I’ll never forget the fateful moment I walked into the Dining Hall on the first day of my first Fall Conference. The familiar smell of camp chicken fingers and fries was the only thing that kept me grounded as I surveyed a sea of unfamiliar faces and took in the sounds of two hundred conversations happening all at once. I had been in ministry for two solid months, and honestly, I knew practically nobody.
Three or thirty seconds, an eternity, went by, and I stood there with eyes wide as I tried to figure out my place at the table. If I sat alone, I would risk sending the message of being aloof or unfriendly. If I chose a seat next to a group of pastors, I might presumptuously sit next to one of the GEO, the band, or worse, the guest speaker. Wherever I sat, I ran the risk of being an intrusion. The anxious unfamiliarity of sitting in my office for the first time, preaching my first sermon, leading my first meeting, running my first VBS, paled in comparison to the daunting task of finding my place in this sea of humanity.
Bill Donahue opens The Irresistible Community with a beautiful guiding principle for the church community in all of its expressions: “There’s a seat for everyone at Jesus’ table. Everyone is welcome.” The table speaks of fellowship, family, community. There are few greater feelings than pulling up a chair next to people who love you and experiencing natural conversation, fellowship, storytelling, laughter, and good food. There is nothing more compelling about a healthy church than finding in it that sense of community (John 17:23; Acts 2:42-47).
Whether you are preparing to launch or re-envision small group ministry, or simply searching for a resource to help enhance the culture of your church, you will find Donahue’s book full of helpful advice, compelling stories and quotable principles. Using metaphors drawn from the last supper and drawing on decades of experience creating community culture at Willow Creek, he urges the church to be people of the table, the towel and the truth. The end result is creating a compelling, authentic community “where no one stands alone” (248).
So I stood there alone, silently praying: “Will this be my life in the PAONL?” As if in answer, a young pastor with an old soul yelled out, “Nippard! Welcome to Conference!” Much to my relief, with a firm handshake, I was invited to a table that felt a lot like a family. There were grandparents who couldn’t wait to encourage me, delighted that God is still calling young people to serve the Lord. There were crazy uncles and aunts who were eager to tell their own stories and bring laughter and joy to the table. There were brothers and sisters in youth ministry who became close friends and allies.
At that same table, over the years, I found spiritual parents and mentors who taught me, learned from me, told me the truth; who rejoiced with me in success and refused to give up on me in my failures. Most strikingly, I found towel-carrying leaders who invited me, as a child to the adult table, and poured into my young, impressionable life.
This is not the whole picture, and perhaps comes off a tad idealistic, but it is a story that tells a greater story. Mutual Health, after all, is nothing less than the subtitle of Donahue’s helpful book: “An invitation to life together.” That vision will be well served as experienced pastors continue to model the life of the towel and invite younger pastors to the table, and budding leaders continue to reject the “false views of others” (220) that threaten the possibility of an Irresistible Community.
By Jeremy Nippard
Donahue, Bill & Cloud, Henry. The Irresistible Community. Grand Rapids: Baker. 2015.