So it’s been about 10 months since our last post. And although it appears there has been little progress on the retreat front, there has been tremendous growth and understanding on the personal front. As always, God is good and ever present in our lives, lovingly molding and guiding us in a deeper understanding of His heart…which brings us to Sonshine. Our original understanding of Sonshine’s focus was that it was to be a retreat center for out-of-town groups. With that focus, we would need a home base (which is still in the works). However, God has recently laid on our hearts that the retreat aspect of Sonshine needs to be much smaller and more intimate than we originally anticipated. On the other hand, we believe that God is wanting Sonshine to be much more than a retreat center…it’s to be a place of gathering, of fellowship, of community!
We look around and see so many lost and lonely people (both inside and outside of Church) and we wonder, who’s caring for them? For their physical needs, their emotional needs, but most of all, their spiritual needs. As Luke writes in Acts 2:42-47 (NIV), in the days of the early church, believers were being added right and left because they saw the disciples and other early believers living in radical ways. They saw the love of Jesus being actively lived out and it looked and felt different than anything they had previously experienced. The lost found a home in community.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
So what about the Church today? Does it look different? Are we, as Christ’s disciples, living in this same radical way? The lost are growing in number and finding no place to belong. So what’s the answer? We believe that America is in desperate need of authentic Christ-centered community, like the early church!
When CJ and I lived in Austin, we were part of a vibrant, God-centered community. It was by no means perfect, but we strove to live according to the scripture above and lives were changed. We did life together, sharing meals, heartaches, burdens, achievements and adventures. We sincerely cared for each other, sacrificing for and serving each other as well as serving the larger community around us, together. And above all we spoke truth to each other (out of love, not in judgment), holding each other accountable to the standards laid before us by our Savior. But I think what really set us apart was the fact that we welcomed with open arms anyone and everyone interested in joining us. This invitation was not a check the box activity based on what we thought we had to do. We, like Jesus, had a heart for people regardless of how they looked, where they came from, what they had lived through, whether they went to church or not and even if it made us uncomfortable. After a while, we looked more like the island of misfit toys than what was expected of a “Christian” community. It resembled a family: young and old; single, divorced and married; some with kids and some without; both mature believers and others just trying to figure God out. And yes, we were a tad dysfunctional, often times angry with or hurt by others within our tight knit community. But one thing never changed, our love for one another and for those that we touched outside our 4 walls. With our open door policy and inclusive nature, the community continued to grow.
What we’ve come to discover since that time is that our community was a rare occurrence in modern day Christian communities. It appears that the way many Churches treat community today is based on a world view of putting people in boxes: singles, married with kids, retired folks, mature believers, cool or uncool (yes, I said cool or uncool! As un-Christ like as that sounds, we’ve been to churches that directed people that were uncool in the world’s eyes away from certain groups, while only “accepting” people of a certain pre-defined standard). How is this Biblical? This does not look anything like the early church described in Acts. We believe that Jesus’ plan for community was to resemble a family in order that we might learn and grow from the diverse life experiences and gifts within that community. If we’re all placed in a group in which everyone is at the same point in their life or has similar backgrounds, can we truly experience the beauty of a community that challenges us, grows us, molds us into Christ-likeness?
Since we moved, we’ve been searching for a Christian community that exhibits the Biblical qualities discussed above. Unfortunately, we’ve been to multiple churches and have always felt like outsiders. In response to the Spirit’s urging, we began inviting couples into our home, in addition to hosting larger gatherings, in hopes of building relationships. However, in the course of the three years that we’ve been here, we’ve only been invited into a handful of homes and very little has transpired from those encounters. When we voiced our frustrations, we were told that we needed to meet people where they were, which in this community, is church. So although we believe that doing life together most often happens outside of the 4 walls of the church building, we began going to Sunday morning Bible study at the church (something that was completely out of our comfort zone as we had always met in people’s homes) and served at the church in multiple capacities. Often folks would say hi and engage in small talk or even offer to pray for us, but we had no sense that people truly cared or were really interested in knowing us at all. There was always superficial conversation, but we were still missing those deep, authentic relationships that we were craving. So we brought our concerns to the leadership. Their response was not what we expected: “things are different here”, “ you can’t expect what worked in a big city to work in a small town”, and “you shouldn’t try to replicate what you had in Austin”. Maybe that’s true…. Maybe the culture is different here. We understand that some people come to the mountains to get away from it all, to isolate. But let me tell you something, Jesus was COUNTER CULTURAL! And as His followers, we should be too!! Biblically speaking, there should be no difference between a Christ-centered community in a big city versus a small mountain town. And as far as replicating what we had in Austin, we recognize that every community is different and it will never look exactly like it did. But we have ONE truth, the Bible. And the core tenets of a Christ-centered community are clearly outlined. Not only do we see them in the early church, but we also see them lived out by Jesus and His disciples. They studied together, ate and prayed together, sacrificed for each other, spent time with and invited in the tax collectors, prostitutes and the like (people outside the “church”). But most of all, they walked many miles together, sharing their lives. How can we not do the same?!
So where does that leave us? Well, it’s been over six months since we last attended our local church, and in that time, only one person has proactively reached out to us and asked how we’re doing. Does that give anyone else pause?
Regarding the local churches that we’ve attended, biblically sound doctrine is being preached from the pulpit. Where we see the disconnect is in the translation! We understand that there are individuals within the church doing good in the community, but what we’re not seeing is a church that is unified in heart and mind, welcoming and loving on those outside the 4 walls of the church. We believe that this condition is much bigger than a small mountain town; it’s true for many churches throughout the U.S. They’ve become internally focused and have lost Jesus’s love for our neighbors outside of the church. Many of them are filled with little cliques which have their backs turned to those new to or outside of the church. At first appearance newcomers may be greeted with friendliness, but there’s not a true welcoming into the community. We often use the analogy of a football huddle to describe these groups, a.k.a holy huddles. Compare that to a church that is looking outward with open arms…which is more inviting? The latter is what Jesus demonstrated!
CJ and I have been believers for a long time and have always been proactive in relationship and community building. For us to not feel welcomed and included, what must others feel? We recognize that being in this type of community requires sacrifice and commitment and can often be messy. But we’ve seen significant life change in the messiness and it’s our belief that this is what God has called us to as His disciples. And that’s why we believe Sonshine is so important, to reflect the glory of our God by the way we live our lives, as a unified body.
Despite the push back of local churches, we continue to invite all people into our home for fellowship, bible study, and the breaking of bread. We continue to be proactive in building relationships and doing life together outside of the 4 walls of the church. What about you? What do you see in your local church? Are you connected in such a community? Do you see a need for change? If so, we encourage you to think and act outside the box. Let’s live counter culturally! Let’s reflect the light of the Son!