Somewhere, everywhere, people are connecting socially. From the beginning of time and throughout Scripture, God’s people have patterned their lives around celebration, feasts, social gatherings, levity, story-telling, eating, drinking, laughter, and listening.
For God’s ancient fans, a good ol’ fashioned party helped create a social connection that made spiritual connection possible. It used to be that it was always five o’clock somewhere, but sadly, over the last century, the church has become the last one to the party.
Growing up as a Nazerene boy, I heard that “good Christians” don’t smoke, drink, chew, or have friends that do. As such, I didn’t venture out to the movies, look at art, or play cards, and I had to listen to all my secular music undercover. My friends were Christians—all of them.
As I entered training for ministry, though, and really studied Jesus’ life, I realized that my perception of what it meant to be a good Christian didn’t allow me to really live like Jesus had lived. My new reading of Jesus’ life, however, didn’t square with my seminary professor’s interpretation. He suggested that all wine in the New Testament was simply grape juice, and he made it clear that leading and planting churches required that we abstain from having a beer with neighbor.
Now, of course, I don’t believe that someone must drink alcohol to follow Jesus, nor do I think a great party requires any alcohol at all, but for some reason the church has communicated that the world—and alcohol specifically—must be avoided at all costs. We’ve lost our ability to enjoy human celebration, and the church has suffered because of it. We have a systemic problem of legalism and fear, and we’ve failed to build a level of friendship with people that’s needed.
A Call Back to Mission
As the attractional church experience continues to lose influence, we will find that old methods and measurements won’t unlock a better day for the church. We now live in a pure mission field and what a mission field needs more than anything is missionaries—people who seek to live as Jesus lived. Jesus can’t just be the center of our theology. He must also be our model for missiology, how God entered the human story and influenced thousands. There’s no escaping the fact that Jesus was a friend of sinners.
I am the US Director for a missions training network called Forge, which exists to train men and woman to live as missionaries where they already do life. That is, we believe every neighborhood is now a pure missionary context like Spain, Italy, Iceland, or Nova Scotia. And in a pure missionary context, the church can no longer ask people to come to us and our church services anymore. We must be the “sent ones” again. We must be missionaries, and missionaries in all contexts always start in the same place: They start where the culture is and find ways to create neutral, enjoyable, space where humans can connect, identify, and learn the context of one another’s story.
In Acts 10 we have a story of two parties that changed the church and, in turn, changed the world. The first happened when Peter invited some Roman men into the home where he was staying, and the second happened when the Roman men reciprocated and invited Peter into their home. Both open tables tore down long held barriers between people groups, between faith and doubt. The table was the place people were accepted and served. It’s where personal stories tore down assumptions, judgments, stereotypes, and fears that kept the gospel from doing its work. It’s been Happy Hour everywhere but in the church, and that must change.
And this is exactly why, as Alan Hirsch has said, “Party is sacrament.” Sacraments are those deep, long-held practices that hold the church together and set her apart from the common fray. Like baptism, the Lord ’s Supper, and marriage. When teaching about the kingdom, our living metaphors are that of a wedding feast, a banquet, and a supper. It’s time to include this in our own spiritual formation.
In my personal story of starting two churches in very secular contexts, many friends found faith in our home and not one story started without the party. A party leads to conversation that is full of inquisitive questions. A good conversation leads to another party, and then another where the conversations leads to friendship and sharing life outside the party. Then friends talk even deeper and help each other out and are there on tough days with encouragement and another invite over for dinner.
Then months or even years in, a comment like this usually happens, “So Hugh, Lindsey and I were just talking the other night and we are amazed at how much we love your family and are so thankful to have become friends with you and Cheryl. We are always challenged by who you are and you’re making it hard not to believe in God.”
These natural questions and conversations lead to an even more natural invitation like this: “Joe, I’m honored you and Lindsey feel this way about us. We love you guys, too, and have loved having you in our lives. I also want to thank you for how candid you’ve been about your struggles and even your struggles with faith and religion. You know we would never try to push you in any way, but if you ever want to join us, a handful of us get together every other Thursday night, and we talk more intentionally about life and God and we pray for each other. We’d love to have you with us in this if you ever feel the nudge.” This process and invitation have been given hundreds of times and almost every time the invite to Jesus is accepted.
From Small Group to Missional Community
I spend my life traveling around the globe encouraging and training the missionary spirit. Some are with church planters but most are with existing congregations with huge hearts for the lost but who still live according to a non-party ethic and the rhythms of abstract holiness.
Many people have asked, “Hugh, what is the one key to turning a typical small group into a true missionary community?” Another asks, “Hugh, how did all those people find faith through your parties—how did it happen?” Another asks, “How do you disciple people to live more human lives like Jesus?”
My answer is always the same: You have to teach and disciple people in how to throw a good party. It’s where everything starts. It’s where we learn to listen instead of judge, where we become advocates instead of adversaries and where people cease to be targets or projects because they are our friends.
Sadly, many Christians don’t know the art of throwing a fun, welcoming party like this. We have to teach them simple tips like lighting candles to prepare a cozy atmosphere, greeting people at the door, and playing soft music in the background during the party. It’s also helpful to provide some party ideas—like a potluck—to show people how simple it can be. Thankfully, these aren’t difficult to teach, and you can even model them for your group members.
What we’ve found is that the way to the soul is through the heart, and the way to the heart is through the stomach. Start with a simple party, and that will lead to another party that leads to conversation between friends. Let this rhythm continue until you see God draw your friends to himself.
For a practical guide you can use to help train your group members in throwing welcoming parties, check out Happy Hour: Etiquette and Advice on Holy Merriment at HughHalter.com.
—Hugh Halter is the US Director of Forge America, a missions training network committed to help men and women live as missionaries where they already do life. He is author of several books, including Brimstone: The Art and Act of Holy Nonjudgment. Find Hugh on Twitter, Facebook, or at HughHalter.com.