The problem with our fellowship and four ways to improve it

 If there is a song that sums up visiting certain new churches, Pop Song 89 by REM does a pretty good job.


It’s a sort of stilted conversation that sadly seems to take place all too often. We so rarely have much to say to visitors (or, dare I say, regular members) that efforts to be friendly, and it does so often feel like effort, descend into this type of thing.

If we think REM lay it on thick, The Smith’s How Soon is Now cuts rather closer to the bone:

Though the song revolves around the chronic shyness of the protagonist (the existence of such people many churches have yet to wake up to and simply don’t know how to handle them), the following lyrics capture the experience of many:

“There’s a club if you’d like to go you could meet somebody who really loves you so you go, and you stand on your own and you leave on your own and you go home, and you cry and you want to die.”

This experience extends well beyond the four walls of church buildings. Countless similar stories float around Christian conferences, fraternals and other inter-church gatherings. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people tell me how lonely they feel at such meetings and events. Sometimes the loneliest place in the world is amongst a crowd of other people.

I recall being invited to one meeting, entering the room, standing like a total lemon on my own whilst everybody else “networked” around me. I tried to engage a few folk in conversation where it was clear that talking to this no-mark oik – who was unlikely to do anything to advance their standing within the Christian world – was not high on their agenda. I found myself going and standing on my own, leaving on my own, going home and wanting to cry. It is made so much worse when one thinks these people should know better. Among Christians, especially among Christian leaders, these things should not be.

There is clearly nothing wrong with seeking beneficial links and finding other like-minded people with whom we can work together. In fact, the Bible encourages such things. But all too often, it descends into mere networking – akin to some professional business meeting – and becomes more about what is useful to me rather than mutual support and encouragement. In the worst cases, it becomes little more than crass self-advancement. How many links can I make? How much can I make of myself? If you are a “big name” I will make every effort to speak to you, if you are unknown you are not worthy of my time.

As a pastor, an inherent part of my job is meeting new people. It is networking, making connections with others, getting to know other ministers and Christian workers. In all honesty, it is a side of my job for which I feel ill-equipped and I do not relish. Not that I don’t like meeting new people, or making new friends, or working together with others (I do) but I really struggle in this environment. It makes me feel uncomfortable and clashes with both my inherent introversion and my upbringing which emphasised never pushing oneself forward (1). It is only once I have warmed up to people, once we have gotten to know one another a little better, that I begin to feel comfortable and more able to be myself.

Whether at big conferences, fraternals, inter-church meetings, gospel partnerships or ordinary church meetings, here are four basic things we can all do to make our fellowship a bit better.

First, don’t just speak to those who can do something for you. This includes only talking to new people so you can be spotted by your elders and leaders. Visitors and congregants are not there so you can clock when the pastor is watching so you’ll be in line for that leadership position that just opened up. James certainly has something to say about preferring some people over others. Our friendliness, our help and our interest should not be partial. Talking to those who can do nothing for us is just as important as speaking to those who can. Our churches, denominations, fraternals and conferences are not just there for our own empire building projects. Nor are they there for our own personal advancement. If Christ died for you despite you being unable to do anything for him, we should be prepared to take an interest in those who can do nothing for us.

Second, take a real interest in the people to whom you speak. Just because you avoid the trap of ignoring those who can do nothing for you doesn’t inoculate us against against the problem of showing absolutely no interest in them. Saying “hello” and having a conversation is of no value if we clearly aren’t interested. If we look around the room for others to speak with, or are even as crass as to say, “I really want to talk to the elder/pastor/speaker” (as has happened on more than one occasion, in more than one church, to me), then our conversation will not give the impression we are bothered.

Third, don’t just palm the person you are talking to off on someone else unless you really are committed to something else. Nothing says “I’m not interested” faster than a few cold nods and an immediate “have you met John?” Of course, there are times when we really do have other things that absolutely need to be done. But apologising, explaining and then introducing them to someone else will help far more than simply palming them off with no explanation. And no, wanting to talk to someone else more than the person you are speaking to, does not count as something more pressing!

Four, talk about things that actually matter. I have never been much of one for small talk. It is, for want of a better word, small. I am more interested in big things and enjoy talking to people who want to discuss big things too. I warm very quickly to people who are happy to jump straight to the big, weighty things. I suspect most others find superficiality a little dissatisfying too. By big things, I don’t just mean weighty matters of theology, philosophy and politics (though they are big things that interest me). I mean talking with people about the big things that matter to them, whatever those things may be. To quote REM “should we talk about the weather” isn’t really what it’s all about.

Notes

  1. To push yourself forward was (rightly or wrongly) often associated with arrogance. I suspect there is often a class thing going on too with middle class folk seemingly far more comfortable taking the initiative than me (I prefer to doff my cap and keep quiet)

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