Authentic community is the context in which we are to follow Jesus. The scriptures say it, the characters modeled it, and the early church established it.
Community wasn’t a doctrine for the early church, it was the environment. It wasn’t a part of life for a Christian, it was the way of life. It wasn’t just another thing, it was the reality in which they did everything. And really, the idea of following Jesus was unthinkable outside of authentic cross-shaped relationships.
But community and relationships seem to be an afterthought any more for churches. Today the idea of church has been developed under an entirely different guise. When people hear the word “church” they think buildings, denominations, and 60-minute services we check off our agenda until next time.
My generation, the millennials, are leaving “church” at record rates because they see it as an irrelevant institution that has failed to distinguish between right practices and right principles. They look at the church and see an institution that has placed a tremendous amount of weight on rituals and rules rather than relationships.
And that’s sad to me… because relationships mattered most to the early church. When you study the early church in the scriptures you see more of a dynamic and expanding network of messy but maturing love-relationships, and less of a formalized institution where everyone needed to show-up and get-in-line or get-out.
So here’s four things to ponder about the early church that might change the way you approach church today:
1. Church was a gathering of people. Not a building. Not a Sunday morning service. But a people, on mission. You’ve heard this a thousand times, but the Greek word translated church is ekklesia. And this word was defined as an assembly or gathering of people, focusing the idea of church around the individuals, people, and relationships involved.
2. Churches met in homes. Church buildings and property didn’t become commonplace until the third century, making it a relatively late phenomenon in comparison to the birth of the early church. Therefore, the churches met in the only place they could, their homes.
Now could you imagine how different church would feel if you met in your home? Logistically, how many people could you fit in your living room? 15? 20? In the first century, even the wealthy couldn’t accommodate more than about 30 or 35 people, and the average Joe would be lucky to pack more than about 10 to 15 people into their house… Forcing the issue of intimacy. Forcing the value of relationships.
This, I believe, is one of the most pressing challenges for the mega-church movement today – How do we nurture intimacy and relationships in a big church? How do we make big church feel small?
3. Churches did life together. They bore one another’s burdens. They loved one another. Served one another. Gave to one another. Prayed for one another. Ate with one another. Chilled with one another. In the best snap-shots of the life of the early church (Acts 2 & Acts 4), I would go so far as to suggest the primary theme was togetherness. No matter what it was the people of God found themselves doing, it was always together with others.
4. And that’s why the early leaders believed Churches were a family. On purpose, throughout the New Testament, the writers use family language to talk about God’s people. God is the… Father. We’re all his… adopted children. Making us together… brothers and sisters in the household of God.
And that should change the way you interact with your church, because families act different, don’t they? Don’t you treat your family different?
If there’s one group of people who can speak truth into your life and hold you accountable, isn’t it your family? They’ll tell you like it is. Even if you don’t like it. And sometimes you’ll even listen to them (unless you’re a teenager getting advice from parents). If there is one place that you always feel like you belong, isn’t it with your family? No matter where you’ve been, what you’ve done, how many times you’ve done it, there’s always a seat for you on the couch or at the dinner table. And is there anybody who cares for you more than your family? I’d take a bullet for my family, because they’ve been there for me in the good and the bad, at the mountain-tops and in the valleys.
Look, all I’m trying to say is that we must never lose and never ignore the importance of authentic community within the confines of the local church. We must resist the attractional pull to make it all about the weekend service, and lean into mess that is real cross-shaped relationships. Because, after all, it was the functional model in which the Jesus-movement was supposed to operate all along.
As a preacher, I often find myself begging, sometimes even not-so-accidentally guilting my church-family to come and participate in the life of our church. (It’s almost as if in seminary, they teach us that guilt is our not-so-secret weapon of which we have unlimited ammunition to unload on our all-too-suspecting audience on a weekly basis. Right?)
But what’s interesting is that you’ll never see this sort of pleading or guilting in the book of Acts. You’ll rarely see Peter or Paul asking the people of the church to show up at church. And that’s because they didn’t have to. They couldn’t keep them from doing life together, non-stop. And because of that attitude, a movement was born.
Authentic community is the context in which we are to follow Jesus. And when we model that, I think we take part in an ancient tradition that continues to be more effective and relevant than any strategy or method today.
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