Here’s a question: Have you ever had a friend who was extremely happy about something that didn’t make sense to you? Perhaps they did well on a project at school or they just got a big bonus at work. Whether your friend or loved one is happy, sad or angry, it is often challenging to feel what others are feeling. Even with our closest friends it takes work to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Or how about this, have you ever hung out with a group of your friend’s friends? You may have been out on a date or with a group of your spouse’s coworkers, but I’d guess that it was hard to feel like you belonged in the group, no matter how friendly the group was. Even in the most welcoming crowd there are always stories that you don’t know or inside jokes that you don’t get. There is no substitute for time together to feel like you belong.
These two examples help to illustrate a clarifying principle when it comes to Christian community:
We gather primarily around our belief, not our shared feelings or our group identity.
Let me explain what I mean. There is no question that one of the primary goals of Christian community (or church ministry) is to reach out to people who are lost (or some might say non-christians, spiritually unresolved, seekers, etc). A big part of accomplishing this goal is designing a community gathering (worship service) that is accessible/welcoming to the outsider when he or she comes to visit. What we want to see is what Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 14: “[When] an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”
The context of the passage here is that in worship we should focus our attention on what builds up the church and is intelligible to all, even the outsider who comes to visit. Rather than doing things that are primarily for our own benefit, we should seek to serve each other. Many times, in our efforts to reach the outsider, we get a little sidetracked on how to do that. The potential is to fall into two traps here, what I’ll call the emotional trap and the clique trap.
In the clique trap, we want the outsider to feel at home so we say “come and be a part of our loving, accepting and fun group.” The desire to make others feel welcome is a wonderful thing, and we should absolutely be concerned with it (I think Paul makes it clear that we should consider our guests). But there will always be things that a new person was not a part of, things he or she will not be able to feel nostalgic about. So while belonging to the community is a long term goal for the new person, our primary focus needs to be elsewhere.
In the emotional trap, we try to produce a response in a person that will make her feel like she is “one of us” because we’re all together experiencing the same thing. The problem with this approach is complex, first because we cannot really know what another person is thinking or feeling, and second because not everyone possesses the same filter or ability to empathize with another’s feelings. There are some that have this gift of empathy (you probably know one or more of them). For the empathetic person feeling something based on an outside stimulus comes very easily. But this is not everyone. For many people, the journey from where they are emotionally to where someone else is is nearly impossible. So the primary reason we gather is not based in emotion or experience.
A quick word on emotion: Emotion is a good thing, created by God and given to us for our good. Our emotions are meant to be indicators of things that are happening in and around us and we should learn to listen to them. Spiritually our emotions are also important. In fact we are commanded to feel sorrow over sin and joy and contentment in God. But these feelings are based in truths and they flow from them. Don’t hear me say feeling is bad, but feeling needs to flow from truth or it needs to be corrected.
We gather as Christians because God has given us faith to believe in his story of the gospel. The story (and our belief in this story) is central to why we gather to worship. We proclaim it, we hear it, we act it out as we worship and serve one another, and we live it and give it to our fiends and neighbors in our community. The story (and the power of the Holy Spirit acting as it is rehearsed and proclaimed) invites the outsider to come and belong to the family of God, while inviting all of us to experience the full range of joy, sorrow and awe in God’s presence. The order matters. First things first.
This may seem subtle, but the difference between the combustion that drives you to work and the explosion that burns your house down is where and how it happens. So my encouragement to you is this, let your focus be (in your personal and your gathered worship) first on Who God is as revealed in his word, his character that is full of faithfulness and love, and his saving acts throughout history (including in our lives). And from that spring of true and living water, all the other things that make us a city on a hill and a light to the world, our joy, how we walk through pain, our love for others and our bonds of friendship, will grow and flourish.