In 2007 I packed my bags and was driven to Keele University in the midlands of England. I arrived with no friends, zero. I didn’t know anyone who was going to the same university, much less anyone who was pursing the same degree as I was. I quickly started to interact with my suite mates, and faces that were nameless in my 200 strong Law class started to have stories and experiences attached to them. We also debated in labs made up of 15 or so students, and we rubbed shoulders in social activities that most remembered through the fog of a rabid hangover, “the morning after the night before”. I listened, slept, missed and suffered through dozens of lectures each semester with the same people. Yet our shared experience of listening to a talking head for two hours at a time, for two years didn’t magically draw all 200 of us into intimate relationships with each other. The same is true in church family, our shared experience of listening to a sermon, may lift our spirits, but it doesn’t magnetically draw us to each other.
Paul in Romans 16 is getting ready to “land the plane” as it were, he is no longer navigating heady theological concepts, rather he is wrapping up his book with greetings to friends and family. Paul’s greeting reveal the church in Rome consisted of units ( affinity groups if you wish) that he acknowledged and addressed : v16:1-5 Phobe, Priscilla & Aquila and the church that meets in their home, v14 Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, v15 Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints.
The church that Paul was writing to was not a single thumping entity, but rather an aggregate of families, and groups. There were congregations meeting in homes, and some were bound by blood ties as well as spiritual bonds. Additionally Paul mentions by name his relatives v7 Andronicus and Junia v11. Herodian v21 Lucius, Jason and Sosipater. Lastly Paul sends a heartfelt greeting to individuals that he was especially close to through shared experiences.
Acts 2:42-47 is sometimes hijacked to mean “the church must be a commune of people with no property rights, sharing daily potlucks and bank accounts.” Another train of thought goes like this: “if this church was really Christian then we would all be friends, one big happy family and everyone would know if I was sick and didn’t come to church. My church isn’t like that, therefore it is full of uncaring hypocrites.” I can understand the frustration of being a young person in a church, and feeling utterly disconnected with the larger body. I know what it feels like to debate going to your local church or visiting “bedside Baptist church” for the third time in a month. I get it, really, I’ve been there got the t-shirt, and taken the instagram picture.
The problem with this expectation of church being a grand perfectly connected organism of happy people is that it’s not even biblical. Paul’s greetings are to groups of people who constitute a body. It is not sinful to be drawn to people in church who share similar passions, interests or jobs, and we shouldn’t begrudge such natural groupings. Of course if they intentionally and systematically segregate themselves to the exclusion of others, that is a problem. So please, if you are a young person who is drifting from church to church, looking for the congregation that lays out the red carpet for you and where every family and group invites you home for lunch – good for you, keep looking. I mean that sincerely, we should aim for welcoming atmospheres for outsiders, but the day will come where you have to mourn for your dead expectations of homogenous friendship groups. Unless you intentional set out to make friends, connect, and attach you will be continually disappointed by your 11am Sabbath experience. On many levels if you want a satisfying experience on Sabbath, you need to cultivate the ground before you can realistically expect seeds to flourish. Do not begrudge those who naturally form groups within your church if they are loving Christian people, they have the right to do that, and they are not being “worldly” by doing so.
What can you do this week (at church and outside) to meaningfully connect and build a relationship with some one?