Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Kids Table

Yes, there really is a table. But most Christians have long-forgotten the table of God that is in the church and exchanged it for a lesser table. The kids table, maybe, where we all gather around the smaller table with the people we know well, who share our interests, and talk about the things we have in common. 

Nowhere is this temptation more pronounced than in the current movement toward small groups. And no, this is not an indictment of small groups as an idea; there are many, many advantages toward belonging to a good small group (maybe I will take this up in a day or two). But most of us aren't offering good small groups. We're not doing it well.

Most of us offer the same small groups, or a general approximation of the same small groups, with every session. Rather than being a time to explore a certain topic, to engage in a certain material, to touch a new place in each of our hearts, these small groups become a time to connect with the same friends, to have the same parties and pitch-ins, to be around the same people. I've both been a part of this (proud member of the 'Alleluia group' for something like four straight years as a young Christian many years ago) and a victim of it (as a more mature adult Christian, I signed up for a new small group, only to find that I was the only one who hadn't been in this group for the past three decades and feeling highly out of place as I didn't understand the stories, the traditions, the inside jokes, etc.). And I think sometimes, it's not only easy to just hang out with the same people all the time, it's also spiritually detrimental. Some of the small groups (of friends) that I've visited have all-but-discarded the Biblical reason for meeting together. They may go through some course or some material, but it's an item on a checklist. Something to do while they're eating their finger foods and letting the kids get some good play time in. When everyone's mouth is done chewing and they're finally free to talk, the "Bible portion" of the small group meeting has ended, no serious engagement having been made, and we're on to recreation time.

Not only this, but walk into the church building on Sunday morning, and you find the members of these small groups congregating there, too. They talk to each other in the lobby. They sit together in the sanctuary. They serve on the same ministries. They participate in the same events. They do all their church things together, this band of brothers, and it can make anyone else feel like an outsider. Anyone who may want to strike up a conversation in the lobby may find they're talking to someone who already has their group and isn't much interested in adding to it. Anyone who wants to sit in a certain section of the sanctuary may find themselves in the middle of a well-established group, which they are interrupting. Anyone who wants to serve in a certain ministry may find that the ministry already has its own family, and it takes such a very long time, in most cases, to be adopted. 

Again, not all small groups end up this way, but a fair number of them do, and it makes church at large a very difficult place to be, particularly for the unaffiliated. 

And it must also be said that some churches are intentionally making this their model. Some churches hook you up with a small group the minute you walk in the door, building their congregations around this idea that you most belong with us when you feel like you belong somewhere, and so they create a culture in which you absolutely belong because from day one, you get a brand new group of friends. Of course, these are not friends that you pick for yourself. These are not friends that you necessarily have anything in common with. These are not friends with whom you might share your life were it not for this group you've been thrust into. But at least they're friends. That's something, right? It's the potential of belonging, right from the very beginning. Then these small groups become, collectively, the church. And all the things that feels so closed about small groups in conventional churches are built right into these small groups churches - these small groups are expected to sit together. They're expected to be in the same Bible studies all the time. They're expected to take on ministry projects together. They're expected to spend all of their "church time" together. That's what makes them a "successful" small group.

It's a church literally made of kids tables, while Jesus breaks bread somewhere on stage.

I'm really not anti-small group. I'm not. But I am very much anti-kids tables. I'm against the notion that we can't all walk into church and sit at the same table. I'm against the idea that we've become so comfortable sitting in too-small chairs, hunching over a hilariously-short table, stuffing our faces with good friends instead of spiritual food. I'm against the idea that Jesus, so eager to break bread with us, is forced to let His crumbs fall on empty place settings because there's something about the way we do church that keeps us from coming to the big table. I'm against the idea that our pastors and preachers and prophets and priests have become nothing more than wait staff, trying to bring an appropriate serving of Jesus to a bunch of these different tables every Sunday - a few homemade rolls over here, a couple of crackers over there, red wine for that table, white for this one, no wine at all for that one over there, just grape juice. I'm against the idea that we gather around our little tables and essentially order God off a menu to suit our tastes - according to our own stories, according to our own traditions, according to our own inside jokes. I'm against the idea that we can all walk into our churches, look at Christ sitting at the head of His table, and choose to sit somewhere else because that's where our friends are.

This is what happens when we only go to church with people like us. We walk in the doors looking not for Jesus, but for our friends. We're more likely to say, "Ah! There they are!" than "Ah! There He is!" And we're all okay with that. 

I'm not okay with that.

Because I guess...I guess like all good kids, there's something in me that can't wait to eat at the big table. I want to walk in and take one of those empty seats with Jesus. I want to break bread with Him. I want to share stores with Him. I want to make memories and establish traditions and create all these inside jokes with Him. I want to be at the big table. 

Who wants to join me?

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