I remember that Sunday well. It was the end of one very long spiritual journey, and the beginning of another. I stood in church, looking around sadly at the fancy lights, the perfectly-dressed band, the cushioned seats, and the patterns dancing across the screen where the lyrics of our worship song were displayed. Disillusionment was settling in as I experienced a kind of culture shock, though I had only been away for two weeks.
For two weeks I had been part of a team doing children’s and family mission down on a beachfront. There were teams like ours doing Summer mission at beaches all over Australia during those two weeks, as they had been for years. This was my first time. Our team was down in Wilsons Prom, and unlike any other team, we slept, ate, and met in tents for two weeks.
We slept in big tents, housing about ten men or women each. We all ate together in a huge marquee, and each age group had their own meeting tent where they could play games and talk about God and the Bible. It was crowded, usually either boiling hot or really cold and pelting down rain, and it was tiring (especially for the poor introverts). We had wombats breaking into tents and leaks that threatened to drown our belongings during the rainy days and nights. And, it was probably the best two weeks of my life.
Yes, it was hard work. But we, a team of over 50 Christians, ate together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two weeks. We did devotions and then prayed for each other and our mission in groups of three each morning after breakfast (and prayed in our teams before every meeting and activity). Every day we held a worship session with only guitars and voices. We taught kids, Christians and non-Christians alike, from toddlers to Year 12 about the gospel. I saw teenagers reading the Bible together and asking questions about the heart of God and work of Christ.
We had to help each other through the discomfort of heat and cold, of sunburn and exhaustion. We had to take it in turns and work together to re-peg the tents pegs while it rained, and to set up before, and wash up after, every meal. Each of us were from different denominations and churches, but we didn’t debate theology. In our free time each day we got to know one another. We encouraged, uplifted, and strengthened each other, and we shared our love for God, our faith, our burdens, our joy, and our hope.
The disillusionment I was experiencing at church that Sunday morning, the day after we returned from mission, while perhaps more tangible to me in that moment, was not a unique experience. So many young Christians today find it difficult to continue attending church, or are coming to a point where they can’t seem to reconcile the faith of the New Testament with what they see in church today, and so walk away.
Yet while I was drawn to notice the lights and clothes, it was not only the different styles of worship between my time on mission and my seeker-friendly church that was disturbing me. Nor was it solely the materialism and consumerism of the Western mega-church movements. I think in trying to find the crux of the issue with why young Christians are struggling with this tension it is too easy to blame these obvious, but ultimately shallow, factors. There is a much more profound spiritual discontentment, and one of the primary causes for it can be found in all kinds of churches all over the Western world.
Hebrews 3:13 instructs us to encourage one another every day, so that our hearts will not be hardened. Again in 10:25 we are warned not to forsake our gathering together and encouraging one another. Some commentators think this was an instruction to early Christians to meet together literally every day to encourage one another in their faith.
In many ways, I see the contemporary Western church struggling with similar issues that Hebrews addresses, and a need for deeper and more intentional fellowship is one of them.
What I was experiencing that day was a mourning of loss. Loss of that unity, love, and communion with fellow believers that I never even knew my spirit had longed for so desperately. Something deeply spiritual was happening in those two weeks that was more than evangelism.
It was the sharing of each other’s lives and faith in authentic Christian community and fellowship. It was the unforced nature of joyful worship with fellow believers, the common adoration of our God. It was spending each day discussing the gospel, the love of God, our journeys of salvation, our roles as disciples, and the glory that awaits us. It was the continual physical presence and company of other Christians. It was praying and showing kindness with and for one another whenever the opportunity arose. It was the lack of dissension between God’s children; the active and diligent forbearance in preserving the bond of unity. It was the complete Christ-centred focus of every person, every day.
In perhaps such a small way, for such a short time, I truly felt that I saw the Kingdom of God on earth. It was not flashing light, miraculous healings, or prophetic words of knowledge. I’ve not the smallest doubt that those things are part of the Kingdom of God, but the aspect of the Kingdom that I was so privileged to see was more powerful than miracles of wind or fire. It was more encouraging than a word of knowledge, and more beautiful than physical healing. It was an image of that spiritual companionship which humans were made for; a connection that we long for so deeply within ourselves, which our young people are being deprived of.
In an age of physical disconnection, social media, theological dissension, denominational chaos, and the ever-present spiritual apathy which threatens the prosperous, might it be time for the church to reassess how we think about and cultivate relationships? Are we doing enough to promote authentic, strong, and effective fellowship in our churches, which transcends age or life circumstances, and affirms and strengthens the faith of God’s people?
‘But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’
‘And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own gathering together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.’