Last Thursday I had the unexpected pleasure of running into a wonderful friend that I had not see in probably fifteen years. Her name is Elaine and she was one of the ‘Lunch Bunch,’ a group of students I got to know when I went to Brock University. The Lunch Bunch started like this:
I started my Math / Science degree in the fall of 1989 and was the only one of my friends who went to University locally. Many of my friends returned to Great Lakes Christian High School for Grade 13 but I went straight on to begin my degree to teach. I knew almost no one at Brock and I found lunch time the worst part of my day. I knew some of the people in my classes but none of them had lockers in Schmon Tower. I gave up on eating alone in the cafeteria the first week. It was too painful to be surrounded by people who knew people and knew that I didn’t know people otherwise I would be sitting with people. I had taken to eating lunch in the hall outside my locker because it was quick, I could get back to my homework when I was done. The problem was that my locker was in the Tower basement which was where all the performance art classrooms were. Drama students strutting around, getting their ‘Othello’ on was eventually too disturbing so I decided to give the cafeteria another try.
One Tuesday in December I returned to the cafeteria and found a guy sitting at a table with eight chairs and three lunch bags already sitting in place. I asked him if this chair I was holding was taken and he silently counted chairs and then told me it was available. I thought it was odd that he would count chairs like that but he looked like a drama major (he was) so wrote it off to that.
Moments later, Donna, Heather, Elaine, Rich, and Tim sat down around the table and continued the story they were telling. I listened intently to everyone, laughed at the appropriate times and finally after about 20 minutes Donna interrupted whoever was speaking and pointed to me with a carrot and said, “Excuse me, are you with us? Who are you? What ‘s your name?” And the rest is ‘history’, or rather ‘my story.’ I became part of the group, not just because I continued to sit with a group of strangers, but because I started sharing my stories and I became part of their’s.
It turns out that the ‘Lunch Bunch’ didn’t start when I sat down with them, but had it’s beginning a few years before. A number of people around the table had gone to E.L. Crosley High School and became close there. The five or six of them that came to Brock continued to sit together at lunch and a couple of years later I accidentally sat right in the middle of them.
We kept eating lunch together. The following year we would try to schedule time together for lunch and some of us were only there occasionally but we kept meeting. Some had an early lunch (10: 30 – 11: 20) and some had a late lunch (11: 30 – 12: 20) and some had both. The people there for both would hear the stories of the first hour and repeat the best of them for the second hour. They would serve as the glue between the two groups. If you had a really good story you would stay and be late for class.
If cars are made out of plastic and steel, and houses are made out of stone and wood, then communities are made of stories. “Stories are the language of the heart.” When Elaine saw me for the first time in 15 years the first thing she said was “I was talking about you just the other day. I was telling the story of when your brother got a bead stuck so far up his nose you had to go to Emergency to get it pulled out. You said, ‘it looked like there had been a knife fight in the assessment room.’” When you’ve really done life with people your stories become their stories.
That’s what a church was meant to be. The church is not a building but is a group of people, but it’s not just any group of people. A church is a group of people who share stories, and together, they are writing one right now. It’s not just that you’re sitting next to each other. You are doing life together. You are making a point of seeing each other outside of the holy hour on Sunday. You talk, you swap stories. You become characters in each other’s stories. You look after each other’s kids. You drop off gingerbread cookies (Judy Dickie drops off Gingerbread men for my son Jacob all the time).
That’s why the ‘church of Facebook’ doesn’t work. Online communities create a sort of voyeuristic social life. We hear each other’s stories but can’t ever be in them. Facebook is a social hermit’s paradise: all the information, none of the emotional connection. On Facebook you project your preferred self out to the world without ever letting anyone close enough to know who you really are. You can tell your stories and other people can snipe comments at you but there is no truly knowing each other. There is no naked honesty. There is no teaching, reproof, correction, or training (2 Tim. 3: 16). I had better tell you just what you want to hear or you’ll ‘unfriend’ me. There are no ties that bind in Facebook. You are only ‘bound’ by the click of a mouse.
A church is a community that participates in each other’s stories but we share a common story too; one we have embraced: the story of our own adoption. We share the same redemption story together. Our story is the story of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who lived a sinless life, died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead three days later. We weren’t there but we have adopted that story and made it ours. Jesus died for you and He died for me.
To be clear, churches have common interests. They have common opinions politically, they have similar likes (with regards to worship for example). But that isn’t what makes us a church. We aren’t a church together because we have the same opinion on instrumental music, or clapping in worship. We aren’t a church together because we would check the same boxes on a church history questionnaire. We aren’t bound together with propositional truth but with a relational truth. Jesus Christ did not say, “I come to tell the truth,” but instead “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14: 6).
We take stories from the text and let them press on us. We make them our stories. That’s what makes church work, or on the contrary, churches that don’t share stories don’t work. Without the foundation story of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, without the stories made from sharing life together, there is no church. Without shared stories, you’re just a lonely person sitting at a table talking to no one.