Gathering in Spite of Scattering

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25

The Challenge

In 19th century America it would be scandalous to pass one church to attend another. These were the days of community churches. One of the main factors that would determine the church you attended was proximity and geography. Today, this is still true, but it’s true in a way that’s different than it was in the past. The invention of the mass produced automobile redefined proximity and nearness. Now, we drive by church after church to attend the one that fits our likings, theology and personality. And this is not to say that this is a bad thing. The opportunity to attend a church with greater like-mindedness and theological purity is now more possible today than in a previous age.

But our technology has radically changed the way we participate in church. Typical church patterns from a previous day would see the church gathered at multiple meetings throughout the week, twice on Sunday and again Wednesday. This was a healthy pattern of a church living and acting as a gospel-centered community.

Things changed. In a peculiar turn of events the western world became a victim of it’s own success. The automobile, the highway and suburban living brought incredible luxury and extravagance. It created opportunities to travel and connect with outside worlds that were beforehand inconceivable. At this moment the geographically centric Christian community scattered.

No longer was it with ease that the church gathered. Gathering now required a journey. Sometimes the journey proved painless. When other travelers would lock themselves in on Sunday mornings, traveling was easy. But other travelers would rarely give reprieve to their own schedules long enough for this to be a continuous pattern. The journey during other moments of the day and week became tiring and taxing. The suburban tradeoff: people journey less.

This is the situation of the modern churchgoer. He is under the confluence of less time and more responsibility. He lives farther from work, church and family than he ever has and his responsibilities and asks vie for his time in a way unlike before. It is no wonder church life and the need to gather is so strained.

An Opportunity with the Holidays

The holiday season offers reprieve to the busyness of modern life. The holidays require the modern man and woman to stop; during this season life-patterns are greatly altered. There is this confluence of nostalgia, an interruption of normal life rhythms and a bend to religiosity that provides the church a unique opportunity to build a culture of gathering in spite of the movement and cultural pressures to scatter.

Nostalgia

According to a recent Pew study 70% of Americans view themselves as Christians. This does not suggest that 70% of the US population is Christian, but it does suggest that 7 out of 10 of our neighbors have uniquely Christian foundations and ideas. During the Christmas holidays people are often subject to nostalgia and a host of fond semi-religious memories. These memories are often rooted in some religious activity and experience. The short story: lots of your neighbors are wanting to experience Christianity in a more real way during this season than any other time of the year. [quote]lots of your neighbors are wanting to experience Christianity in a more real way during this season than any other time of the year.[/quote]

Interruption

The holiday season also provides a healthy disruption to a persons normal patterns of life. It is incredible, but the Christmas holiday season acts as a collective parking brake for the entire culture. And this, unlike the family vacation, allows people the opportunity to completely disconnect. The family vacation allows an individual family to break away, but this never happens perfectly. Emails and short calls interrupt and invade. But during the holidays everyone collectively stops. This collective stoppage allows people to experience the gathering of the church in a way they might not otherwise. 

Religious Bend

There is one final way the holidays provide an opportunity for the church. The holidays create a moment for people to reflect on their own faith. People are more likely to evaluate their spiritual lives and ask important questions about faith and belief. The best place for these questions to be investigated is within the local church.

It is more difficult in this day and age for people to gather. From every direction culture and flows of life are forcing the church farther away and creating stress on her gathering moments. However, an opportunity is created during the holiday season for people to both desire and have the space to gather as a church. Here are five tips to cultivate gathering in your church.

Five Tips to Cultivate Gathering

1. Go Small

Our tendency is to think that bigger is better. The larger service, the bigger crowd. The generally asked question is, ‘how can we make this huge.’ However, the nature of our cities and communities create barriers to this. The better response to the sprawl is micro-gatherings. Communities meeting in corners over the whole city.

If we believe this to be true; if we are to cultivate a movement of gathering within our churches during the holiday season, we should gather small and gather often.

2. Cultivate Community

Unfortunately it is a human tendency to forget the obvious; we are oblivious to the obvious. The obvious here is our need to communicate our convictions about community. Perhaps overlooked because of our inability to understand the simple.

One of the ways the church can counter the scatter is through regular teaching and proclamation about who the church is and what she does; [quote]One of the ways the church can counter the scatter is through regular teaching and proclamation about who the church is and what she does;[/quote] to my point at this moment, a community that gathers. We do this in large moments and small moments. In large moments like Sunday mornings it is healthy to instruct the church on what living together as Christians looks like. But also in small settings, in conversations and in small groups, we need to communicate Biblical patterns of Christian community.

3. Tap Technology

The progress of technology over the last twenty years is hard to believe. There are whole areas of people-to-people engagement that exist now that didn’t exist in previous times (previous times not that far off!). Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, My Space, Snapchat (and I’m sure some other new platforms I’m unaware of) are stealing moments of our lives with updates, adverts and the all important alert. Our people are beginning and ending their days on their timelines and the church is missing meaningful opportunities to engage the void if we are absent.

In this way technology can help cultivate gathering through communicating gathering opportunities, spurring spontaneous gathering moments and creating impromptu digital connection points.

4. Capitalize Curriculum

Holiday themed music and books exist because people desire tools to help stoke the flames of seasonal engagement. Christmas music helps us create attitudes and recall memories. With this in mind, our people are already looking for tools to help drive their minds to better holiday appreciation. The church leadership can work to curate the music and material that people will explore.

Doing this has two immediate benefits. First, we are helping our members (and those who view our church as their own) find good music and reading material and we rid our churches of the heretical and unhelpful. Second, by curating material for people two use and read through we are building unity within the church. This is important because it creates greater connection at our already limited connection points. In other words, when our groups are gathered, they are gaining greater single-mindedness.

5. Focus on the Gospel

There is no excuse and we cannot get this one wrong. The church is about the gospel of Christ. The one thing that will cultivate a greater sense of gathering is a clear view of the gospel permeating our entire group. Our church needs a clear view of who we are and what it is we do when we gather. The who we are: children of God. The what we do: proclaim the message of the gospel to each other in every area and facet of our lives.

It is my memory of the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy that the church missed this. At this moment in our collective histories our neighbors turned to our churches for answers. Across the country there was increased gathering, an influx, listening ears. But the gathering receded, the influx refluxed and the listening ears left wanting.

I reiterate, we cannot get this wrong. When we gather this holiday season, let us return to the basics and speak about the things that ultimately matter.

HolidaysJesse Crowley