“Food, Fun, Fellowship!” How many times have we heard these words as it relates to the life of the church? Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I remember reading newsletters and receiving postcards with such invitations to church events. I’m sure that many of us may remember such advertisements when we were children. I’m willing to venture a guess that these three words were even used BEFORE many of us were born!
What was in store was usually pretty amazing! When I think of youth gatherings, or celebratory church gatherings, my mind goes back to smelling hot dogs on the grill, the refreshing ice-cold taste of a soft drink, and the sight of numerous games spread out on the church lawn. The church-wide events were not just for the church members, but many people from around town would show up for the food, fun, and fellowship. What do you remember?
Food, fun, fellowship. I started as a youth minister in 2004 in Lawrenceville, NJ. I was fresh out of college, I had my first ‘real’ job, and I was ready to bring in the youth from all corners of the community! I remember carefully designing postcard templates just like my predecessors before, printing them out on the card stock, and mailing them off to hundreds of youth and families around town.
This worked for a little while. Then, little by little, I noticed less and less youth showing up to these events. I really was trying to figure out why we weren’t getting the same responses for our events as the previous years. After a while, I finally got smart and started asking the families why they weren’t attending our church events. Some of the responses I’m sure either you have heard before, or you have used yourselves:
‘We have lots of homework on Sundays’
‘We are out of town for our sports tournaments’
‘My wife and I are divorced, so the kids are only in town every other weekend’
The reasons for not attending seemed to keep piling up! Then I noticed that some of the ‘regulars’ weren’t showing up to events either, and their reasons were even trickier:
‘I never knew about the event’
‘It must have gotten lost in the mail’
‘I was waiting to hear back from a friend’
And then I just heard something that just made me sad. I can summarize it by the many youth and adults who I have spoken with. Many times I run into people out in town who may not have been back to church in a while. One day I ran into a high school student who was pretty active as a child, but stopped showing up over the last year. I asked her if she was getting my postcards, and she said yes. Finally I asked why she hasn’t been around then, and her answer was pretty straightforward. ’I don’t want to go somewhere with a bunch of hypocrites. Every week we talk about being a loving family, and then they walk out the door and start lying and calling each other names again. Why would I want to go there?’
It seemed to me that food, fun, and fellowship was being attacked on all sides by modern society! What was I, and the Church as a whole, to do?!
Many of us grew up listening to children’s sermons about Doubting Thomas, and how it actually took him the resurrected Christ himself to come to him in order that he may believe. For the belief of Thomas, it was quite simple: show me Jesus, and I will believe.
The letters of 1 John, in a very similar way to the Gospel of John, share with us an early understanding of Christian theology. What is the nature of God? Who was Jesus? What is the Church called to be?
What I love about this passage is the words that the author uses to tell the story; verses 1 and 2 use words like ‘declare’ and ‘testify’ to share with us the accounts of the author. This is not just a letter; this is a theological statement.
In a few short sentences, the author reveals God’s larger plan through Christ, from the beginning of time itself with Creation, to the crucifixion and resurrection of our Savior.
Verse 3 introduces a new word, the Greek word ‘koinonia’ or ‘fellowship’, to describe a particular relationship between one another and in verse 6 a particular relationship with God. This is the word we have been looking for! Maybe this is the key to figuring out how to get more people back to food, fun, and fellowship!
Verses 5 thru 10 discuss the need to acknowledge sin in one’s life. In fact, we are only able to engage in fellowship in God if we are able to first admit to the fact that we live broken lives. Once we acknowledge this, we may go on living in this fellowship.
Then finally the beginning of chapter 2 summarizes the message well: we are reading these words to first be made aware of our own brokenness, and secondly, to then understand and appreciate the grace offered in Christ.
So what does this have to do with getting people back to our church events? Well, let’s get back to the story here. There I was, sending out postcard after postcard, and getting less and less responses. I prayed about it, talked about it at church, even second-guessed my calling in ministry a bit.
Then an answer came…from one of my youth. ‘Jeff, I don’t read your letters or postcards; why don’t you just text me?’
Aha! Why this took me so long to figure out, I’m not sure, but it finally was hit over the head: many of the youth were not even hearing about the fellowship events, because they didn’t read mail anymore. Friends, we just discovered what is called a ‘technical fix’ to a problem in ministry. This is something that can easily be resolved (once we are willing to allow our pride and our old ways of doing things to take a back seat).
So I started texting the youth about future events, and guess what; the regulars started attending more often once again! This we can call the ‘Doubting Thomas’ fix; literally get in their face (or phones) as Jesus did, and they can’t resist you. But does this work for everyone?
Some of the youth started coming back, but not all of them. There was a larger issue at play here, and we see it in the letter of 1 John. Many of the youth… and by this point I hope you see that we can relate this to all people in the church, young or old,…many people were getting the postcards, were now getting texts, but ultimately didn’t even know what ‘food, fun, and fellowship’ was all about! Sure, we understand food and fun, the local community festivals offer these, but what about fellowship? This is what Ronald Heifetz calls the ‘adaptive issue’ at hand: how do we communicate to people the meaning of fellowship? They didn’t know what the word meant, or they knew what it meant, and simply chose not to live into it.
Some of us may describe fellowship as being in community, and that is a great start. But today’s letter in 1 John goes even deeper, and I think this is ultimately what we forget to share with others, and what many people need to hear in order to understand the importance of the Christian life. Fellowship is more than just a bunch of people hanging out together; we are exhibiting the Kingdom of God, heaven on earth, as we share with each other in our daily lives, just as Christ lived his life in relationship with God.
What we read this morning is not only about Christians being together today; we read the story of why Jesus is so essential in our lives; it’s because of his life, death, and resurrection, that we can live as forgiven children of God, and in so doing, live together as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
The reason more and more people are not showing up to church each day is because we are failing as a faith community to not only communicate, but also to exhibit what it means to live in fellowship, in koinonia, as God’s family here on earth. We can send out as many postcards or text messages as you like. We can buy the biggest electronic church sign, or bring all of the electric guitars, but ultimately, youth, and people of all ages keep coming back because they feel loved and welcomed for who they are.
We can talk for hours and hours about the technical fixes for churches today to bring in more and more people, and many of these ideas may work, at least for a short while. But what I want the youth to know today, and all of us to know today is the Good News: we are invited into a loving community where we are accepted and loved for who we are by Christ and by one another in fellowship.
We learn about this, and we know this, by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ—we are Easter people!
And this is what we learn from the Bible, not in every single passage, but by many of the passages: we are called to do just about anything to share this message of eternal life with those who don’t know about Christ and the Church. We are not being called to keep things the same as they have always been, no matter how wonderful of memories we may have of ‘food, fun, and fellowship.’ We need to listen to the people, and not confuse postcards with the Gospel message. We are here to live into Christian fellowship, koinonia, and in so doing, to invite others to eternal life in Christ.