[This is the sixth in a series of "letters" I'm writing for my column in the Community Press newspapers.]
A major coffee house chain speaks of making their establishments the "third place" to which people gravitate. The first place, naturally enough, is home and the second is work. Their coffee shops, they believe, can be the third place, a touchstone where customers make connections with the larger world and can do so without the pressures to be productive that we face in the workplace. (All the while filling the coffee shops' cash registers, of course.)
The coffee house chain is onto something. Especially in an impersonal age in which our professions often take us far from our roots, we need to make connections with others.
There are many ways to fill our need for community, of course. Coffee shops can, to some extent, fill that need as they fill our cups. Even though I don't drink coffee, I enjoy sitting in coffee shops. I sometimes even fantasize emulating a pastor acquaintance of mine who does a lot of his work and writes all of his helpful books while sitting in such a shop, periodically interrupting himself to talk with baristas and other customers.
But in fact, I think that the best way for us to experience that sense of connectedness to others that we both need and crave is the Church. It's a non-commercial community where, to paraphrase the words of an old hymn, we can, with others, come to God "just as we are, without one plea."
Christian faith, as I mentioned in an earlier letter, is primarily about relationships. The Bible reveals that our relationships with God and with others are distorted by a condition it calls sin. The Church is the family insituted by God through which people can turn from sin, get involved in a relationship with Christ, and be encouraged to experience things like wholeness, joy, forgiveness, power for living, and hope for this life and the next, through their relationships with other "recovering sinners."
Relationships and community have two dimensions in the church. There's the horizontal dimension common anywhere else in the world. This dimenion is about our relationships with other people.
But the church is also the place that helps us to experience the vertical dimension of community. This vertical dimension involves God's relationship with us and ours with God.
That both of these dimensions are essential to our wholeness as people is indicated by the answer Jesus once gave to a man who asked, "What is the greatest commandment?" Jesus said that actually, the greatest commandment is composed of two parts: Loving God completely and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
When Jesus speaks of love, He isn't talking so much about affection. He's talking about a tough-minded commitment to honoring God and doing what is best not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors. Even when those neighbors are people like wives, husbands, children, or friends.
Love like this doesn't come naturally to us. Which is probably why the book of Hebrews urges Christians not to neglect to "meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another..." In the church, God encourages us and we who worship, study, serve, and give together encourage each other to love as Christ has loved us. You might get that at a coffee shop; but you will certainly get it at most churches, even the smallest.
In the fellowship of the church, we find a third place where God teaches us how to love and, in so doing, also teaches us how to live.
[Mark Daniels is pastor of Friendship Church, a Lutheran congregation. Weekly worship celebrations happen Saturdays at 5:30PM and Sundays at 10:00AM at 1300 White Oak Road, Amelia.]
[Here are links to the first five installments in this series:
Can You Be Christian Without the Church?
Worship is Boring
Is the Church Filled with Hypocrites?
The Church Only Wants My Money
I'm Not Good Enough]