Agenda-less fellowship. It’s a phrase that’s been stuck in my head recently. I’m not sure whether it’s from God or not. But I’m feeling a sense that I’m supposed to stand up for it. I’ve read a lot of books about church health which say that the way to be successful as a church is to develop a clear sense of purpose and cut every program from your church that doesn’t support that purpose. But I’m not sure that squares with the way that we see Jesus interacting with people.
Jesus went to peoples’ houses to eat and drink with sinners. Certainly as our savior, He has an agenda. He wants us to be delivered from sin. And yet part of how Jesus gets people to repent of their sins is by not having an agenda. It’s a paradox. That’s certainly what happened with Zacchaeus. All Jesus had to do was invite Himself over for lunch. Zacchaeus offered to make things right with the people He had ripped off without any lecture or Socratic questioning from Jesus. It was His agenda-less presence that compelled Zacchaeus’ response.
Then I think about Mary and Martha. Martha had a purpose and a set of goals she was trying to accomplish in pulling her house together. Mary decided to be purposeless and waste time sitting with Jesus. Of course, in truth, she did have a purpose. Her purpose was hospitality. But that’s what I mean by agenda-less fellowship really. It’s fellowship in which fellowship is the only agenda.
When I went to the Missio Alliance conference, one of the things that missional church leaders advised was to be agenda-less with non-Christians. I heard a guy talk about how his ministry in a particular neighborhood was to host regular cookouts and block parties at which there was no preaching, no manipulation, no pitch for people to come to his church. They were open about the fact that their hospitality was derived in their Christian faith, but other than sharing that fact, it was agenda-less fellowship.
One of the things about the suburban world where I live is that it’s very purposeful. This is especially the case when we are raising children. We want them to be in the right activities to have the right experiences that help them develop their gifts so they can be successful. So we run ourselves ragged covering all the bases. In such a purposeful world, you make decisions about which activity you’re going to prioritize based on the degree to which it achieves a measurable goal. I suspect that sitting in a pew for an hour on Sunday morning doesn’t make the cut because it doesn’t seem concretely purposeful enough. Doing a mission project accomplishes something, but worshiping God? It seems like a luxury that we don’t have time for.
One way to respond to the purposefulness of suburbia is to become a “purpose-driven” church. To preach on topics that are relevant to practical life questions about parenting, money management, lawn care, and so forth. It may be an indication that I’m in the wrong career field, but as a preacher, I’m not attracted to practical sermon topics. I want to dive into the mysteries of God and hopefully communicate them in such a way that others can delight in them as well.
In any case, to be purposeful as a church concerns more than the preaching. The advice of Thom Rainer’s Simple Church (a book with which I agree in a lot of ways) is to determine a coherent way of articulating your purpose as a church and look at all the programs your church is supporting to see which ones to keep and which ones to cut. Is it about discipleship, evangelism, or service to the world? If it’s not, then it’s sucking energy that should be invested elsewhere.
What this means of course is that agenda-less fellowship would get axed: the annual traditions that have no utilitarian reason for existing apart from the fact that they’re traditions, getting together with people to hang out but not talking about what needs to be talked about so that we can gain knowledge, grow spiritually, and serve people in the community.
In any case, I’ve decided to go the opposite direction from “purpose-driven” in a ministry task that lies before me. We are going through a transition in our youth program, and I have agreed to shepherd it on an interim basis over the summer until we hire a new youth director. What I want to offer the kids in our church who live most of their lives very purposefully is a summer of agenda-less fellowship.
We already have three missions trips organized and two weeks of vacation Bible school run by youth volunteers, but what I see us desperately needing is straight up play time. We have been talking about whitewater rafting, pool parties, amusement parks, laser tag, camping, and movies, all the kinds of things that in the past I would sneer at “shallow” youth groups for doing when they should be spending every waking moment doing missions and Bible study.
I would argue that engaging in this kind of agenda-less fellowship can actually be understood as a spiritual discipline because it’s a sabbath from a life saturated with purpose and measurable goals. It will actually be hard for me to do this. I’m not sure that I’ll be successful. I’m a very utilitarian person with how I spend my time. I’m nervous about whether the kids will want to hang out with me because I’m not very funny or cool. But there’s one thing I am confident about even though we won’t be saving the world or memorizing books in the Bible: Jesus will show up because we’re sinners and He likes to eat and drink with sinners.