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Or The Importance of Fellowship Hour to the Gathered Community

K JefferyIn my tradition the worshipping community gathers on Sunday mornings. As spiritual leader of the local congregation I have often spent 15 to 20 hours a week preparing for this worship service: sermon, worship team, hymns and music, liturgy, Eucharist, and all the rest that goes into that “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” The process would include 10–15 people by the time all the various elements were put in place, and that did not include any standing choirs that would provide special music.

 

In preparation for this paper, I completed an informal survey of some clergy friends of various denominations. The question was quite simple: how much time and energy do you place on the church’s fellowship time? The response was nearly unanimous: almost none.

What I neglected, and I truly mean neglected—placing absolutely no energy whatsoever into it until it became a crisis—was the fellowship time or coffee hour that was always part of the Sunday experience in my congregations and usually followed the worship service. In my experience, the crisis always revolved around the elements. It was often the quality and quantity of the refreshments (cookies, donuts, coffee, punch, and juice). When it wasn’t the elements, the crisis revolved around who would do the setup and cleanup. I would often shake my head at this silliness. What did it really matter? We were there to worship God, not eat stale pastries and drink awful coffee. If coffee or juice got spilled, it was never a big deal to me; carpets, tablecloths, and chairs can be cleaned.

If the fellowship hour happened, it happened. If it did not, there was no big loss. The church is not about cookies, it is about worship. The church is not about coffee percolated in large aluminum urns, it is about social justice. The church is not about juice stains on the carpet, it is about sharing the joy of Christ in the world.

My attitude was formed and reinforced throughout my Christian life. The church I grew up in had an active fellowship time after worship, but they fought over coffee in the worship space during worship. The seminary I attended had a strict No Food or Drink policy concerning the chapel. In the church where I did my student pastorate, the clergy staff (myself included) would often spend the entire fellowship hour in our office complex chatting with one another rather than the congregation. And so when I began my full-time ministry I carried these attitudes and assumptions with me.

What I experienced above and beyond what I have just described was a negative part of the fellowship hour: the same people would sit at the same tables and chat with the same people week after week. This created cliques. It created closed spaces that made it difficult, if not impossible, for newcomers to enter into. If that was not quite bad enough, sometimes the fellowship hour would seem to turn into a one-upmanship fest, where one host or hostess would try their best to outdo the previous hostess or host with the selection of pastries, etc. In spite of all these issues, the fellowship hour persists in every congregation that I have been a part of. Why?

Formal Verses Informal Worship

The community of faith experiences what I have termed formal and informal worship. The formal worship happens within the worship space. For our purposes here, we are not talking about the style or form of worship or the degree of liturgical ritual, but the community gathering itself that happens within the service.

With a few exceptions, nearly all worship experiences are similar in several ways. First, the congregation faces forward, much like an audience in a concert, very often in pews that are screwed to the floor for safety reasons. Second, the officiant (pastor, priest, rabbi, liturgist, etc.) leads the congregation in various prayers, readings, songs, preaching, and sacraments. Third, except for a few moments in the worship service, congregational participants very rarely interact with one another. This formalized and ritualized experience is extremely important. This is the experience that we have become accustomed to over the last 1,000 years or so in worship, especially within the Christian tradition.

As important as the formalized worship experience is, it lacks a very critical part of meeting the needs of the worship participants. Formal worship, as commonly designed, all but guarantees minimal and/or superficial contact between the participants. The leaders lead, the congregation follows. The sermon is delivered, the sacraments are distributed, and the songs and hymns are sung while congregants stare at the back of the head of the person in front of them.

There are two places within the formal liturgy of my tradition (depending on the congregation) that invite congregational participation. Passing the Peace of Christ/Greeting your Neighbor is the first. In this ritual, the congregation is invited to greet one another and pass the peace of Christ with one another. This ritual is usually about three minutes long and includes hand shakes and pleasantries shared with the people surrounding you in the pews. Since the congregation is nearly always seated in rows of pews, the ability to move around and actually greet others is severely hampered. This is compounded when we take into account that many congregations are made up of older people who might not move with agility and may need the help of canes, walkers, etc. to move safely. This ritual often becomes a pro-forma activity.

The second place where the congregation participates actively is in the sharing of joys and concerns, where prayers are lifted in the midst of the congregation. This ritual can take several forms, but often a member simply voices a prayer concern in one to three sentences. This is a good and helpful ritual, but at the same time, wrought with issues: sound reinforcement, oversharing of details, undersharing, and taking up too much time in the service, just to name a few.

Neither of these two ways of interacting facilitates the deep bonding required to develop true understanding and care for another, nor do they even help create friendships. For these things to happen, a different type of interaction is required. This dynamic happens through the informal worship time within the community of faith.

The informal worship is commonly referred to as either Coffee Hour or Fellowship Time. The gathered congregation physically moves from one defined area to another. They move from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall, the narthex, or some other space designed to hold persons with drinks and treats. These spaces are commonly apportioned with areas containing tables and chairs and open space where people can gather.

The interaction within the resulting groupings is what is really important. In this informal worship setting, members and guests have the opportunity to share in-depth about what is happening in their lives. They can share the joys and sorrows they carry. The can form and strengthen life-long friendships. They can even share friendly banter about the latest baseball or football scores. All these things happen while the children of the congregation play and form friendships that are often across grade level and even across usual school area boundaries.

These interactions in the informal worship time are just as important as the formal worship experiences. They can be both informative and formative in the life of the congregation, teaching about the way of the faith tradition, expanding members’ understanding and beliefs, and allowing people the unique understanding that “I am not alone.”

Theology

Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he will be present among them (Matthew 18:20). The first disciples lived this out when they would gather and worship (Luke 24:53) and when they would gather to distribute alms and take care of one another (Acts 4:32–37). They took care to participate in the formal worship of the Jewish Temple. At the same time they would gather informally as followers of The Way, break bread and drink wine, eat and drink, share in the meal, and share the joy with one another as they worshipped and fellowshipped.

Over the centuries we have continued a similar pattern in formal and informal worship. Christian worship revolves around a symbolic meal (The Eucharist) and Christ’s presence with us. After we partake in this highly stylized meal, we commonly move into the informal worship with the informal liturgy, where the elements no longer are bread and wine, but coffee and donuts.

Clergy have been trained to look with great care upon the needs of the worshipping community within the confines of the formal worship experiences. We fulfill our priestly rolls magnificently, spending hour upon hour in preparation for the formal worship experience that takes place in the sanctuary. Where we often fail is in caring for the informal worship experience that has been with the Christian community since the very beginning. We allow the informal fellowship time to simply happen, and give it nearly no thought or preparation. Some, like me, even see it as a hassle and distraction to the real work of Sunday mornings (forgetting that the word liturgy means "work of the people”).

Things to Consider

The informal worship experience is just as important and has just as long a history and tradition within the Christian community as the formal worship experience, and may, upon reflection, be a more, “authentic” form of worship. The first disciples and apostles continued their formal worship at the Jewish temple and then did their Christian worship while they were gathered around the dinner table.

It is in these informal settings that deep connections develop and are maintained between congregational members. This is where the one sentence prayer request gets expanded and the story told. This is where the quick, awkward handshake gets turned into a true greeting among friends. Maybe clergy and staff should pay more attention to the fellowship hour. What would it look like if there was as much attention paid to the fellowship hour as the worship hour? What if common themes were developed between the two? What if worship and fellowship became a unified event rather than the fellowship being an afterthought?

It has become commonplace to invite newcomers to the formal worship service. But for non-religious people these formal worship experiences are filled with strange rituals that make newcomers uncomfortable. They are filled with unfamiliar music, strange forms of prayers, and liturgy that makes little sense unless you have been steeped in the tradition.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to be intentional in the development of the fellowship hour, bridging common themes between worship and fellowship, while allowing the natural flow of the fellowship experience to continue—then invite newcomers to the fellowship hour before introducing them to the formal worship experience? What a different tone that would strike. “Come down for coffee and meet some of my friends. We serve the best carrot cake in town, you have to try it!”

This article was made possible by a generous contribution from the Lattner Family Foundation and by the continued support of the Two Lattes Club.