And little recks to find the way to Heaven,
By doing deeds of hospitality.
Shakespeare’s As You Like,
Act 2, Scene 4, lines 81-82
For six years I was the director of a junior high school department in a church. I sat in my office one year, brainstorming about a particular winter camp. In my office was a college student whose boundless imagination led him to study film making at a local university, perfect for this kind of dreaming.
“I want everything at camp to be overrun with our Saturday night adventure game,” I said. “It would be as if the whole youth group stepped into a storybook and were transported into another world.”
“Let’s use…” the student lingered in this thought for a while. “…let’s use the game the ‘Black Gong.’ We will play the game, but there will be…quite a bit of set up. Months before, we’ll have skits and a video. The game will take place in the middle of our story.”
“Good,” I said, and we went to the dry erase board in my office, hammering out ideas. We once had made a video about the Black Gong- a Tolkienesqe saga of swords, elves, and dwarves shot in the only patch of trees in Chino Hills we could find. Now we wanted to build upon that, keeping in mind that this game would take place in some grand, big story.
That day we created “Alanna Thunder,” a pulp fiction heroine who explored the wild jungles. We decided to go “live,” having our staff play individual characters who would spring up from the audience and would even use the kids as part of the storytelling. “Alanna Thunder” was to appear in the fall, with four weekly skit installments during our outreach nights. The rule was simple: she’d always face some peril and the kids would have to come back next week to see how she escaped.
Somewhere in the brainstorming, we came up with trading cards. Instead of winning points for the game portion of our night, we would hand out Alanna Thunder trading cards of the individual scenes or characters. Another college student with boundless imagination locked himself in his room for a week, printing off thousands of trading cards.
The outreach nights went off successfully, kids made decisions for Christ, and, for our storytelling purposes, Alanna Thunder was a firm tradition in our little community’s brain as we promoted camp following that first fall. They were going to camp, expecting to hear more of the story of Alanna as she sought out the most sensational of relics: the Black Gong.
Black Gong was a hybrid of Capture the Flag and Outpost, where each cabin (six to eight campers) would form a team, looking for three stations. Each station they’d have to do a task to receive a token; once they had three tokens, they could ring the Black Gong; and the team with the most rings, won. Simple.
However, each camper had a flag in his or her pocket (like playing a round of flag football) and, if it was pulled by another team member, he or she had to stop and go get the flag replaced. So there could be wars, sneak attacks, pacts, armadas, and betrayals, thus, complicated the play of this simple game became complicated. And at the intended winter camp in the fall, Alanna Thunder was going to play the game with the kids.
It was a warm, California night up in the camp with the mountain wind furiously blowing amongst the conifers. Dust picked up, formed ghostly shapes in the night’s meager light. Teenage adrenaline ran high as they entered into the “Black Gong.”
So far the story of Alanna Thunder has been that she was chased by a series of baddies into a mythical, magical (or for those children from strict fundamentalist homes, “Higher Science”) woods. They divided into their teams, got their flags, and sought to collect tokens. Suddenly, the entire cast of Allana Thunder ran by them, in character, continuing the story of the morning’s chapel.
The game lasted three hours, culminating with each of the teams helping Miss Thunder find and ring the Black Gong. The wind, the mountain air, and the trees all became part of the story. Plus, we had a lot of right-brain kids whose imaginations fed the whole game/them/story they were participating in. They ran, chased, screamed, charged, hid, and participated in the story that seemed to even use the dirt and the rocks around them.
At the end of the night, although the kids were tired, all of them found it very hard to go to sleep. One young man announced, “This night was better than any multi-player game on the net!” This was a huge praise, for this kid played about 14 hours of games per week.
A parent who ran a game within this game stated, “It was like I fell into a movie.”
One of our staff, though, captured the dream of that night: “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like one long night game at camp. Everything and everyone is part of the story’s telling!”
It was wonderful that a camp memory could capture the imagination of so many people and set junior high students, now all of them adults, with a vivid memory of seeing, touching, smelling, hearing, and believing in something that may have given them a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
When I was a young teen, one of my favorite trips was canoeing down the Stanislaw River in California with our Christian Service Brigade. The route began with a large stretch of rapids that was out of place in the otherwise calm, toilet bowl-like levels of the river for the rest of the day. Every year, we were tossed out of canoes when we hit the rapids. After the third time of being thrown own of the canoe, we deemed this part of the trip impossible to cross, as if it was a tall, black knight declaring, “None shall pass! Yet, the head of our all of the Brigades in our region passed through one year with no problem. We asked him his secret. “Don’t try to go over the river or around it or against it. Move your canoe with the river.” We didn’t understand and continued to capsize our boat, spending more time and energy and drama trying to get down the river our way.
Years later, I got the wisdom of his advice. What if your neighborhood (urban, suburban, rural, town, village, etc.) was the very thing God was using to redeem the people of your community? If this was His plan, then all of the sermons, programs, service projects discipleship strategies, and activities of the church would be spent cooperating with God, in harmony with His mission. This reality may not be too far from your reality; indeed, it has been exactly the reality I find myself in as a small pastor in a small, Canadian town up in northern Alberta. As our small church traverses time and river flowing, the season makes a song. And we who live beside her still try to sing along. The virtue needed is fellowship, with not only the saints but the would-be saints; and not just with people, but movements and groups and moments that God is using around the church to redeem the world.
Fellowship within the Church
Henri Nouewen said, “Apart from a vital relationship with a caring community a vital relationship with Christ is not possible.” This is true, yet it is apart from the usual operating systems within 21st century believers. Speaker and teacher for Forge Canada Cameron, Roxborough suggests that the average Canadian Christian’s church attendance has declined from three to four times a month to one to two times a month. This statistic exists because many Canadians find other obligations competing for the coveted Sunday morning time slot.
If one understands that God is on a mission beyond the Sunday morning gathering, then this wouldn’t be a problem. God is alive in the preaching of His word just as He is on the soccer fields. Right? And then what do we do with certain passages (e.g., Hebrews 10:23-24, 1 Corinthians 14) that command Christians to assemble together on a consistent, weekly rhythm? Roxborough argues the difference between doing soccer for the purpose of recreation versus participating in soccer for the sake of God’s mission. One is for fun and the other is by intention.
We must do all things from a perspective of mission. If we engage in soccer we would do well to do it from a missional perspective. If we truly are engaging in these events because of mission, then we would do well to evaluate our times of gathering so that we might celebrate together what God has shown us on mission together. Do not do what works, but what is right.
Being missional is not a cop-out for being in relationship with other believers. Within a church that seeks to participate with God in the neighborhoods, fellowship and worship are essential. If nothing else, gathering together answers the crucial question, “Who is this God we seek to follow?” To deny that God will use other Christians in one’s life is the same as denying that God is using and will use those who are non-Christians to be a part of His mission.
In the American-Korean church, the term “ricing” is used to describe shared or common meals. There is a Korean proverb, “If you eat rice all alone by yourself, you will lose appetite.” (In Korean, it’s a play on words: a taste for rice is akin to a taste for life). In the book “Singing the Lord’s Song in a New Land,” the authors explore the Korean American practices of the Christian faith and an essential one is “ricing.” “By equating the taste and the craving for rice with that of life, Koreans are reminding themselves of the communal responsibility to feed one another. To satisfy hunger is to live, and to eat rice together is to share life resources with others in the Korean culture. It is intriguing to compare the experience of women at the ricing table with that at the communion table. Whereas women function as servers at the ricing table, they are served at the communion table.”
The exchange of communal relationships with other believers and the communion God has with His followers are all a part of the mission of God. The church that is in harmony with God’s mission understands this, for people cannot separate God from their neighborhood as they cannot separate themselves from the ecclesia, the church.
Fellowship with the World
It is easy in this season of Christendom to urge Christians to spend time with other Christians. Even with the increased activities demanding the attention of those of a Christian faith, it still just feels right when one is within one’s own tribe. To illustrate, my wife had taken a weekend trip to get away from our two young girls and I was alone, spending all my days playing princess, drinking imaginary tea, and watching movies about magical, flying ponies. When church came on Sunday, I could hardly wait; I was going to be with other adults! Other adults who wouldn’t want me to play with magical, flying ponies!
It was the highlight of my weekend as I dropped off my kids at Sunday school and preached to a room full of mature people. I needed to be with my tribe!
There seems to be a change within those who come to Christ: their friends slowly are replaced from outsiders to the church to insiders. For some this happens overnight; others, it could take about seven years. It’s the dynamic of religious socialization. The more we grow in our faith, the more we-almost subconsciously- surround ourselves with the like-minded and the same demographic. “A company of fools shall be destroyed,” Proverbs 13:20 commands and so, yes, this a healthy dynamic for our faith. But if the church is not careful, it can keep the company exclusive. The church must maintain fellowship with believers and fellowship with the world, the community. “Listening to the community,” authors Wayne Gordon and John M. Perkins write in their book Making Neighborhoods Whole, “enables us to build relationships and to uncover the qualities, talents and abilities the community has to address and eventually solve its problems.” To serve the community one must be in fellowship with the community.
Isaiah 54:2 states, “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.” It is interesting for this is about Israel’s return to their land, and yet here is this provision for outsiders and for those who will be a part of the future Israel not part of the exile’s return. Within this command, there’s a question that haunts me and I think it haunts 21st century churches: Are we making room for outsiders? Let’s not even think about our churches and programs and fellowship times, let’s think about our own living rooms. Have the neighbors who live on our street ever been inside our house? How many times have we invited someone over to our house? Or more importantly, how many times have we been invited over someone’s house who didn’t attend a church?
A radical moment happened to my family during a particular summer a while back. I was with my young girls and we were walking back to our house from our town’s pool. As we passed by a certain rental house, a tiny voice called out my five-year-old daughter’s name. We stopped and a little boy she had met at the pool ran out. He invited her into his house to play. His mother came out and did the same thing. I shrugged: what was the worst that could happen? So my girls played with this boy for an hour. The family was new to Canada, having emigrated here from west India. I came inside to have juice with our girls and this boy, when I saw in their living room about a hundred tiny statues.
“These are our gods. We are Shinto-Buddhist and this is the place of our worship. There isn’t a place for worship near here, so we’ve made this place our temple.”
I was humbled, for this was an absolutely beautiful idea. No, I hadn’t converted to Shinto-Buddhism, but I was blown away by this hospitality. Within their place of worship and where they experience holiness is where they invited my family in, as strangers. And it was in the heart of their home.
What if Christians exhibited this kind of hospitality? The very essence of our worship was embedded in how they treated strangers, community members, and people outside of the faith? This is the idea behind symbolic action found in hospitality. N.T. Wright, in The Challenge of Jesus, says, “Your task is to find the symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human.” Matt Garvin explains Wright’s concept further:
Symbolic action is significant, not for what it is but for what it represents. Our actions have meaning, and for us to be agents of the Kingdom we need to make choices about behavior that represents the values of the Kingdom. As we live like this, in a way that is so different to what is ‘normal’ in a self-interested world, people want to understand the meaning behind our actions. Wright suggests that was exactly how Jesus approaching his mission. He would act symbolically, through healing, or speaking to someone other’s wouldn’t, or eating with someone who was not politically correct, and then he would explain his actions through parables.
What is the difference between neighbors who organizes a party because they are an Amway salesperson and a Christian? The difference is that if the Christian is motivated solely by the character of Jesus, he/she does so simply because it is good and the party can be a symbol of the Kingdom of God. Our fellowship need not be self-serving where the bottom line is an invitation to our church services. Let our friendship be the message of the Kingdom of God, obeying God’s leading. If He calls them to our church, so be it; if not, we need not be anxious or feel like we’re wasting our time or needing to “wrap up” the visit with something Christian. When was the last time we invited someone from the neighborhood into our living room? Or farther past our comfort level, when was the last time someone who did not go to church invited us into their living room for coffee or drinks? As Christians we don’t need to tell the world more about our Bible; rather, we need to be more of the Bible to our world. We can do this best through open friendships, without strings attached chock full of moments that propose, suggest, challenge, and embody the Kingdom of God.
This is at the heart of cooperating with the Incarnate God within the Incarnate Word of God. “For me,” Kathleen Norris contends in her book Amazing Grace.
…the Incarnation is the place, if you will, where hope contends with fear. Not an antique doctrine at all, but reality-as ordinary as my everyday struggles with fears great and small, as exalted as the hope that allows me some measure of peace when I soldier on in the daily round.
Hope and fear, ordinary and supernatural, Christian and community: all interact when the church fellowships with the community.
Fellowship with Time and River Flowing
Back to the Black Gong game. I’ve never played the same game twice, which is why I’m always reluctant when campers ask to play it and they ask if it will be a good game. Sometimes it was; other times, it crumbled and broke in front of 100 expectant eyes. This is because we always change the game depending upon the leaders we have, the type of campground, the weather, and ideas given to us by campers.
I brought my neighbor to a junior high camp. He lived with either his nose in a comic book or looking up in the clouds. I drove him and his buddy to the summer camp and I explained the game to him. He wasn’t listening, so when I explained that we were playing with a variety of teams, he said, “Oh, like races in Lord of the Rings. And each race has its own genetic power! And the worlds are divided by racism, where none of the peoples get along and war and fight?” “No,” I said slowly, and then for the next 40 minutes, I turned quiet as I tried to figure out how to make his idea work. That night, we had races.
Once we found a devil’s mask in the prop bin of a camp and created the character of “The Floating Head of Red Death.” It worked so well one year that when we came back the following year, we tried it again and gave the character a lot more energy. It entailed our intern running through the woods and screeching, “I’ll steal your soul!!!” However, that year our youth group was very young that year, fragile, and mostly home schooled. The majority of them were homesick and ended up traumatized by a strange man bursting through the woods of the camp, threatening their eternal salvation.
We ended the game with our intern addressing the group. “I’m really sorry if this made any of you scared or upset. Believe it or not, we were trying to have fun,” he said. Then he added some levity. “Really, The Floating Head of Red Death isn’t such a bad guy. He visits his mother often, recycles regularly, and is involved with the ‘Big Brother’ program in our city.”
The joke didn’t work. So I tried to save the evening by a transition into the evening snack. “Yeah, when I’m chased by The Floating Head of Red Death and my soul is in peril, I like to freshen up with some cookies and milk!” But that didn’t work either. The game was a disaster because we weren’t listening to the camp, just playing the game with the security that had worked once before. At its best, the game cooperated with the mood, the imagination, the terrain, and the story of the summer camp; at its worst, it was a clanging gong in the ears of everyone playing. The game is just a game, being either good or bad. The virtue of the game is how it worked with in harmony with the whole camp, allowing the experience of the playing to be the very shape of the camp.
For the Kingdom of God is like a really big adventure game at summer camp.
When the church cooperates and harmonizes with God’s work in the community is like one working with a river flowing to travel it. This takes a variety of virtues: (a) asking the right questions, (b) knowing God’s true character and then reflecting it, (c) cooperating with the land, (d) influencing those immediately in front of you, (e) blessing your community, (f) listening to the stories around you, (g) incarnating the Word of God to those around you, (h) including the Christian and the secular, (i) sacrificial serving, and, finally, (j) fellowship with Christians and the community alike.
In the Old Testament “The Land” was more than just a place. It was connected to the story of God: an active part of the shaping of plot and character to save humanity. I don’t think it would be too far of a stretch to suggest that God works in a similar characteristic in your land, your setting. The church’s greatest need in our post-Christian, postmodern, and post-everything else world is not for longer sermons, greater speaking, bigger programs, more books, better known celebrities, greater miracles, or even a greater church attendance. I propose this as the greatest virtue and the hinge of the others previously suggested: 21st century saints must learn how to harmonize with the land God has given them according to His mission. The land – neighborhoods, workplaces, coffee bars, community parks, board meetings, etc. – is part of God’s mission of redemption. Will the 21st century church work with or independent of God’s plan for time and river flowing?
 Nouewen, Henri J.M. Reaching Out. (Toronto: Image Books, 1986), 24.
 Roxborough, Cam. FORGE Canada Axiom Training (2011), 15.
 Pak, Su Yon; Lee, Unzu; and Cho, Myung Ji. Singing the LORD’s Song in a New Land, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 89-92.
 Gordon, Wayne; Perkins, John M. Making Neighborhoods Whole, (Grand Rapids: IVP Books, 2013), 106.
 Wright, N.T. The Challenge of Jesus. (Grand Rapids: IVP Press, 1999), 200.
 Garvin, 6 Radical Decisions, 55-56.
 Norris, Kathleen. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 30.