by Sonja DeWitt | 8 November 2019 |
“Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries
Sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You wanna be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
Most people are probably familiar with the theme song for the 80s hit sitcom Cheers. I never really watched the show—an ill-assorted bunch of bar regulars trading canned wisecracks has never been my idea of scintillating entertainment. But the theme song has always haunted me for its visceral, existential resonance. It reflects the deepest inner longings of every human being—to be known, even to the level of our foibles and petty troubles; to be welcomed; to belong.
And I’ve often wondered, “Why is that song an apt description of the neighborhood bar—but not the neighborhood church?” After all, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be? Isn’t the church supposed to be “the Family of God”—a place where everyone is loved unconditionally despite their faults and foibles, their sins and their wounds? Isn’t the church supposed to be the one place people are safe to open up and expose their authentic selves without fear of judgment or condemnation?
But I know it couldn’t have been written about most churches. For most of us, church just isn’t that kind of place. For most, church is a place where we go once a week, dressed immaculately, not a hair out of place—bright smiles pasted on—to give hearty handshakes to our equally-immaculately-dressed fellow believers with their own pasted-on bright smiles. Never mind that Sister Jones got laid off this week, or Brother Smith was just diagnosed with cancer, or Elder Johnson’s son just attempted suicide. We smile and smile and say, “Happy Sabbath! Isn’t God good?”
That’s not the way it was supposed to be. Certainly Jesus and the apostles didn’t see it that way. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:34, 35. But exactly what is this love Jesus talks about?
There is a lot of emphasis lately on developing a friendly church. And that’s a good thing. Friendliness is much better than unfriendliness. But friendliness should never be confused with love.
Friendliness is by definition a superficial thing. Love takes time. Friendliness likes a shiny surface. But love requires deep personal knowledge, understanding, acceptance, empathy. Friendliness is sanitary, detached. Love is involved, invested. Love is messy. Friendliness likes easy. Love takes in and accepts the wounds, the flaws, the jagged shards deeply buried in the heart. A church where only the bright shiny surface is accepted is not a loving church, however many smiling greeters are posted at the door.
The church talks a lot about evangelism and church growth, but I believe Adventists’ traditional public evangelism strategy—with its glitzy presentation, its expensive advertising campaigns, its schmaltzy, manipulative altar calls, its strings of mismatched proof texts wrested from their context—is fundamentally ineffective in creating long-term, committed followers of Christ. As the daughter of an Adventist evangelist, I believe I can say that with some authority.
I believe there’s a much more effective way. As Ellen White famously stated, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”(The Ministry of Healing, p. 143) Very little of Jesus’ preaching was about doctrine. The vast majority was about relationships—between people and between people and God.
This may come as a shock to many, but hordes of people are not waiting breathlessly outside the church doors for an explanation of the 2300 Days or the real identity of “the King of the North.”
But hordes of people in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our workplaces—in the places we play and eat and shop—are unbearably lonely, isolated, overwhelmed—desperate for someone to really care about them. Someone who is genuinely concerned about their families, their finances, their personal struggles. Someone whose caring is not a mere ploy to force doctrine down their throat—not even doctrine sugarcoated with good works or emergency assistance—but is sincere and unconditional, with no hidden agenda.
The growth of the Early Church was astounding. No one is quite sure of the specific numbers. But Acts records instances of three or five thousand people being converted in one day! Acts 2:41; 4:4. And it should be noted that the reference to 5,000 only counted the men who were converted, so it’s likely the actual number of people was at least twice or three times that. Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean at lightning speed—within the lifetime of the apostles.
The growth of Christianity was so marked as to worry even Rome. These are the comments of a disturbed Roman governor about the growth of Christianity in his jurisdiction. “Persons of all ranks and ages, of both sexes, are and will be involved in the prosecution. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread through the villages and rural districts; it seems possible, however, to check and cure it. It appears now that the temples, which had been almost deserted, will be frequented and the sacred festivals, after a long general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with few purchasers. It is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance.” Pliny, Letters to Trajan, X, 96. (Re: Christians in Bithynia; Province in Asia) (quoted in https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-christians-as-the-rom_b_4037301)
What was the secret to this phenomenal growth? How did Christianity go from an unknown, hated, fringe movement within Judaism to the official religion in the empire within 500 years?
The formula for the success of the Early Church is no great esoteric mystery. It is laid out in detail in the New Testament. And I believe if we adopted this formula, it would completely revolutionize our church, from the inside out.
- Early Christians spent time together—a LOT of time.
According to Acts 2, they met every day—at least during the early years of the church. While this would hardly be practical in the modern world, seeing each other once a week for an hour or two isn’t sufficient to develop the personal knowledge and trust which genuine love requires. Developing the kinds of unbreakable, family ties the Early Church had requires time together outside church, socializing, talking, creating personal bonds.
- They met in each other’s homes.
They broke bread “from house to house.” Of course, this was partly a practical matter as churches had not yet been built. But meeting in private houses certainly contributed to warm relationships between the early believers.
- They prayed together.
- They ate together.
“With one accord they continued to meet daily in the temple courts and to break bread from house to house, sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart.” Acts 2:46. Breaking bread has deep spiritual and emotional resonance throughout the Bible, and within most cultures. And it’s not only about Communion. There is something about the mere act of eating together that creates strong emotional connections.
5. They took care of each other’s physical and financial needs.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need.” Acts 2:44,45.
6. They prayed for healing of members’ physical diseases.
“[P]ray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail.” James 5:16
7. They were emotionally open and vulnerable with each other.
“Therefore confess your faults to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” James 5:15. This emotional vulnerability is a key element of any close relationship. And it is a crucial element sorely missing in most of the Adventist churches I’ve attended. (And I’ve attended a lot of churches.) It often feels like when we come to church, we’re all engaged in a deadly serious “Holier-than-Thou” competition. It’s as if we’re all terrified any faults, pain, needs, wounds, or weaknesses expressed will get us automatically disqualified from The Chosen.
8. They shared music together.
“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;” Eph. 5:19. As someone who’s spent most of my life involved in music groups, I can say that there’s nothing like sharing music together to create deep and lasting bonds. Some of my best friends were made in those groups. Even though I live far away from most of them, whenever we do get together, the bonds are still as strong as ever.
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:47.
There’s also contemporary evidence which supports and enhances the biblical record of the Early Church culture. Here’s what a Christian bishop from the 2nd Century said about Christians:
“Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.” Aristides of Athens, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, trans. D. M. KAY, B.Sc., B.D (quoted at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html)
Of course, Aristides was a Christian and an apologist, who might be suspected of bias or exaggeration. So what did their Roman enemies think of Christians? This from the Roman satirist, Lucian, who mocks Christians for their credulous and indiscriminate generosity.
“The poor wretches have convinced themselves first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another, after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods, and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property–receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan or trickster able to profit from them comes along and gets among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.” Lucian, Perigrinus, 11ff (quoted in https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-christians-as-the-rom_b_4037301)
So, both from Christians themselves and from their enemies, we get a clear picture of a group of people who were deeply bonded, with a sacrificial love for each other, as well as for complete strangers.
If we really “did church” like the Early Church—if we were really the kind of church that was known for “loving one another” in the holistic way they did—caring for each other physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually without agendas or conditions—we would have lines outside the church doors longer than those in front of the Apple store before the new iPhone rollout! Our churches would be packed to overflowing and there would be no need to spend thousands on a public evangelism campaign. And the church would really be the place where “everybody knows your name.”
Sonja DeWitt is a civil rights attorney with over 20 years of experience handling Equal Employment Opportunity cases. She has a strong interest in religious liberty and has worked with the North American Religious Liberty Association, for which she received an award. She blogs about religion, politics and government, and social justice at www.voicesfromthewilderness.net.