This Christmas season, our church and a local African-American congregation are trying a sort of experiment. It all started some time in the summer, when I ran into the pastor of one of the larger black congregations in town. Our churches (and a few others) had a history of having occasional Sunday night fellowships, but that practice has fallen by the wayside in the last few years. As we talked, this pastor said emphatically that we needed to get together more. He even suggested that we might find a Sunday where I come and preach at his church (and bring my congregation).
Later in the year, I was praying about some steps for racial reconciliation in our town, and the Holy Spirit led me to recall that conversation. A bold idea came to mind. Instead of just one Sunday of fellowship, let’s celebrate the Christmas season together. I called the other pastor, and we scheduled four consecutive combined services, at our regular Sunday morning worship times, throughout the Christmas season. The host church leads worship, and the visiting pastor brings the message.
We’re halfway through now, and it has been a real blessing. Our churches have been full, the hugs and smiles have been given freely, and I believe some walls have been torn down. I still have a lot to learn, and I know the Lord will teach me through these Sundays long after they pass. But I have learned a few things right away, so I am going to pass these lessons on to you:
1. It’s not always easy, but it is worth it
I will be up front: there has been miscommunication throughout the planning and execution of these services. Each pastor (and congregation) has their own expectations and assumptions that make misunderstandings and occasional awkwardness inevitable. As my pastor colleague and I ironed out the details just over a week before the first service, I was unnerved by how little we really had nailed down (and I found out later that we still weren’t clear on a particular important detail even after the meeting was over). At one point, I felt a feeling of discouragement come over me: Is this really even going to happen? Is it going to work?
It was at this moment that I heard the Lord speak into my heart, “Did you think this would be easy?” Of course not. It’s not always going to be smooth, either. But the little things that cause awkward moments don’t even compare to the glory of how the Spirit of God has shown up in the services.
Sometimes we get scared off from doing things, because we think we might take a loss in some way, that we might be embarrassed or things might not happen the way we hope. It’s a risk to put yourself out there and suggest we do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s an even bigger risk to hear someone else’s idea, as my pastor friend has, and have the courage to chance the potential pitfalls and dare to lead your people where you believe the Lord wants you to go, even when the plan is imperfect. I am thankful that we have dared to try. It has been worth it.
2. Brotherhood is real
I think that most Christians, if you asked them, would say that they thought that the people who went to the church down the street are ‘real’ Christians. But I also believe that there are lingering doubts, especially when you talk about a church full of people who don’t look like you, worship in your style, or vote for the same people. I think many churches hold churches of a different racial makeup under suspicion.
There are heretics and prosperity-preaching charlatans of all colors, but what we have found, as we have gathered together, is a group of people who love the Lord and who know his Word. When we speak the Word of God, when we praise the name of Jesus together, when we pray as one, and when we gather as one people seeking the Spirit, there is unity that transcends all worldly differences.
We have all been taught that in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, black or white. This truth is proved when we worship together. The theory becomes experience, and we realize that those people that the world tells us are so different from us are actually our brothers and sisters.
3. We can learn from one another
When our Southern Baptist church of mostly white senior citizens go to worship at a black church, the experience is, to say the least, different from our typical Sunday. It’s not just music; prayer is different, public reading of Scripture is different, and it’s a different way to listen to a sermon. The congregation is there to participate and to celebrate, not just to listen and to learn. We can learn from that.
As I observe their pastor, he speaks with the Word of God on his lips, and he speaks with the boldness of someone who understands that he is God’s man to speak to his people. I can learn from that.
I will not presume to name what their congregation can learn from us, but I trust that God is speaking and challenging them as well. God is always at work when his people gather together.
4. We need one another
Out town is in decline, and many of our churches are declining even faster. It has been beautiful to look out over the gathered people and see all shades of skin tone represented in the pews. But just as encouraging has been the extra noise, the need to scoot down and make room in pews that are nearly full, and cars in the parking lot that never gets used. It can become wearisome to worship in buildings that are mostly empty, especially when you can remember when they were often full. It’s good to worship in a crowd.
The full building teaches us that there is still hope. There are still workers for the harvest. We are not alone. If we will accept one another as teammates and co-laborers in the task, God has provided what we need to fulfill the calling God has given us in our community. But by ourselves, we will wear down and fall short.
At this point, we are halfway through our combined services, but the task of coming together has only begun. Where do we go from here? How do we build on this fellowship and get to work? These are the questions on my mind as I work and pray.
What do you think? What experiences have you had in building these types of bridges? Please share your stories and thoughts in the comments.