.
In my experience, the only place where the superficial veneer is stripped away, where pretense is obliterated, where cosmetic application fails, and where vulnerability is unmasked and triumphantly exposed… is in the presence of a loving, non-judgmental, other-centered group of trusted friends.
That is the very essence, the very heartbeat of the church.
I have learned that there is something that happens between the study questions that is deep and profound and impossible to quantify.
And that’s the reason why our study took seventy weeks, rather than thirteen.
Because between the questions there were stories. There were tears. There were laughs and smiles. There were embraces. There were celebrations. There was real life happening- in all of it’s unrehearsed, unglamorous grit and raw emotion.
Between the questions were strained marriages. There were friends, family, and pets passing away. There were the challenges of parenting. There were jobs that had been lost or changed. And there were personal failures.
Between the questions was doubt, hopelessness, and shattered hearts.
But even more, between the questions, there was the goodness and grace of God embodied. There was an undying love and care for one another. There were tearful embraces. There were uplifting words of encouragement. There were prayers of healing and blessing. There were so, so, so many moments of celebration. And all of this, always, with an open door and open arms.
We were so much more than a “church group” trying to complete a thirteen-week study or trying to find the right answers to Bible study questions.
It was more incarnational than mental.
It was more shared experience than class work .
It was more living out the answer than finding it.
That’s what I shared in our moment of laughing together that night.
That’s what brought me to tears.
That’s what made me so thankful for my friends with whom I get to share my life.
It was truly the church.
Grace and peace…