Thick or Thin?

One of my prayers for us as a church is to be a “thick” rather than a “thin” community. Here’s how David Brooks, writer for the New York Times, describes “thick” and “thin” relationships:

“Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory… A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul”

Isn’t that what belonging to Christ’s church should be like?

For, a good (and challenging) example of what a “thick” church community looks like, I’d recommend reading this article by Roger Olson. Olson lives in America (and in a different theological galaxy to me), but he basically says that the evangelical Christianity he knew growing up has changed beyond recognition in his own life-time. He gives 13 different examples of what church used to be like. Here are some tasters:

…church was extended family; people knew each other and were involved in each other’s lives. There was no notion of “personal privacy” if you were a member of the church—except in the bathroom and (normally) bedroom. When the church was large, the Sunday School class was your extended family. If you were a member or regular attended and missed two Sundays in a row without explanation you could expect a visit from a pastor or Sunday School teacher.

…most of the work of the church was performed by volunteer lay people instead of paid staff people. It was expected that every member would volunteer part of his or her time to do something for the church. Anyone who didn’t was considered a backslidden person in need of correction or even excommunication. There were excommunicated people who attended regularly, but they were not allowed to hold any positions of leadership and were the subjects of much prayer and visitation.

…when evangelical Christians gathered for social fellowship with each other, whether in homes or at restaurants, wherever, they talked about “What Jesus is doing,” what they were learning from the Bible, reading Christian literature, their favorite radio preacher, or something spiritual and not only sports or politics or the weather. If they gathered in a home on Sunday afternoon, for example, they watched Billy Graham or Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard or some other evangelical Christian program (not football). Of course there were exceptions, but these fellowship gatherings of evangelical believers in homes were common and much of the “talk” was about religion, faith, God’s work in people’s lives, etc.

It would be easy to dismiss what he’s saying as just looking back to the “good old days”. It’s easy to tell ourselves the past was better (Eccl 7:10). But I think the article is relevant for getting us to ask the important question: is the church today going to be a thick or a thin community? The church in Jerusalem was a “thick” community: “they devoted themselves to … the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). But, modern life has changed our lifestyles dramatically; we’re much more mobile; we’re able through technology to keep in touch (or think we’re in touch!) with far more people, in far more places, but as a result actual community has dramatically “thinned” out. We’re like butter spread over too much bread.

I don’t have easy answers to how we can “thicken” our relationships as a church; I do think keeping the fourth commandment (“Remember the Sabbath day”) is a significant part of the answer. I think eating together is important. I think praying together is important. I think church discipline is part of that. Why not discuss with others how we can do this better? But more basically, I’d love us to desire it. In our heart of hearts, isn’t this what we know everyone wants? London is full of lonely people. Ilford is full of lonely people. Even our own church is full of lonely people. I believe as a church we have a unique opportunity to showcase a community that resists the “thinning” effects of the world around us. As the church of Christ, we’re called to be the one place where broken sinners get rebuilt and glued together by Jesus into something that will last forever. So, let’s aim to resist habits that “thin” and start habits that “thicken” our relationships together as a church.