The truth, even if we don't want to hear it, is that if we're not making fellowship a central part of our time together on Sunday mornings, then our people aren't getting it. If we're making them choose it on their own and work for it out of their own energies, they aren't having it.
We've seen two objections to the notion of making fellowship central in our gatherings - first, that no one wants to come to a place where they are expected to be socially vulnerable and second, that if we spend our time on fellowship, we'll be diminishing the time we have available to "preach Jesus."
Let's start with the second objection, because I cannot stress this enough: doing fellowship right is preaching Jesus. In fact, it's more preaching Jesus than anything we could do with straight-up words. The biggest attraction of the church has always been not its theology, but its community.
The fact of the matter is that there's plenty of theology in the world. There are plenty of gods, each with their own story. And if you just take them at their words, there's not a lot of significant difference between them. That is, they all tell the story of a god who is bigger than us and who controls the world and who has some measure of cosmic power and some set of rules by which you get on his good side or bad side. For all practical purposes, most "god stories" are relatively the same.
What makes the Christian God story different is His nearness, His presence, His incarnation so that He walks among us. And the God who walks among us set for us an example of how we're supposed to do it, by always being in relationship with the persons around Him. By establishing a core group of believers and disciples who completely changed the world. And this Christ-God told us, plainly, that the world would understand only when they see us loving each other.
I don't know how that could be any clearer.
So if folks walking into your church are getting a god story....*yawn*. God stories are a dime a dozen. But relationship is that thing that our human souls long for, and that's what makes our God story so dramatically different, and so wonderfully better, than all of the others. So maybe we aren't "preaching Jesus" with words, but I tell you with absolute confidence that love preaches Jesus better than words ever could.
Now, as for the notion that no one wants to come to a place where they are expected to be socially vulnerable, I think we have to change our understanding of this. It all depends, really, on how we define social vulnerability.
The overwhelming human ache, especially in our individualistic generation, is to know and to be known. It's to have a place to fit in. It's to have a place to be and to be welcome. Not just because you exist and you happen to be there, but because you are known and others are choosing to welcome and include you. We all want to be part of something; we all want to be connected to others.
There are ways to do togetherness that don't have to be awkward. It all has to do with how you normalize it.
We have a bit of a pressure in our culture toward "privacy." We think we have to protect the privacy of others, and in the church, this means that we've sort of tucked our needs away. No reason to name any names, no reason to embarrass anyone. No reason to call anyone out in front of everyone else. And for all practical purposes, this means that we have essentially stopped praying for one another as a body. If you want to know who to pray for, check the bulletin or read the weekly email or whatever, but we don't make it a habit any more of bringing the needs of our members before the body publicly. And even if our members have a need, they can respond privately to the invitation, pray privately with an elder, walk back to their seat alone, and everyone else waits for the email update.
What if we normalize making the needs of our members public in our time together? What if we normalize having a gathering where addressing the real lives of those among us is our primary emphasis?
The early church came together to meet the needs of those in attendance. They spent their time dividing up their resources and making sure everyone was taken care of. This wasn't something their deacons did after the assembly was over; it was part of their assembling together. And it wasn't that long ago that it was part of ours. It wasn't that long ago that no one thought twice for us to interrupt the assembly to pray for someone, for us to stop everything else and take time to hear a story, for us to break between worship songs to hear a testimony. It's only been recently that these things have been pushed to the side..for no other reason than that they aren't part of our very-scripted program.
But church was never meant to be about a program, and there's not one single example of that in the New Testament. Not one. Church was meant to be about a fellowship.
And if we're not using our time together for being together, we're doing it wrong. Period. We simply have to make fellowship central to our time together. We have to make our togetherness the thing. Even Jesus said so.