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:
As some of our more astute readers have noticed, I post new content every two weeks at Cross Shaped Stuff. Lazy, I know, but life is busy. Take this December for example. The Sing Off was crammed into two weeks and you can’t miss that. Plus, it’s the holidays so (in the spirit of cross-shaped husbandship) I’ve watched enough Hallmark movies my man-card will be suspended until June: “Moonlight and Mistletoe,” “Matchmaker Santa,” “Snow Bride,” “A Holiday Engagement,” “Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus.” Yes, these are real movies, but my husband-card is better than my man-card so… All that to say that today is a follow up on a Christmas blog I posted two weeks ago on Jesus’ incarnation.
In as practical terms as possible, incarnation means: I step completely into your mess no matter how messy it is; I offer myself, at the expense of myself; I choose to be fully present in situations I want nothing to do with. All because that’s what love looks like.
God showed love can be no less than personal through Jesus. You can’t love someone from a distance or at arm’s length. You must be close enough to feel their pain before they’re close enough to feel your love. So God did.
And I’m no church historian, but it seems to me that every time a generation of Jesus followers gets this right, the church experiences outrageous success, qualitative and quantitative. Look at the church in Acts. After Jesus left, the early church had only 120 people, but they quickly exploded. And why?
I almost didn’t write this blog for one reason… It’s different.
It’s different than what I normally write. It’s different in style, different in content. And when I write different, I find that people tend to like it less, which means they share it less, which means the blog reaches less, and (honest moment of self-reflection and inevitable depravity) deep down inside I want people to read what I write.
Even though I shouldn’t desire it as much as I do, I subconsciously slip into the trap of measuring success the way the world does – Numbers! Hits! Clicks! Mentions! Likes! Followers! Viral!
In the past, I’ve actually trashed topics I’ve sensed God wanted me to write because I knew they were just different enough not to take off. And that’s wrong. So I just decided this time that can’t be the case. I decided to blog this anyways, despite how I predict people will respond (or how people won’t respond), because I believe God has really been speaking to me.
A few weeks ago, in a small-group I lead for non-Christians interested in Jesus, I heard one of the more terrifying stories I’ve heard since starting ministry (for the sake of privacy, details have been altered). It was a story of an older gentleman, a wonderful older gentleman named Theo.
Theo wasn’t a Christian (until recently). He knew of Jesus but, self-admittedly, he didn’t “follow” Jesus. Nonetheless, he had lived a full life, raised great kids, with healthy grandkids, and had been married to the same woman for twenty-five years.
From the first day I met Theo, I liked him. He had this soft smile that lit up the room, and a dignified manner that made me think he was secretly British royalty. He dressed nice, talked nice, and always had thoughtful questions for the group. Everyone in the group loved Theo, and that’s because they sensed Theo genuinely loved everyone in the group.
Then a few weeks back Theo shared his horror story. About six months ago, his wife of twenty-five years left him. Theo said she decided, “She doesn’t love me anymore.” For the seventh time, Theo caught her having an affair, and despite his best efforts to reconcile the relationship… again… she left him. Kicking and screaming the entire way. Blaming Theo for her years of infidelity. Leaving him standing there cold and alone.