Let’s play a little hypothetical Monday afternoon:
Imagine with me… a group of people, mostly in their mid to late 20’s, living in the same apartment complex near the hospital where most of them work. There are a handful of single med students, several newlywed couples, a few widows & widowers, and even a couple families with young children (though, their apartments are getting a bit crowded so one of them may be moving out soon to a place with a yard where their kids can play).
It’s not a huge complex, so they see each other often, and there seem to be several running conversations in the group that are always picked up and left off as they pass in the hall and hang out in the lobby. These people know each other really well. It’s not uncommon at all to see one of the younger set helping out the older folks by carrying groceries or doing whatever else may be needed. The youngest kids talk excitedly about the grandmas and grandpas they have in the building, and if you had to guess, you’d probably think they really were family. And they are… just not in the way that has anything to do with genetics or legal agreements.
I go to church in their neighborhood, and have visited their building a couple times. When Bill got sick and had to retire from his work in the hospital’s ER, they threw him one of the coolest retirement parties I’ve seen. It was amazing to see people whose lives Bill had saved or whose broken arms he’d set get together and talk about what a difference he’d made to each of them. He never stopped at just the basic care they’d expected. The apartment crew, as I’ve come to call them, also went way above and beyond to celebrate Bill’s work over the years. The extra mile seems to be a pattern for all of them.
These people really seem to love each other, too. They don’t just live in the same space, they genuinely and excessively care about the well being of each one in their community. Several times a week, all of them who can get there will share a meal together in the courtyard (or the lobby when it’s cold), and no one ever eats alone. I was surprised at one visit to hear them talking about some Bible passages they’d read lately, and how it motivated them to love even others outside their community the same way they loved each other. They’ve taken the word neighbor to a whole new level…
My neighborhood’s not like that, so I pressed them once about what the difference was. They said the difference was that they’d each committed to loving Jesus, loving others, and doing the things Jesus said to do – which I thought was kind of odd because most of them hardly ever go to church. I asked why they don’t go to church and they said they’d each chosen to work Sunday morning shifts so that other people could go if they wanted to. They did point out that they had been taking turns leading devotions in the lobby every morning before the kids had to be at school, and they’d built a prayer wall in one of the halls where they’d post stuff to pray about with each other. They showed me the board, full of notes from just about every one in the building.
As I visited yesterday, one note in particular really hit me. It was from Jake, one of the boys who may be moving soon. He only asked for two things:
- That they could find a house big enough for the whole family. By the picture he drew with the note, I could tell ‘family’ didn’t just mean his brother and parents!
- That moving to a house didn’t mean they’d have to stop helping at the homeless shelter the ‘family’ had started around the corner from their building.
Why is our group called ‘church’ but theirs is not?
Just a quick, non-hypothetical point: This is not about the guy who claims to be worshiping God in nature because he’d rather go golfing on Sunday mornings. It’s not about Justin Bieber saying he doesn’t have to go to church because somebody else just religiously goes to church to go to church (more perspective on that here from Scot McKnight & Dan Kimball). It’s about the essence of church. When you strip everything away that’s superfluous in the church, what’s still there? I know this apartment dwelling group is fictitious. But the question remains: should it be?