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Porches as Altars: For the Love of Community

Porches as Altars: For the Love of Community

If you didn’t grow up in a Christian subculture, this will probably make zero sense. But for those of you who did, do you remember Sunday Night Church?

Listen. Any yahoo could manage Sunday Morning Church, but SNC was for the diehards. Having barely snuck in an afternoon nap, it was back to church at 6:00 p.m. for the dyed-in-the-wool Baptists like us. We didn’t even play, man.

SNC was the canvas for looser programming, after having pledged allegiance to the choir, the Sandi Patty–esque soloist, and the senior pastor in the a.m., SNC was the space for traveling evangelists, missionary testimonies, Youth Group Camp Reporting Night, and my dad’s favorite: quartets. (To this day, I can pick out a bass line in a gospel ensemble in one bar.) It was a whole ’nother deal when the pastor wore his casual khakis and no tie. Having taken those liberties, we were one emotional outburst away from clapping.

But I’ll tell you why I loved SNC. As you maybe surmised, it wasn’t the guest preachers or handbell concerts. In fact, it had nothing to do with programming. It was simply this: My youth group went out every Sunday night after church. We begged five dollars off our parents and put one dollar of gas into willing drivers’ cars (true story) and unleashed a gaggle of young evangelicals onto the unsuspecting city of Wichita, Kansas. Mr. Gatti’s, sand volleyball, swimming, whatever.

These nights comprise some of my favorite memories.

I don’t even know if Sunday Night Church still exists, but we’ve carried the tradition forward. Our little hippie church doesn’t have a night service, but Brandon and I and our two best couple friends gather every weekend for SNC on one of our porches. After the big lunch has digested and naps have been taken and the littles have been put to bed, it’s time.

After sussing out details, we gather on someone’s patio with wine and cheese and leftover desserts, and we have us some church. We’ve solved every problem on Earth or hashed it out real good. Usually SNC is for laughing and pure folly, watching funny YouTube videos like a bunch of juveniles. Sometimes one of us is in the weeds, and we do a lot of listening. Occasionally we wade into theology, as we’ve all stretched in surprising ways these last few years and like to try our ideas out with each other. Or we watch football and pledge to finally break up with the Cowboys.

The same connective thread remains twenty-plus years after my youth group days: If Jesus is the heart of the church, people are the lifeblood.

There is a reason He created community and told us to practice grace and love and camaraderie and presence. People soften the edges and fill in the gaps. Friends make up some of the best parts of the whole story.

We live in a strange, unprecedented time when face-to-face relationships are becoming optional. It’s tricky, this new online connectivity, because it can become meaningful and true; it has given way to actual friendships I treasure. But it can also steal from friends on porches, the ones who truly know you, who talk about real life over nachos. Online life is no substitute for practiced, physical presence, and it will never replace someone looking you in the eye, padding around your kitchen in bare feet, making you take a blind taste test on various olives, walking in your front door without knocking.

I meet women all over the country, and I look so many in the eyes and see loneliness. People crave what they have always craved: to be known and loved, to belong somewhere. Community is such a basic human need. It helps us weather virtually every storm.

If Jesus’ basic marching orders were 1.) to love God and 2.) to love people, then the fruit of that obedience includes being loved by God and loved by people.

We give and get here. According to Jesus, the love of God and people is the substance of life.

Isn’t it? Nothing can happen — no tragedy, no suffering — that cannot be survived through the love of God and people. This is holy territory: a loyal friend on the other end of the line, a companion on your doorstep holding King Ranch chicken casserole because sometimes that’s all there is to do. When you say to me, “I will see you through this,” I can endure. Between God’s strength and yours, I have enough.

We are not promised a pain-free life but are given the tools to survive: God and people.

It is enough.

Watch the For the Love of Community Video

The church certainly tries to foster community, bless it. We at least know how essential it is. So we organize Life Groups (see also: Restore Groups, Community Groups, Home Groups, Cell Groups, Youth Groups, Women’s Groups, or — kickin’ it like my Baptists — Sunday school). We try to provide structure for folks to belong, to be known. Sometimes it works like magic and sometimes it so doesn’t. You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes the horse is awkward and weird, you know? I’ve had small groups create friends for life and others that felt a teeny bit like sustained torture.

I guess I prefer something a bit more organic, less program-driven. Instead of waiting around for church to assemble a perfect group dynamic of People Who Can Meet on Tuesdays, maybe just invite some folks over. A shared table is the supreme expression of hospitality in every culture on earth. When your worn-out kitchen table hosts good people and good conversation, when it provides a safe place to break bread and share wine, your house becomes a sanctuary, holy as a cathedral. I’ve left a friend’s table as sanctified and renewed as any church service. If you have a porch, then you have an altar to gather around.

Don Miller described a powerful purpose I cannot quit thinking about. He and his wife Betsy decided their home was sacred, and their ambition was to help restore what the world stole that day to every visitor. Isn’t that the loveliest thought you’ve ever heard? They fill their home with friends, travelers, neighbors, and comrades who sign the underside of their table upon leaving, hopefully refreshed, restored in some small way. This doesn’t require a therapy license or a culinary degree. Heck, sometimes it only means making meatball subs and being a good listener. What an acute assessment of the power of the table. How profoundly holy. I love it so much I painted “RESTORE” across my entryway, a banner over every precious soul who walks in and out of our home.

Loneliness can be a prison, but we have keys. You needn’t wait for someone to open the bars. If you can make a pot of chili and use a cell phone, then you can create community. If you want to wait until your house is perfect and you aren’t nervous, then just forget it. This is an imperfect apparatus, thank goodness. It requires people with true faces, courageously being seen. There is no alternative to genuine connection. Sorry. Community has to start somewhere, and that somewhere should be sincere. Otherwise you build a flimsy house of cards. Run the risk analysis and decide if safety is worth the loneliness prison. I suggest it is not.

We have the keys, you guys! They look like tables and couches, beef stew and crusty French bread. They include patio chairs and music, football on the TV and cold beer. They involve a simple e-mail invite for Friday night and burgers on the grill. They say, “Bring your kids and we’ll lock them all in the backyard with Popsicles.” The keys include good questions and good listening around a fire pit; they certainly contain stories and laughter. They don’t require fussing or fluffing, so don’t let anything stop you, because a messy kitchen only tells me someone cares enough to feed me, which is a good key.

Instead of waiting for community, provide it, and you’ll end up with it anyway.

Maybe just start looking around. Let’s not overcomplicate this. Who lives nearby? Who is new to town? Who seems interesting or funny or smart or silly? Who is in your stage of life? Who could use a warm bowl of soup and cornbread? Who is lonely? If you’re super nervous, invite two friends or two couples over for a buffer to avoid potential awkward grenades. You might enjoy pitch-perfect chemistry and blaze into your second date, but if not, you still provided a safe, warm place for someone to be welcomed. That is good work.

Sometimes these things start a little stiff, so be patient. My best advice is just to show up and be truthful. Be the kind of friend you are hoping for. Trust me, no one wants a perfect friend who can’t offer a minute of transparency. We can get that on Pinterest.

Our souls ache for real people in real homes with real kids and real lives.

We may carefully curate online identities with well-chosen pictures and selective information, but doing so leaves us starving for something true. I seek only friends who bleed and sweat and laugh and cry. Don’t fear your humanity; it is your best offering.

So maybe start your own SNC. Cobble it together with whomever you want. Perhaps it won’t start until 8:30 p.m. like ours because of all the kids. Maybe create a MNC or a WNC or a standing breakfast date on Thursdays so regular you have “a table.” Whatever the opposite of fancy is, that’s what this should be (90 percent of our SNC dates are in pajama pants). This requires your hottest commodity: time. So give it. Create margin for it if necessary. Remember the theology:

The love of God and people is the whole substance of life. Nothing is more important. This is sacred work and very much counts.

When my online world has gone off the rails and all the Internet chatter is too much and I feel lonely and isolated, nothing fixes me like sitting on a porch with old friends, Texas country on the speakers, real life taking its rightful place again.

So here is my invitation to establish your own SNC… traveling evangelist optional, although I highly recommend the handbells.

Excerpted with permission from For the Love by Jen Hatmaker, copyright Jen Hatmaker.

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Your Turn

Do you find yourself aching for real people in real homes with real kids and real lives? Are you, like me, longing for community? Can you make a hamburger? Here’s a challenge: What if today we reached out to the people around us and invited them over for dinner? Come join the conversation on our blog! We want to hear from you about building friendships with the simple act of hosting coffee or a meal! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full