(This is from a piece I wrote for a magazine aimed at Americans living in the UK.)
When you think about it, churches are pretty counter-cultural institutions. They’re voluntary organizations built around a common faith. For the most part they’re funded through the donations of the people who attend. And they often spend a lot of time and money helping people who may never pass through their doors. Isn’t that strange? Churches, no matter how traditional or ingrained in the culture they may be, often cut precisely against that grain.
That’s a good thing.
I represent a Christian church in an urban area, but what I just said goes for most communities of faith. By their very existence—and how they maintain that existence—they are revolutionary, even radical, places. Belief in a transcendent God who seeks out opportunities to be with his people, while giving our time and money away to strangers, isn’t exactly how the culture expects sensible people to behave. I think that’s what makes churches and other faith communities special. I also think it’s why people continue to seek them out when they move to new cities—new countries.
I believe that we are designed for that kind of community—for being together and working together and laughing and crying and grieving together. It’s in our hard-wiring to gather and to share, and when we do it we feel better…more alive…more human. A few years ago Natalie Angier, a science reporter for the New York Times, wrote this: “Scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.”
Cooperating…choosing trust over cynicism…being generous instead of selfish—these are the choices that make life rich indeed, if not worth living in the first place. We can’t always rely on science or other research to confirm what’s best for us (I mean, have you ever heard an evolutionary biologist try to make sense out of sacrificial love?), but this statement has a resounding ring of truth to it.
The Christian Scriptures have a word to describe this revolutionary kind of community. It’s called koinonia. This word has a wonderfully wide range of meaning: it can describe the act of sharing or giving or participating within a group, but can also describe the state of being connected to another person in a meaningful way.
In church life we often refer to koinonia as fellowship. In my congregation we define fellowship as everything from the way we’re greeted at the door, to the depth of friendships we build in church over a long period of time. Whatever else it is, fellowship is the willful, courageous, revolutionary act of “choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness.” If we think back on the rest of Natalie Angier’s quote, then we’re left with one very important question.
What makes your “brain light up with quiet joy,” or any kind of joy for that matter?
Let me invite you. No, wait. That’s not quite strong enough. Let me urge you to seek out places where you can experience true community—true fellowship. That could be a church or synagogue, a coffee klatch or any of the other informal ways to be in the presence of other people. If you’re new here, find someone who’s been here a while and ask some questions. If you’ve been here for years and think that there are no new adventures for you, find someone who’s just moving in and pass along some of what you’ve learned about living here.
We are hard-wired to be together—to share and cooperate and explore together. As we all begin this new school year, my wish for all of you is that you’ll find yourself surrounded by friends, old and new, and that each of your hearts and minds will light up with the joy that comes from true fellowship.
God’s richest blessing to you all this autumn season!