All church leaders these days are deeply immersed in thinking about how to do church better. We are keenly aware of the declining membership rolls and giving to sustain the mission and ministry of the institutional church. Some attention has been given to the emerging church movement and its potential to help stem the tide. Other leaders talk about the need to get back to basics such as focusing on scripture, liturgy and formation. Still others talk about becoming mission-shaped again and returning to why we are the church. Let me share with you another perspective.
A friend's 20-something son is currently engaged in a cross-country motorcycle journey with its only goal being to partake in an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting everyday in a new place. As I follow his daily travels through his online blog, I am struck by the fellowship and spirituality that he is experiencing as he seeks out meetings and encounters fellow seekers along the way. He meets these fellow seekers in all kinds of places, from rest stops to truck stops to small towns and campgrounds to the side of the road, and of course, at meetings.
There are several aspects of these encounters that I think speak to what's missing in much of organized religion and how we do church that we would do well to pay attention to.
First, these fellow seekers seem to know how to recognize each other and to be open to the possibility of meeting a fellow seeker along the way. It's not the similarity of the clothes they wear, the class ring or the familiar speech patterns; the recognition is not about being from the same social background. What I sense is a humility born of being brought low - in 12-Step terminology, "hitting bottom" and "knowing that I am powerless in the face of my addiction" - that inculcates an openness to "the other" along the road. It reminds me of the blessings of the Beatitudes and how the poor in spirit and the meek are the ones who know true blessings. They know each other by their need for ongoing self-examination, witnessing to one another and continuing in the journey of recovery, one step at a time.
Second, these fellow seekers share their stories, both informally as they meet on the road and in the context of meetings as they lift up their shared values - their "creed" or the 12-Steps - as a reminder of who they are, how they got here, and how they're going to continue in their recovery. It is in the act of telling their stories - admitting to people who are often new friends being met for the first time that they fell and were found, that they're trying and it's hard, that they're glad for the fellowship along the journey - where the strengthening by the Higher Power occurs. Confession to a fellow seeker, acceptance for who are you and where you're at, and authentic, often palpable support in the form of a meal or a bed for the night - these are acts of love and charity, outreach and human kindness that form formidable bonds of fellowship. I also sense a genuine curiosity among these seekers to hear another's story, to know that they are not alone in their story, and a keen awareness of interconnectedness because their stories are the same, about fallenness and redemption, and only the details are different.
Third, not only do these fellow seekers somehow recognize one another, but they also recognize the tenuous nature of one another's journey to recovery and are alert to extending themselves to help a fellow seeker stay on the path to recovery. My young motorcyclist friend writes about making a long ride out of his way to get gas for a fellow seeker who was stranded by the side of the road in the pouring rain. It wasn't just that the new friend by the side of the road needed gas; he also needed to know that someone else was supporting his journey to recovery through the small act of kindness of providing a physical need - the gasoline. There was an unspoken recognition that little things trip us up when we are seeking to become our better selves, and that small acts of kindness say that we know that we need each other, that it's an inescapable fact that we need each other in order to stay on our journey to our better selves.
As I reflect upon these several aspects of these 12-Steppers' experience, I must admit that I haven't experienced anything like them in my lifetime of being a Christian church member. I don't think I'm alone in my admission. I haven't experienced the kind of humility in my Christian community that makes me aware of my fallenness where I can confess to my sisters and brothers my powerlessness. Our confession is to God, and there is a sense in which it is sterile, personal and private - safe. I haven't experienced it on an emotional level; I have contemplated it on an intellectual level, and it's not the same thing.
Where I do experience Christian community that is more intimate, immediate and raw is in some of the small committees and educational groups in which I participate. The experience of community occurs when we share our lives, telling our stories of family, challenges, sadness and defeat, and celebration, passages and new beginnings, and not when we are doing the reporting, planning, organizing and strategizing of the institution or project.
It has often been said that being a true follower of Jesus' Gospel is a radical act that is dangerous and scary. I suspect that home church fellowships and missionary churches might get closer to that experience than mainline denominations with our hierarchies, plethora of structure and myriad buildings.
In the 12-Steppers' fellowship, I see accountability to one another as fellow travelers, which I don't see in denominational Christianity, where our accountability is to God and to the hierarchy. I'm beginning to think we've missed something important, and we're being called to go and find it.