Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Sunday School - Let's Stay Together

This if the third of a multi-part series. For the first two parts, see here, and here.

Four of us stood on the carport; an empty house in front of us, and a U-Haul behind us. We'd just spent the last couple of hours loading up that U-Haul with furniture, clothes, and five years of memories. Now, all that was left to do was say goodbye. This was the unfortunate scene I was faced with several weeks ago, as one of the charter couples in our Sunday School class prepared to move to a different state; forced out by the closure of his plant. Over the last five years, we had built a bond that was so close, so tight, so important in the lives of both them and us, that I didn't really know how to say goodbye now. They're leaving was  more than about some our friends going away; it really felt like a part of us was leaving also.

These are the kind of relationships that are built in real, Christian community, and I've found that the best place for that to happen is in a small group/Sunday School class. We weren't close with this couple because we'd shared a few fun times together, or a few laughs with one another. We'd shared our lives. Each had let the other in on their joys and pains, successes and failures. And though the parting was terrible, it was worth it to have had the time together. This is really what church is supposed to be like and about. And we've managed to find these kind of relationships through our Sunday School class; not just with that couple, but with several others in our class.

So the question becomes, how do you do this? How can a Sunday School class cultivate these kinds of relationships? What are the things that bring people close together, and allow them to share their lives with one another? I am no expert at this, but I have seen it in action over the last five years, and I want to suggest some things that make it happen. Some of these we have done better than others. I list them in no particular order of importance.

1 - Bible Study - Okay, so I do list this one first for a reason, and I think it's very often forgotten when we talk about how we develop community and intimacy with other people. This is one of three things that the church in Acts was described as doing.  "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching . . ." (Acts 2:42) If you want to have real, Christian fellowship, it must be fellowship centered around the Word. That has to be your jumping off point.

2 - Prayer - We pray together. I would like to say we did better than we do on this. But we find out what is going on in the lives of one another, and make it a point to pray together and pray for one another. The more you pray for one another, the more intimacy you can develop with them.

3 - Fellowship - We get together, hang out and take part in one another's lives. It's really that simple. Now, let me confess. We don't have class-wide "fellowships" every month. We've tried not to be dogmatic about it. But here's what happens. The men meet monthly for breakfast on a Saturday morning. The ladies will meet together for an evening of fun every few weeks. Random members of the class meet with one another for a night out or a night in, or a few minutes of just hanging out. And once every few weeks, maybe every couple of months, we all get together for a night of fun, with all of the class members and their kids. With nearly 80 people on the roll, you can understand how this can be hectic. It normally has to be done at the church multi-purpose center. We've also held more baby and wedding showers than I can count.

4 - Service - We serve one another. As I mentioned last week, my grandmother recently passed away. And though she was buried in a town 50 miles from Meridian, I had several class members come visit us at the funeral home. In addition, more than a week after her passing, people are still bringing us meals every night. I say this, to brag on the people in my class, but to also say, this is what we do. We love to serve one another. We go above and beyond the call of duty. I mentioned baby showers earlier. I have not mentioned that our class seems to be a particularly fertile class. We've had more babies over the last five years than I can count. And in every single case, class members have fed those families for two weeks after the birth of the child. When you serve one another, you show love and concern in a way that words will never do.

5 - Ministry - Now, this is the often overlooked way of developing community, especially in Sunday School classes I've been a part of before. And I'll readily admit we haven't done as well as we would have liked, at least up until recently. But we're finding that it really strengthens bonds when people come together for more than just fun, but for a common cause. We have worked with Habitat for Humanity. We have put together bags for the homeless that included Bibles, food and sanitary items. And most recently, we've started a monthly outreach Bible Study, called City Gate, in downtown Meridian. Doing these things has helped us to develop relationships with one another that would not have been nearly so close if we'd just done a monthly fellowship.

6 - Care Groups - This is something we've found particularly helpful as we've grown. We currently have our class divided up into 9 groups, with leaders who contact the members of each group week. This is a simple way for people to pass on prayer requests, praises announcements, and concerns about the class or the church. I actually find it easier to keep up with the people in my class of nearly 80, than I did when it was a class of 20, because of this system. It works really well. I can go to one of my care group leaders right now, and get a report on each member of their class, if I need to. It also helps to have really good people heading up the groups.

The growth of our class has added both blessings and challenges to our ability to fellowship with one another. It's harder for us all to get together at one time, but it's easier for us to serve one another. We just have more people who can do things. And I've found that if you expect people to serve, they will! And they'll be glad they did. So we have a very low percentage of class members who are just seat-warmers. They're willing to take part in what we have going on.

But the sheer numbers do make it harder for us to keep up with one another. The good news is this; we have tools that can help us do that better than at virtually any time in the history of the world. And we use them! There are two tools that I use virtually every single day to keep up with members of my class, and I do not know what I would do without them - text messaging and Facebook. Now, if you are like I was just a few years ago, you hate them both. And there are serious downsides to both of them. But there are also incredible upsides. If there is an urgent prayer request, I can get it to my entire class within five minutes. I simply send out a mass text message, and/or I send it out as a Facebook message. There is no need for phone trees or smoke signals. We live in an age of instantaneous communication, and we take advantage of that.

Our class also has a Facebook page. We call it "The Loft." Clicking on the link will allow you to see only very limited information, because it is for members only. We use it as a way to share prayer requests, announcements,  and links that are of interest. I also write the occasional article on a particular topic, if I feel like there were unanswered questions after a lesson, or if someone asks me a theological question that I think it would benefit the whole class to have answered publicly.

Again, some of these things we can do better than others, I readily admit. I also admit that people have fallen through the cracks. Despite our best efforts, we have several class members who we haven't seen in months. But we don't give up. We keep studying, praying, fellowshipping, serving and ministering, as a way to get closer to get closer and encourage one another. I think, for the most part, it has worked.

And sometimes, because of circumstances beyond our control, we end up on a carport with a U-Haul. These relationships, no matter how strongly built, don't always last in the same way forever. But they do last, and neither distance nor time can truly break them. That is the joy of true, Christian fellowship.

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