“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” (CSB –Read the chapter)
One of the dominant sitcoms of the 1980s and early 1990s was Cheers. Its writing and acting were always terrific and its cast of characters was both quirky and compelling. It generated one spinoff series (Fraiser) that itself lasted longer than the original and is slated for a reboot sometime soon. More impactful than the show itself, though, was the idea behind. We all want to go to a place “where everybody knows your name.” Last night, a modern sitcom ended its 6-year run. It was rather starkly different from Cheers, but that same idea beat at the heart of the show. It’s an idea that is bigger than any single sitcom. It is a part of who we are as a people and what drives the church when it’s working like it should. This morning let’s talk about the church and Superstore.
We talked about Superstore a few weeks ago, but with the show’s ending last night, I couldn’t not talk about it again this morning. The finale actually caught me by surprise. NBC evidently made the decision to cancel it mid-season. Thankfully the writers got enough of a heads-up to give it a proper ending. It has been one of my favorite shows for the past six years. I will miss it now that it’s gone.
Let me get right down to what caught my attention last night. As the episode was coming to its end, it finally brought the two main characters, Amy (who had left the show at the beginning of the season which left things between the pair decidedly unresolved) and Jonah, back together. The epilogue happily showed them married and raising a family together. They had been hinting throughout the episode that the pair was going to finally confess their love for one another. When the scene arrived, Amy asked Jonah how many jobs he had had over the years. The number was high and none of them had lasted very long. He had never stuck with anything until working at Cloud 9. What made this different, she asked. His response was simple: “I think you know.”
What Amy knew was that it was her. She was the reason he had stuck around. But in the context of the series there was more to it. Jonah had stuck with his Cloud 9 family even after Amy left because they were his family. The various employees of the store were the strangest bunch of oddballs you could imagine. They were as different from one another as night and day. No two of them were even remotely alike. But they were a family. There was a tie that bound them together that was higher and stronger than any of the glaringly obvious distinctions that should have pushed them apart. This tie was the store. Their identity as Cloud 9 employees held them together and gave them a common identity that was stronger than their individual identities.
It was more than that, though. Cloud 9 created a filter for their individualities such that what should have repelled them became part of the things that held them together. Cloud 9 was a place not simply where everybody knew their name. They all knew one another’s stories. They knew the good parts and the hard parts. They had lived them together. They wrestled through conflict and conflicting personalities and came back together because they had an identity as a group that was bigger than those kinds of things. They just kept coming back because they were a family.
Friends, this is how the church should work. Cloud 9 was not a church. Don’t hear me even suggesting it was. It lacked some of the fundamental aspects that makes the church the church. But in another sense, it wasn’t so far as as we might think. Their staff meetings functioned as their worship services. They had a liturgy that guided how and why they did what they did in the form of a company handbook. They served together the various customers who came into the store. Their sacraments took many forms but included things like restocking pushes and employee rallies. They had weathered tragedy together and were constantly on the lookout to advance the mission of the store. Cloud 9 wasn’t a church, but for those employees who made up its family, the difference was fairly slight.
Let’s think about this together for a bit. Superstore was a hit as far as sitcoms go. It lasted for six years. Not many make it that long. It crossed the 100-episode mark which means it can be picked up for syndication now. It fairly well maintained the same cast for the whole run. But I would argue that what kept fans coming back was because they felt like they were a part of the family too. If all of those different characters – and oh my were they characters – could find a home in a place like that, then maybe I could too. People are hungry for connections with other people. We thrive on them. We can’t get by without them. We instinctively seek out a community with which we can connect deeply, where we will be accepted just as we are no matter what shape we happen to be in. We are willing to change some once we are connected, but we have to know we will be welcomed warts and all at the beginning.
To put that all a bit more simply and directly – and with a grateful nod to Cheers – we want a place where everybody knows our name. We want a place where they’re always glad we came. We want to know that our troubles are all the same even though they may look different in details. Everybody wants that. But in the world today, broken as it is, those places are not so easy to find. There are many pretenders, but they never quite meet the need we have. Too often they either demand we change to join or else kick us to the curb when our junk floats to the surface once we’re connected. And far too often the church fits right in with this broken pattern.
But when we get it right, we are irresistible.
Now, let me make something really clear here so there aren’t any questions: The true church is rooted in the Gospel and the historically orthodox theology whose roots go back to this first church that was committed to the teaching of the apostles, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer, and are grounded in the Scriptures. If the church loses the Gospel it isn’t the church anymore. We can’t compromise on truth. Period.
Too many churches over the years have endeavored sincerely to get the Gospel right while making themselves a pariah to everyone around them. The few members there are committed to one another, but they aren’t really interested in attracting new members whatever they might affirm verbally. The hoops and hurdles they put before those who show any inclination of joining them proves this point. Friends, if the church isn’t a place where the disconnected want to connect, we aren’t getting it right. We can protest and point to our sound theology, but can we be really honest with one another for a minute? Jesus attracted people everywhere He went. If our theology and practice is really on par with His, we’ll attract people too.
There is an idea I set before my church on a regular basis. Many of them could spout this back to you if you asked. First Baptist Oakboro is a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. That’s who God made us to be. Now, do we hit that mark perfectly all the time? No, but we are making growing in that direction our intentional top priority. If your church doesn’t have an idea along those same lines driving you forward in ways that go beyond mere verbal commitment, you’ve got some work to do. Different churches are going to be different sizes. Some will be small, some will be enormous. God designs different churches for different specific purposes. But if our churches aren’t attracting people at the outset, we’re not getting something fundamental right.
So, what do we do with this? We look at our churches and ask and answer some hard questions. Are we really willing to welcome anybody? Do we have an identity that unites us in spite of our differences? Do we actually have meaningful differences among our members (a church that is entirely uniform gives off the impression it values conformity over variety regardless of what it proclaims about itself)? Are we actively and intentionally practicing the love of Jesus for the one anothers around us? Do we have a real community or merely a place where people do the same kinds of things at about the same time?
The church is the hope of the world. When we get it right, the world changes. The Gospel advances. The kingdom is made manifest. Ours is a truly sacred work. Let’s commit to getting it right.