FamilyLife Today®

Wait…I can have fun at church? Amberly Neese

with Amberly Neese | December 27, 2023
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Wait...I can have fun at church? Are you hungry for true community, deeper connection with God, and friendships that are greater than just “likes” on social media? Are you ready for real connections with those around you? Tune in with Author Amberly Neese as she explores the theology of laughter and embracing life with Jesus!

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  • About the Guest

Hungry for real community and a deeper connection with God? Join Author Amberly Neese as she explores the theology of laughter and life with Jesus!

Wait…I can have fun at church? Amberly Neese

With Amberly Neese
|
December 27, 2023
| Download Transcript PDF

Dave: The clock is ticking. There are only a few days left in this year. You’ve heard us talk about becoming a financial partner with us, to literally change families and impact the world for the Kingdom of God. Now’s your time. There are just a few hours left. Jump in now and join us. Every dollar is doubled. So, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com right now and make a gift.

Ann: And I’m just going to say we need you. We need you to impact families with us.

Dave: You can make a difference.

Amberly: There’s no way that the Acts 2 church when they shared everything and they broke bread together that there wasn’t laughter, and that the Holy Spirit didn’t use the overheard laughter, like “Man, my neighbors! I don’t know what’s going on over there, but they’re having a raucous good time, and they are living life, and I want to know what that looks like.”

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: We’re going to laugh today.

Ann: I think we are, too.

Dave: I think we’re going to laugh today.

Ann: But we’re also going to go deep today.

Dave: I tell you what, growing up in the church—and I hated it. My mom dragged me there, and one of the things I hated about church as a kid, even a teenager, was that you weren’t allowed to laugh. There was no laughter.

Ann: That’s so funny you say that, because I only went to church a couple times, probably, growing up, but the thing that I loved about it is my whole family—there were four kids and my parents—we’d go into this pew, and sometime in that one hour, one of my brothers would do something so funny and we would start laughing, you know that laughter that you are shaking and that you’re trying to hold it in but you’re like “Oooooohhhhh,” you’re trying to hold it in? That would happen.

I don’t even remember what happened at the church or what the pastor said, but that was my favorite part, my brothers trying to make me laugh.

Dave: Well, the truth is, God is a God of joy—

Amberly: Absolutely.

Dave: —and laughter.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: We have Amberly Neese in the studio, who’s a comedian. You’re a humorist. I just look at you. Your smile is as big as this room.

Amberly: Thank you.

Dave: Welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Amberly: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

Ann: We’re so excited to have you, because you’re funny, but you’re also a Bible teacher.

Dave: A college prof—

Amberly: I am, and most people don’t think that those things can coexist.

Ann: Yes.

Amberly: Like how can you be theologically sound and—

Ann: Funny.

Amberly: —find humor in things. I think, “Oh man. I think Jesus cut up with his friends.”

Ann: That’s what I think.

Amberly: I really do.

Ann: I think He was fun and funny.

Amberly: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. But we always see Him depicted as this serious, somber—which, He had serious work to do. There’s no doubt about it. However, I think He was seriously funny. He of all people probably found humor in how things were fearfully and wonderfully made, and sometimes more fear than wonder. [Laughter] But still good stuff, so I’m excited to be here.

Dave: We’re going to talk about some of your projects, The Belonging Project, Untangling Faith, studies that you’ve created, which we’ve gone through. We’ll get there.

Amberly: Great.

Dave: But tell us your journey, a little bit about this humor thing. You’re married to an opera singer, isn’t that right, something like that?

Amberly: Yes, I am. He does sing opera, indeed. Yes, yes, yes. To be honest with you, I came from a funny family. My dad was the king of dad jokes. He had the spiritual gift of the groan. [Laughter] We would just be like, “Oh, dad, you’re killing me.” I’m so thankful for that background, but I’m Texan and I’m Italian. I come from storytelling lineage; the DNA is our stories.

When I became a believer, pretty early on I was saying, “Okay, so I understand that I’m redeemed, so here I am Lord, send me. What does that look like?” What I was so thankful for was when He called me, He didn’t say, “I need you to leave your humor. I need you to leave your storytelling where it is.” In fact, He said, “I want to use those gifts for My glory.

Dave: Is there in your mind a theology of joy or laughter that you base your humor? You do this for a living.

Amberly: I do.

Dave: You help people enjoy; feel joy.

Amberly: Absolutely.

Dave: Where does that come from?

Amberly: I think part of it obviously comes from the Scripture that talks about “Laughter is good medicine.” So many people think of the church as a place where you go to get serious. Again, there is a time for serious.

Dave: Yes, for sure.

Amberly: We need to be serious in our faith. But I feel like the joy of the Lord should be our strength, and some of that starts with finding where the joy is, not just the deep, philosophical, theological strength to that. Jesus said, “I’ve come that they might have life,” or joy, “and have it to abundance.” I think a bunch of us are doing it wrong. We’re not living very abundantly. We’re living fair to partly cloudy, but we’re not living looking for the joy that God has in store for us.

Ann: Dave, I will say as a pastor, I bet there wasn’t one time that we left a service that you’ve hadn’t made us laugh.

Dave: That was on purpose.

Amberly: Yes.

Dave: I’m an evangelist at heart, so I’m always thinking of the unchurched guy. I turned this into a sermon one time with the Detroit Lions. I remember a guy came up afterwards and he said, “That’s exactly what I thought.” Here’s what I said: “I always thought, ‘I don’t want to become a Christian because here’s what they are: They have no fun, they have no freedom, and they have no fulfillment.’” When I got around Christians in the church, they didn’t laugh.

Amberly: Right.

Dave: They were all about rules, they judged everybody—

Amberly: Totally.

Dave: — and I thought, “I don’t want any part of that.”

Ann: Not all churches were like that.

Dave: No, of course. But that was just my outsider—

Amberly: —perception. Of course.

Dave: —perspective. But then when I came to Christ and started my journey, I realized the opposite. You talk about fun.

Amberly: Oh, yes.

Dave: The joy that’s in Christ beats everything the world can give. You talk about freedom, because I thought it was a bunch of rules, you can’t do anything. The freedom in Christ! And then you talk about fulfillment. You can take those three things and flip them the other way. So, I realized, “Man, when I’m preaching, there are people listening that don’t know Christ. If there’s no joy or humor, they’re not interested.”

Amberly: Right.

Dave: And if they don’t smile somewhere in the first five minutes, they’re probably not going to listen to you. So again, it wasn’t like “I have to put something in just to get them,” but I thought, “Jesus is full of joy. They should feel that in the environment of followers of Christ.” So that’s why I asked you.

Amberly: Truly, and He was a master teacher.

Ann and Dave: Yes.

Amberly: You probably didn’t think this through, maybe, not necessarily when you were preaching, but physiologically and psychologically, when we laugh the walls go down, defensiveness goes down. We communally enjoy the people in the pews next to us, or chairs, or whatever it is that your church uses.

When you laugh together, even if you have no clue what the other person is going through, there is a deep connection that we’re hard-wired for. So, when we laugh those defenses go down; then we’re more apt to hear what God has to say to us because we’re not putting up our dukes inside of our hearts.

Dave: Right.

Amberly: When we can take the physiological and the theological and put them together, it’s exciting.

Dave: How does that work in your home, because I’m thinking the same thing happens with our kids.

Amberly: Absolutely.

Dave: I’m guessing the Neece home is pretty funny?

Amberly: Oh yes. We laugh all of the time. We think we’re hilarious. We say that sometimes. The things we find funny may not be for everybody else, but we do laugh a lot. I love my husband; I’m crazy about him. We’ve been married 31 years, and there are days that I just cannot love him anymore. And then there are days that I want to sell him on eBay. [Laughter]

I want to be in full disclosure: If shipping was not so high, he would be out, and probably he wants to sell me as well. But the truth is we laugh together. We pray together, which is the most important. We communicate even when things are ugly and unfun and messy, but we also laugh together. On this side of glory, I hope it never ends.

Ann: I think our family, too. We laughed a lot, and it creates a haven, don’t you think?

Amberly: Oh, absolutely.

Ann: I remember thinking when I was growing up, my parents weren’t believers, but we had fun. I remember being at parties in high school thinking, “Yeah, this isn’t as much fun as my home.”

Amberly: Yes, absolutely.

Ann: So, it made me want to be home, because that’s where joy was abounding. I think that was important to us as parents, as well.

Amberly: My kids always knew they could bring kids over, and it wouldn’t be embarrassing, that we would have fun. Again, we were doing dorky things. It was family game night, or it was homemade pizza night, or whatever the thing was, but we would laugh together.

Ann: It’s a magnet.

Amberly: I feel so blessed, and both kids have said, “I want that. Wherever God call us, I want that in our home, that people know that they can come and it’s a safe place, and we’ll laugh and have a good time.”

Dave: Well, let’s talk a little bit: community.

Ann: Because that’s a good segue.

Amberly: It is a good segue.

Ann: You’re bringing people into your home.

Amberly: It’s like you guys do this for a living. You’re so good.

Dave: I’m looking at this thing called The Belonging Project: Finding Your Tribe and Learning to Thrive. Look at that! She rhymes.

Amberly: Yes. I do.

Ann: She’s just like you. You rhyme.

Amberly: I know.

Dave: Obviously this is the heart of God but explain The Belonging Project.

Amberly: What behooved me to write it in the first place is that my husband and I moved to a new community, and we were having a terrible time finding connection. Some of it is we were a little bit older. Our kids weren’t really small. I think when our kids were small it was easy to find connection—

Ann: It’s easy.

Amberly: —because the kids play soccer together or they do ballet together, or whatever it happens to be. So, we were really struggle-bussing when it came to that, and I just tried to search God’s Word, to try to figure out, “What do I do with this desire to connect?” and having trouble doing just that. Then research came out in January of 2020 that said 61 percent of Americans admitted to being lonely. So, I thought, “I am not alone in this.”

Dave: So, this was a little bit tied to the pandemic, maybe?

Amberly: This was before pandemic. Can you imagine what the statistics are now, because that’s January of 2020 before we were hoarding toilet paper, before people were so disconnected. 61 percent admitted to being lonely. So, I found myself thinking, “Man, if the church would understand this need, we don’t need any more campaigns. We just need to be people who love people.” That sounds overly simplistic.

So, I dove into the Word, and I found all of the “one another” verses in the New Testament, like “Love one another,” “Pray for one another.” There are 52, which I think is interesting, one for every week that we can focus on. But all those one another verses, what does biblical community look like? We can look at the Acts 2 church and we can say, “Wow. Good for them. They shared everything they had. There are times that I don’t even want to share the cookie that I’m eating, right?”

They shared everything they had, but what does that look like now? Can we do exactly that? Can we just replicate that completely? Or what kind of roadmap did God leave for us to figure out what biblical community could look like? I found it in the “one anothers.” Some of them are super easy. “Love one another” is like “Oh, yes. People that I hang out with, my friends—I love them.”

I’m living the “one another” really well, even the guy that cuts me off in traffic. There are times that I think, “Okay. Love one another. Okay. I’ve got to love this guy. Okay, here we go. Let’s try this.” [Laughter]

Dave: I wish our listeners could—

Dave and Ann: —see your face!

Amberly: But then there are some that were harder.

Dave: Yes, how do you apply it to people you’ve been hurt by?

Ann: Yes, agreed.

Dave: How do you love them?

Amberly: What I think is interesting is even “Forgive one another,” which again is so easy to say; it flies right off the tongue, but that is so hard to practice, especially when people have been so “peopley” and have hurt and betrayed or whatever it happens to be. But I think we have to go back to the forgiveness that we’ve received from Jesus. We didn’t deserve it. While we still sinners, while we were still in reckless rebellion, Christ died for us, so He initiated that.

And then I think being willing to initiate is part of finding your tribe and learning to thrive. But we have the word “give” in it. Forgive. It’s not fortake, meaning what we deserve or what they deserve, but really forgive, to be generous of spirit, to be thinking through those things. It doesn’t mean that we need to put ourselves in danger emotionally or interpersonally, but it does mean that we have to practice those things.

One of the hardest “one anothers” for me was actually practicing hospitality, because even though I’m Italian I always felt like my house had to be perfect. Then when I did this study, I realized the root of that is actually “hospital,” and the first century church—

that Acts 2 church—would set up homes in the most difficult parts of people’s journey.

Oftentimes when we’re talking about the Good Samaritan, there were places that were really treacherous to travel. The first century church was so brilliant, and they set up safe houses for people. It was not a place where they got medical care, like we think of hospital. It was just a safe place to be when people were having a hard time on their journey. So, I found myself asking, “If I’m struggling finding community, my first question is, ‘Am I a safe place for somebody who’s having a hard time on their journey?’”

Ann: What does that look like for you guys? Did you do something specifically? Because if you’re thinking, “Oh, I want my home to be a hospital. I want people to come to me when their time is rough,” what does that look like?

Amberly: The first thing for us—and again, this may not be like a one-size-fits-all, but the first thing for us was for us to admit that we were imperfect and to admit it to other people, to be willing to say, “Hey, we’re a mess.” That’s why we need a Mess-iah. We are a mess. We are in need, so we needed to be willing to say, “We’re imperfect, but if you want to come over, we’d love to be a safe place for you to be.”

Thomas got to see Jesus do all these cool miracles, but when did Jesus really become real to Thomas? It was Jesus’s scars that made Him real, and sometimes our scars are what make Jesus real to other people. So, it’s being willing to say, “This is a struggle for us. This is hard.”

Ann: Dave and I, that’s easy for us to do, like “Here’s our scars. We’re so messed up.” But I haven’t made the connection of I still, when people come in my house, I want it to look good. I just started thinking as you were talking.  I thought, “Probably because my mom and grandmother, if we’d be at somebody’s house, we’d come out of the house, we’d get in the car, and I was a little girl, and they would say, “Did you see her sink? Did you see how dirty?”

“Does she ever clean? All the trash cans were full. Did you notice that?” So, they would go through their entire home and critique why it wasn’t perfect. So, no wonder. I feel like my life is messy and I’m willing to show that, but why wouldn’t I let people see my house messy?

Amberly: One of the things that I love about this show, and it sounds like I’m tickling your ears, but one of the things that I love about it is that you guys are real deal, right? You’re willing to say, “This is where I’m at.” So, my question to you is, is it possible leaving some dishes in the sink will make you more relatable to the person who comes in?

Ann: Yes, and I’m thinking back of the times I’ve been in somebody’s house, I’m more attracted to the house that is messy and to the mom or the friend or the woman that says, “Sorry my house isn’t right, okay? Can you come help me get dinner?” instead of, [speaking with an elegant accent] “Hey, here’s everything perfectly displayed.”

Amberly: Right.

Dave: So now our house is going to be just a—

Amberly: —pig sty in Jesus’ name. [Laughter]

Dave: —pig sty. That’s what I’m hearing.

Ann: You like our house clean.

Amberly: You know what, though? I do like my house picked up, but I think just getting to a place where—I do remember the time that we were picking stuff up, and my son said, “Who’s coming over?” I thought, “Oooh, guilty party of one.” [Laughter] You know?

Ann: Yes.

Amberly: But maybe leaving a couple dishes in the sink is a way to do that. Again, it’s not really about the dishes. It’s really about just being willing to say, “If you want perfect, Jesus is the only One to look at, because we are construction. We are under construction, and I’m thankful for that. When Scott and I were dating, his mom was getting her master’s degree in counseling.

Dave: Oh, great. You’re marrying him and your mother-in-law’s a counselor.

Amberly: I know. Don’t even get me started.

Ann: Oh, that’s awful.

Amberly: Don’t get me started.

Dave: Here we go!

Amberly: Wait, here it is. She needed to do homework and she had to do it with somebody who was not in her family, so I foolishly, wanting to appease her, “Sure, Yeah. I’ll help you. That’s great.” [Laughter] She asked me one time for one of the homework assignments, “Draw a tree on this.” I said, “Oh, Jan. I’m like the worst artist.” She said, “It has nothing to do with your artistry.”

I said, “Alright. A tree.” She said, “Yes, a tree.” So, I made a tree. For those of you who are listening, I have big hair. Hair product is absolutely a spiritual gift of mine. Big ol’ hair. So, my tree—big, big leaves. I had these cool gnarly roots. They didn’t go into the ground, but I love it when a tree has character, so the roots were all gnarly. I put a big knot in the middle of the tree. I thought for sure a little Narnia, a little bit of Winnie the Pooh.

Ann: Did you put a squirrel in it? I always put a squirrel in mine.

Amberly: I know. I didn’t put an animal, because I can’t draw—

Ann: Okay.

Amberly: —and I didn’t want it to be scary. But I put that knot in there, just knowing that that was the deal. She said, “Well the class I’m taking right now tells me that this is a reflection of you.” So, she said, “I love that your tree is in the very middle. That tells us some great balancing. I love that the foliage on your tree is very healthy, but . . .” She said, “What is the knot?”

Ann: What?

Amberly: And I said, “Oh the knot is like—I love knots. I think they’re so—” She said, “Yes, but if you’re the tree,” she said, “It does bother me that your roots don’t go underneath the ground.” This is where she got into deep whatever. [Laughter] But she said, “What is your knot?” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She said, “What is your knot?” and it was literally like, [tearfully] “Well, probably my parents’ divorce.” [Laughter]

I broke into tears right away, but wouldn’t you know that early in our marriage when I was doing youth ministry, guess what part of my life was the part that kids could relate to the most? It was the knot.

Ann: The knot.

Amberly: And when we had miscarriages, when we had so many years of infertility, nine years that we were married—

Ann: Oooh.

Amberly: —we could get pregnant; we just couldn’t stay pregnant. That knot—one in three couples can relate to that knot. God often uses that knot for His glory. Is it fun? It is not fun to share your knots, and yet, that’s the Redeemer, right? He doesn’t just redeem our life from the pit. He redeems our life, all that part of our life, to bring glory to Himself. So that knot part of me.

So being willing to say, “I got a fair share of knots, and I’m willing to open my home, and open my life, and open my heart.” When we did that, when we were willing to do that, which is super vulnerable, God just started sending couples our way that were like-minded. Some of their knots looked different than ours, but they were also willing to say, “This is where we’re at.”

So, we got to practice The Belonging Project together, on each other. We didn’t do the study necessarily, that way, but it really came to life. It was very kind of God to allow me to go through this process as I was writing this book.

Ann: That’s beautiful.

Dave: That’s the tribe.

Amberly: Yes, 100 percent.

Dave: When you find your tribe—I know I preached this years ago at our church, but it hit me later in my life. I should have known this way before, but just what you said. You used the knot analogy; I just used the pain analogy. Your pain leads to your purpose. We’re sitting here doing FamilyLife Today because we almost lost our marriage, and I came from a broken home, and I have a passion for marriage. So, it became our purpose.

But it hit me later. I think I was writing the sermon and thought, “Yes, but it isn’t just your pain leads to your purpose. Your pain—and you’re going to like this because they’re all ‘P’s—your pain leads to your people—

Amberly: Yes.

Dave: —because you end up doing life with people with similar knots or passion for knots, to use that analogy.

Amberly: Yes, absolutely.

Dave: Here’s what hit me today as I’m listening to you, Amberly: When you take being vulnerable and real and messy and not hiding that, and then you combine that with humor and joy, that’s a magnet for especially unchurched people to be drawn to the person of Christ, because they think Christian people are perfect and serious, where Christian people are imperfect and joy filled.

It’s not our joy; it’s His joy, and they’re drawn to that. So, sitting here listening to you, it’s like of course that’s how you find your tribe, and it helps you thrive.

Amberly: And there’s no way that the Acts 2 church when they shared everything and they broke bread together that there wasn’t laughter, and that the Holy Spirit didn’t use the overheard laughter, like “Man, my neighbors! I don’t know what’s going on over there, but they’re having a raucous good time. They are living life, and I want to know what that looks like.” I know that laughter is an evangelical tool.

Ann: All I want to know is I want to take a piece of paper to all of my family and my children, and let them draw a tree, right? [Laughter]

Dave: I think your mother-in-law was making up that she was studying for a degree.

Amberly: Do you know what? I’m guessing—maybe. Maybe. I know, yes.

Dave: She just wanted to find out—

Amberly: Yes. She knew that I had issues in my tissues, so it’s fine.

Ann: So often we hide our knots. We put a cover over it. I did for years, and yet Jesus looks at that and He kind of rubs His hands together like, “Oh, girl. I’ll use all of that for My glory.”

Amberly: You bet. I love that. You think about it, when you look at trees and you look at how cool and characteristic they are, it is those knots that make them gloriously interesting.

Ann: Yes.

Amberly: I’m okay with that. I wasn’t always.

Ann: Me neither.

Amberly: If we’re a billboard for Jesus, I wanted a perfect billboard. But I’ve just gotten to a place that, if the Apostle Paul can say he rejoices all the more in his weakness, then I need to do the same. So, I try to rejoice, right? I try to laugh, even in my weakness. I try to find joy in that. I’m thankful for the community that has come behind.

So, this study started with my own journey, and I have been so blown away by the number of small groups who have called and said, “We’re laughing together. We’re having a great time together. We’re doing life together.” What an honor to be part of that. I’m so glad that God can take my pain and like you said, help me find my people and help me find my purpose.

Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Amberly Neese on FamilyLife Today. That’s what God is in the business of doing, just what she was talking about, flipping the script on us and helping us to see that our weaknesses are really strengths in His hands. And then throwing that in the context of community is just jet fuel for how God can work.

The President of FamilyLife, David Robbins, says, “If dependence is the goal, then weakness is an advantage.” I love that God is using Amberly in that specific way to at least show off through her weaknesses. Amberly has written a book called The Belonging Project: Finding Your Tribe and Learning to Thrive.

It’s a four-week Bible study that provides solid biblical help and practical guidance for cultivating meaningful relationships that glorify God through finding connection with other people through the “one another” sayings in the New Testament. You could go online to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on “Today’s Resources” to get a copy of her book.

I’ve really enjoyed the time with Amberly today. In fact, she was kind enough to give us this specific encouragement:

Amberly: The Bible tells us that those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed, and the truth is, when I need a good refreshment, I absolutely find FamilyLife to be exactly what the good doctor ordered. It’s great encouragement, it’s great wisdom. It is also the truths of God in the stories that you hear and the encouragement that you receive.

December is a big month for FamilyLife, and we are counting on people like you and me who have been touched by the ministry of FamilyLife, and who want to be generous, and who want to refresh others in the name of Jesus. So, I challenge you as I challenge myself, be the blessing. Be the one who refreshes others, and I know indeed you will be refreshed in the meantime.

Shelby: Yes. Thanks to some generous donors, every gift that’s given this month is going to be matched dollar for dollar up to $3,000,000. So, you can help us take advantage of these donors’ generosity, and you can give today. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the “Donate Now” button at the top of the page. It’s right at the top there. Or you can give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.”

So, what really is the power of biblical community in our lives? Well, tomorrow Amberly Neese is back again with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about finding your tribe and learning to thrive. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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