By Marvin A. McMickle
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
(second in a series related to the church's celebration of 40 Days of Purpose.)
One of the most important and disturbing books of the last five or six years is entitled, Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. The book is not about the sport of bowling, as much as it is about the fact that more and more people in American society are choosing to do more and more things alone. Bowling has always been the ultimate group activity. Whether you belong to a bowling league, or go bowling with a group of family or friends, bowling was always viewed as something that people did together. Sometimes you went bowling together for the sake of the competition, and sometimes you went bowling with a group simply for the sake of the companionship. But either way, people would go bowling as part of a group.
In Putnam's book, the premise is that we are losing our sense of community in America, and the ultimate proof of the fact is the things that more and more people are doing alone. Bowling is, in fact, only a metaphor for a wide range of activities. People go to the movies alone, as well as to restaurants, concerts, athletic events and even vacation. Some of this may be explained by the fact that a large number of adults are living as singles, and companionship is not always readily available. However, says Putnam, the more significant issue facing our society is that people cannot or will not sustain relationships over any length of time. As a result of that fact, more and more people spend more and more of their time "bowling alone."
There may be some areas of our lives where we can have just as much fun or just as rich of an experience when we are alone, as when we are in the company of others. However, there is one setting in which that can never be the case, and that is in our lives as Christians. At the very center of the Christian life is the word fellowship. The Christian life is not a solo venture where each one of us works out our relationship with God in isolation from all other believers. The best part of being a Christian is being a part of the fellowship of the church where you are constantly involved with other believers in the service of God.
There are some Christians who are content with a spiritual life that begins and ends with simply being a part of the membership of the church. That means that their names are on the church rolls, and they may attend a church service from time to time. However, being a part of the membership is not the same as being a part of the fellowship. Membership simply means that you are a number on a box of envelopes; fellowship means that you and I are committed to doing ministry and worship together, that we are mutually committed to the strength and vitality of this congregation, and we are ultimately defined and directed by our common loyalty and obedience to God and to God's word as revealed in scripture. As we start down this road this morning, let me ask each one of you to consider this question; are you a part of the membership or a part of the fellowship of this church?
Our text in I John reminds us that Christian fellowship is rooted and grounded in our relationship with each other as well as our common allegiance to God and to God's teachings. Thus, I want to suggest that the first step on the road to real fellowship in the Body of Christ involves doing things that allow us to become better acquainted with one another. We need to find time to be together beyond the Sunday morning worship service so we can know more about one another.
In the last few weeks several events have occurred that were designed to move people from membership to fellowship. Many of you are now involved in small group discussions in the homes of various members around the 40 Days of Purpose program in which we are involved as a congregation. That is a way to move from membership to fellowship. Yesterday many of us went to the theatre together to see the production Crowns, a marvelous show about the role that hat wearing has played among African American women and how that links us to our African past and the practice of adorning the head. It was a great time of cultural enrichment, but it was also another way to increase our sense of fellowship as we see one another outside of the church and then continue to reflect on the experiences that we shared that day.
The people who miss all of these events may be a part of the Sunday morning membership, but they are "bowling alone" when they miss these wonderful times of fellowship. Look at the church bulletin or the newsletter and take note of the activities that are going on around the church all of the time. Take the time to be involved in those things. You will get to know other members far better. You will find that your membership here at Antioch will be greatly enriched when you are actively involved in the fellowship.
I say again, Sunday morning services are a rich and wonderful experience, but they are not enough to move people from membership to fellowship. When you attend a Bible study on a regular basis and begin to hear the questions and comments coming from those around you, that experience builds fellowship. When you attend the Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night and listen, sometimes with tears in your eyes and other times with joy in your heart, while people sitting around you testify of the things that are going on in their lives; that is the stuff of which fellowship is made. Never be content only to be a part of the membership that meets on Sunday mornings; strive with everything that is in you to become a part of the fellowship through active involvement in the programs and activities of the church.
I want to be careful that I do not leave anyone with the impression that fellowship is limited to the programs that we attend together, no matter how enriching or rewarding they may be. Fellowship is also on the principle of making ourselves available to share in the work of ministry. Fellowship takes place as we do the work of ministry together and as we see each person making use of the spiritual gifts that God has assigned to each one of us.
One of the most informative moments in my entire ministry, which is now in its 33rd year, occurred during my first week as the pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church in Montclair, NJ. It was a Sunday afternoon in January of 1977 and I had not yet been installed into that position. The phone rang and I was informed that a death had occurred involving a man who had been married to his wife for 58 years. The question that immediately came to my mind was what I could say to a woman who was over 80-years of age and whose husband of 58 years had just died. By contrast, I was 28-years of age and had been married for less than two years. I could, of course, tell her all of the standard things about God being with her and walking with her through the valley of the shadow of death. I had a lot of words I could speak to her, but I had no experience with this situation. I was in my first month as a pastor and I was already in over my head.
Then I remembered that on the search committee that worked to bring me to that church was a woman who had only recently been through a similar experience. Her husband of over 60 years had died the year before. She had just come through what this other woman was now facing. She had answers while all I had were questions. I got on the phone and called her to see if she would be willing to go with me on that visit to the house of the recently bereaved widow. She was eager to do so, and once I finished talking about funeral plans and how to write an obituary, the two of them talked about what it is like to be over 80-years of age and outlive your long-time spouse.
Those two women shared in a time of ministry that was far richer than anything I could have accomplished, and it was based upon one of them being available to the other one at a time and point of need. The two of them had known each other for years during happier times, but in that critical hour one of them could be of great assistance to the other because she was not just a part of the membership of that church, she was a part of the fellowship and she was ready and willing to help bear the burdens of another member of the congregation as we are challenged to do in
Do not come to church on Sunday so you can go "bowling alone." Find some way to be a part of the fellowship, because it is the fellowship that we share with each other both inside of this church and beyond that brings us together and then binds us together over the years. Look at the person who is seated next to you, behind you, in front of you, or in a nearby pew in any direction. Do you know those people near whom you sit every week? I do not mean do you know their name; though that would be a good place to start. I mean do you know anything at all about their lives? Do you know they work they do or once did? Do you know the health problems with which they are struggling, or the family problems that are wearing them down or the financial worries that kept them up last night? The Bible says that we should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (
The point I am making is that fellowship is not defined solely by the times we eat together or laugh together at a social occasion. Fellowship is also built and strengthened in those painful moments when we find someone in the church with whom we can pray and share together about our children, our careers, our pains, our sorrows, our hopes and our fears. Fellowship occurs when you visit with someone who is in the hospital, or call someone who is confined, or send a card to someone who is going through a difficult time in their lives. It does not matter if you and I attend service every Sunday morning; if we are not sharing in the social and the service activities of the church we are simply "bowling alone."
I remember as if it was yesterday a meeting I had with a pastor from Brooklyn, NY named Gardner Taylor. I was a first year seminary student and he was an internationally acclaimed preacher of the Gospel. Three of us had traveled by subway to attend the communion service at Concord Baptist Church that was to be held at 6 pm one Sunday evening. We arrived ahead of schedule and found our seats in the vast auditorium of that 18,000-member congregation. When the service began there was a time for announcements and the greetings of visitors; just as we do here. Much to our surprise, Dr. Taylor announced that he was aware that some seminary students were in the audience and that he wanted to meet with us after the service. I have no idea how he knew we were there, but we were grateful for the opportunity to meet this great man and we made our way back to his study.
He talked with us for about 10 minutes concerning our studies and our aspirations for ministry. Then he reached into his wallet and proceeded to give each one of us $10, encouraging us to go straight out and buy ourselves a good meal. I guess we looked like the poor, struggling preachers that we were, and we gladly accepted his gift and took him up on his offer. However, before we left his study he looked at us and spoke these words: "I do not want you to try and pay me back for this $10. All I ask is that when you come to the point in your life when you are able to do so, that you pass this $10 on to somebody else who is in need of assistance."
I declare to you today that three decades removed from that event, I am still passing on that $10 he gave me that night. I suppose one of the reasons why I am so anxious to be involved in seminaries and to work in the development of the next generation of preachers is because I was blessed one night by a man who practiced Christian fellowship. Now I devote my life to at least attempting to repay the favor done for me by a man who made himself available to me in the context of Christian fellowship. It may be safe to say that people in the membership are out to secure whatever blessing there may be for themselves, but people in the fellowship are looking for ways not only to receive a blessing, but also to "pass it on" to others over and over again.
However, there is one more level to our fellowship as Christians, and that fellowship is the result of the fact that all of us have publicly acknowledged that we come out of the darkness of sin and now seek to walk in God's marvelous light of grace and forgiveness. Our fellowship is also based upon the common confession that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (
Fellowship is captured in the call and response of the old spiritual that says:
Have you got good religion?
Have you been redeemed?
Have you been baptized?
Do you love everybody?
And in response the whole congregation sings back and says:
Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord
The passage in
Listen to the language of
There is an old spiritual that says, "Walk together children, don't you get weary, there's a great camp meeting in the Promised Land." That is the challenge for today. Let's share in Christian fellowship here on earth as a prelude to the fellowship we will share with God and with other believers when we meet together in heaven. You cannot get to heaven by bowling alone. Move from membership to fellowship in the life of the church.
Marvin A. McMickle is Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.