How can a Church experience biblical community with only two or three gatherings a week?
Do the gatherings of your Church facilitate the kind of community God prescribed for the Church?
Like many churches, our weekly meetings are on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. The primary purpose of these gatherings is teaching. Corporate worship on Sunday mornings involves worship in singing, praying, giving, and about 40 minutes in the Word. Proclamation of the truth of Scripture through preaching has always been a hallmark of our ministry.
During our Sunday school hour, we encourage teachers to allow 15 minutes for fellowship before starting with their structured time. Due to the size of our adult classes and facility limitations, these times are also mainly instructional. This affords an opportunity for those with teaching gifts to serve the Church family.
Our Wednesday evening gatherings provide ministry for the whole family with children and youth gatherings and small groups for adults. We ask all of those who lead Wednesday groups to use the time for relationship building centered in biblical truth. Recently we added a Wednesday group we call “Merge.” This is a place for new people to begin to build relationships. The study focus for this group is discussion of the sermon from the previous Sunday.
Our Church structure allows for approximately 3-4 hours of contact each week. Of that time, only about 1 ½ hours allows for meaningful interaction (and this is often limited based on group size). The question raised by this is how we could build true biblical fellowship (of the kind depicted in the New Testament) with such limited time together.
The nagging question we must ask is whether our formal church structure is adequate for living out the biblical purposes of the Church? If we hope to follow the pattern that emerges consistently from the New Testament, two meeting times (with our current purposes) will not be adequate. So what should we do?
Before answering this question, let’s take a closer look at the pattern for Christian community God desires for local Churches.
A helpful indicator of the nature of community for the early Church is found in what we call the “one-anothers.” These are direct exhortations about how to relate to each other as Christians in community. As you look over the list below, ask yourself what they imply about the nature of relationships in the Church:
- Accept one another (Rom 15:7)
- Carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)
- Have equal concern for each other (1 Cor. 12:25)
- Watch out for one another (Heb. 3:12-13)
- Encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:25)
- Live in harmony with one another (1 Pet. 3:8)
- Confess your sins to each other (Jas. 5:16)
- Be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Edify one another (Rom. 14:19; 1 Thess. 5:11)
- Consider others better than yourselves (Phil. 2:3)
- Bear with one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13)
- Forgive each other (Eph. 4:32)
- Honor one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9)
- Be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32)
- Live in harmony toward one another (Rom. 12:16; 15:5)
- Love one another (John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; Rom. 13:8)
- Be members of one body (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:25)
- Be at peace with each other (Mark 9:50; Eph. 4:3)
- Pray for each other (Jas. 5:16)
- Serve one another (Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:10)
- Spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24)
- Submit to one another (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5)
- Teach one another (Col. 3:16)
Based on this list, believers were/are intended to have deeply meaningful interaction with one another. This is not a picture of superficial or casual engagement. It depicts life-together in mutual love, honor, unity, service and accountability. The New Testament vision for local Church community is one of significant inter-dependence and loving inter-accountability.
- How could a group possibly experience this kind of community with the limited structures of most Churches?
- Should we add more meetings to the weekly program of the Church?
- How many people in western culture like the idea of adding more meetings to their crowded lives?
Perhaps our tendency to look to the structure of the Church for cultivating biblical community is an outgrowth of our consumer mentality in western culture. When we approach the Church as a place that offers a product for us to enjoy, we will not likely see it as our individual responsibility to live out biblical community. But is the apparent inadequacy of Church structure an adequate excuse for living independent, self-sufficient lives of superficial connection with other followers of Christ?
Structure vs. spontaneous:
The Church is an organism not just an organization. This truth should caution against overly structuring the life of a body of believers. As an organism, the spiritual life or life generated by the Holy Spirit should lead to spontaneous ministries of the Spirit among Christians. The Church is the habitation of the Spirit of God as he gives life, indwells, baptizes, seals, fills and gifts each individual member of the Church (Rom. 8:9; I Cor. 6:19-20; II Cor. 1:21-22 I Cor. 12:3; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 5:18-21). Experience of the ministry of the Spirit is both a structured and spontaneous reality. But is it possible to stifle the ministry of the spirit with structures? Is it possible to overly depend on structures to accomplish the ministry of the Spirit?
Perhaps the formal gatherings should beunderstood as important times of corporate worship and instruction where believers connect with each other and carry those connections into the rest of life. And instead of placing the burden for the fullness of life together on the formal gatherings of the Church, the rest of church life (as depicted in the New Testament) should be taught as the call of Christ for the people to obey. Mutual caring and accountability does not necessitate being in the Church buildings. Nor does it necessitate structured contact through programs.
Shepherds and sheep
Why does the New Testament speak of leadership as the work of shepherds? A pastor is a shepherd and all elders must be committed to shepherd the flock (local Church). This implies that like sheep, the people need direction and guidance and protection. They need leadership. Can church leaders expect individual initiative toward biblical community without diligent oversight from shepherds of the flock (local Church)? What does the shepherd/sheep analogy say about cultivating biblical community?
Various groups within the Church
The apostle Paul gavespecific instructions to various groups within churches (see list below). What was the context for living out those instructions? Since they didn’t have Church buildings at the time, the context had to be home and community based. What are some implications for the Church today regarding ministry?
- women (I Tim 2:9-15)
- widows (I Timothy 5:3-13)
- Children of widows (I Tim 5:16)
- Young women (I Ti 5:14;Ti. 2:4-5)
- Older women (Titus 2:3-5)
- Young men (Titus 2:6-8 )
- Older men (Titus 2:2)
- The rich (I Timothy 6:17-19)
- The poor (James 1:9-11)
Two final considerations: Culture and Family
1. Culture: To what extent is culture a consideration for Church structure and ministry? Did the culture of the people in the first century better facilitate community? Western culture with its emphasis on individualism, privacy, self-indulgent capitalism and entitlement presents unique challenges for building biblical community.
2. Family: To what extent does the pervasive breakdown of family affect the expectations directedtoward the Church? How can the local Church fill the gap and meet the needs that God intended to be supplied through family structures?
“But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. …If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.” (I Timothy 5:4,16)
How have the following three realities affected community among believers?